Top lessons for – virtual – crisis management

Written by Felipe Polo Wednesday 31 March 2021
Have the right meta-skills. Get your best people focused only on the problem. Communicate. Sounds easy, doesn't it...?
Conference call against a backdrop of a lit-up globe

Whether you are a leader in retail or technology, professional services or manufacturing, there is always the risk that a crisis is just around the corner. A crisis is rarely expected, but the skills required to manage a crisis should be developed and harnessed to ensure resilience when one does come along. The past year has presented a unique situation where not only was the pandemic itself a crisis, but it had to be dealt with entirely remotely.

So, say one morning your software team receives several messages from one of your customers reporting that its users are complaining about a log-in issue. Nobody can log into the customer’s application, it's peak time and 70% of sales depend on days like this one. It’s software that your team built and should manage – what do you do?

Using my experience of managing crises within teams, I’ve developed a template for the top actions to take when a remote crisis situation unfolds. No matter the industry, this can be adapted and scaled for every problem.

Show the right meta-skills

Meta-skills encompass the emotional intelligence, self-awareness and intuition that govern how soft skills are deployed. For example, leadership is a meta-skill comprising soft skills such as communication, strategic thinking and empathy. If soft skills are the day-to-day levers that manage teams, the meta-skill is the knowledge of when and how to use these soft skills to increase engagement, problem-solving and productivity.

For businesses, meta-skills build an environment in which teams and individuals can thrive through increased engagement, approaches to problem-solving and productivity. Learning how to cultivate essential soft skills that will inspire confidence and generate trust can revolutionise team performance. A confident team in a trusting environment is more willing to take measured risks and fail positivity, learning lessons that lead to better ideas and practices.

Bring the right people in to focus on the crisis

When a crisis emerges, a leadership team should focus entirely on the problem, moving quickly to assemble a team that can identify the symptom, causes and solution. From this initial diagnostic process, this team should better understand the impact on the business and its users and be able to construct a reasonable worst-case scenario.

The team that manages the crisis should continue to work together to manage the resolution. When companies are dealing with uncertainty, anxiety among the workforce is unavoidable. But keeping your problem-solving team small and focused will not only be more efficient, but also reduce the chance of wider company panic. It is vital that this team comprises the very best people for the job, with managing and resolving the crisis their top priority.


Consistent and clear communication throughout the resolution process is key. Video calls, emails and informal messaging services can be utilised to make sure the leadership team stays visible and available. Providing regular progress updates and assurances can help manage anxiety levels among the workforce and relevant stakeholders.

Strong communication will build, develop and retain trust between the leadership team, employees, stakeholders and clients which will prevent the crisis from worsening and aid recovery.

Find the root cause

Once you’ve treated the immediate symptoms, it’s important to find the root of the issue. Of course, the overall issue of a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic is beyond the control of businesses, but if client services have dipped when working remotely, or processes are not being followed, it could be an issue of tech infrastructure, software or the need to adapt existing processes to suit the new reality of day-to-day operations. A leadership team will have to pinpoint where the ultimate problem lies and work with the team to resolve them at source to prevent them recurring at a later date.

Learn from what happened

A team is not strong because it avoids failure, but rather because it can learn from it, fix it and prevent it in the future. Without failure, there is no growth. Once the crisis has been managed and resolved, your team should conduct a virtual post-mortem, sharing learnings in a safe, productive space that will help prevent future incidents. It is also essential after a crisis for the team to take some well-earned time out, celebrate the resolution and reflect on the lessons learned.

Successful teams, whether in finance or in the arts, at-base or remote, have agility at their core. But when a crisis appears it is easy for the once structured team to enter its own crisis and risk the job-at-hand multiplying in severity. By identifying the problem, assigning the best team to manage it and fighting fires in siloed stages, teams are more likely to find a smoother resolution and to learn from the process to avoid future crises.

CMI explores these themes in further detail in our Management Transformed research – read it here. Members can also log into the Career Development Centre to find in-depth resources on the management skills required in crisis situations. Why not take our intelligent career quiz to find out which of your skills need boosting?

Felipe Polo is co-chairman and founder of GuideSmiths, a full stack software development company specialising in microservices for ambitious corporates. He has more than 15 years of experience building high-performance teams internationally.

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