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C-Suite Discussions: Leading through Chaos Key Takeaways

The most important function of top-level business leaders within an organization is to provide steady guidance to the organization. This ability to lead is important in good times, but it is absolutely vital in times of uncertainty.

 On February 25, ACS and Renaissance Executive Forums hosted the first session of C-Suite Discussions. A quarterly leadership event designed to help business leaders think about challenging topics, learn from experts and other leaders, and create a network of business leaders they can lean on when questions in their own business arise. In the first C-Suite Discussions session, we explored strategies for leading organization’s through times of chaos, whether it be a natural disaster, a PR crisis, or the current economic distress. Below are key points from our panelists, Vince Newendorp, V.P of Facilities and Rebuild at Vermeer Corporation, Dawn Buzynski, Director of Public Relations at Strategic America, and Brian McCormac, Attorney at BrownWinick Law Firm. 


Employees Above all Else

  • When your business is going through any change or turmoil, the most important communication you can make is to your employees. They are the people that make your business possible. They need to feel valued, trusted, secure, and knowledgeable about the situation and the organization’s future.

    What to Communicate

    • Educate employees on how the situation will affect them.
    • Educate them on your plans to address the situation. (as much as is necessary and prudent)
    • Educate employees on what they should and shouldn’t disclose externally regarding the situation. Including who external contact should reach out to for information and who is authorized to speak on behalf of the organization. 
      • Your employees are on the front lines interacting with your consumers, it’s important they are more knowledgeable about the situation than your consumers. It’s vital they are equipped to handle those interactions in a consistent and educated manner across the board. 
    • Consult your legal team on the communications to help mitigate any legal ramifications.

    When to Communicate

    • Communicate early and often. As soon as you have factual information you can provide do so. Let them know the situation and what steps you are taking. Continue communicating a consistent message as often as possible. When information or plans change, communicate the change.
      • Example: When the tornado hit Vermeer, the leadership team began communicating to their employees within 2 hours. They continued these updates via email, phone calls, texts, and in-person gatherings throughout communities that held large employee populations. These communications continued until everyone was back to work full-time, and business returned to pre-tornado conditions.  As a result, Vermeer retained all its employees through the chaos.
      • External Communication is Secondary

      • Customers before media

        • After communicating to your employees, your customers are your next priority for communication. Again the rule of thumb for this communication is early, often, and consistent.  
        • Share how the situation affects them and the steps you are taking to remediate the situation. 
        • Consult your legal team on the communications to help mitigate any legal ramifications.
      • What to do if the media shows up
      • For most organizations and situations, the media will not come into play. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared.
      • Before a situation arises, have a press release and media speech template ready. 
      • Identify who your spokesperson is; usually, this is a top-level executive.
      • Always try to communicate with your employees and customers before interacting with the media. 
      • Consult your legal team on the communications to help mitigate any legal ramifications.

      Have a Plan Beforehand

      • Develop these essential plans
        • Business Continuity Plan: This document covers all aspects of the business. It includes finances, operations, technology, and communications; anything you need to keep the business running.  The Business Continuity Plan creates a system of prevention and recovery to deal with potential threats to a company. The goal is to enable continued operations in the face of scenarios that might disable or hinder portions of the business form operating. It is your “keep the lights on” plan.
        •  Disaster Recovery Plan:  A Disaster Recovery plan is used in conjunction and as part of the Business Continuity plan. It addresses specific scenarios that would cause the business or portions of it to shut down entirely for a period of time without remediation. Most often, the Disaster Recovery plan handles technology and critical business operations issues and recovering lost data. 
        • Incident Response Plan:   An Incident Response plan is another subset of the Business Continuity plan. Most often, an Incident Response plan handles technology considerations related to data loss and loss of critical technology infrastructure. It is once again a more targeted and detailed plan than a Business Continuity Plan or Disaster Recovery Plan. 
      • Test, Test, Adjust, and Re-Test
        • The most important aspect of having Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Incident Response plans is that they are communicated to those who have to enact them, they are tested, and they are adjusted often to address current operations and organizational threats. 
        • These plans should be tested at a minimum annually if not more often based on the critical nature of your organization and industry best practices.
        • Communication and training to employees tasked with enacting these plans are vital. 
        • Having on-site and off-site copies of each plan both in hardcopy and digital format is imperative to ensuring access to these plans when they are needed most. 
        • Adjusting for newly added processes, technologies, and employee roles can often be overlooked until it’s too late. Implement a maintenance strategy or incorporate documentation for these plans in your normal change control processes. 
        • Example: Vermeer routinely tests and practices their Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Incident Response plans. Because they did the work up-front and were familiar with the procedures, they were able to act quickly, effectively, and logically in the face of disaster. As a result, their operations recovered at lightning speed.
          • Dawn Buzynksi discussed a concept called “Hot vs. Cold Cognition.’ This theory states that there are two types of cognitive processing. Cold cognition is where we are most of the time; it’s our routine and more logical type of decision making and processing. Hot cognition is the more emotional type of decision making and processing. In a disaster, we are more likely to function in our hot cognition state, which can lead to more chaotic decisions and mistakes because we are making decisions based on emotion and potentially fear. If we practice and routinely test the business plans and activities that are required during these times of high stress, it’s more likely that the decisions will be made using cold cognition rather than hot cognition because our brains have been prepared beforehand. In that instance, we would be recalling information rather than creating information on the spot.

          The biggest takeaway, consistent and often communication is the number one priority when leading your organization through change or chaos. You want to control the message, not let the message control you, and it all starts with your employees.

          For assistance in creating a Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, Incident Response plan, or to connect with one of the panelists, contact ACS at

          For information on executive coaching visit Renaissance Executive Forums

          Stay tuned for details on our next C-Suite Discussions event this spring!