How an Effective Leader Responds to a Negative Surprise

How can a leader handle a negative surprise?How can a leader handle a negative surprise?

It was the beginning of a weekend back in 2013. Ford Motor Company’s then global head of social media Scott Monty was about to board a plane in Europe, bound for the US, when he spotted the Business Insider article with a headline asking was this the “worst Ford ad ever?”.

Staffers at an unaffiliated agency in India had posted to the Internet a disturbing mockup print ad for Ford’s Figo model.

For Scott and for Ford, it was definitely a negative surprise. The story of how Scott and Ford responded is instructive as a demonstration of effective leadership. Crucially, Monty had a regional team in place and he trusted them to know what to do and take effective action.

In a previous post I talked about taking steps to mitigate the risk of negative surprises, on the principle that prevention is better than cure.  But negative surprises sometimes slip through, as happened for Scott Monty and Ford. When that happens, we need to have some key principles in place, so that while we may be blindsided we are not overwhelmed.

Let’s face it, negative surprises can and probably will come to any leader. They can come in many forms and by definition are unexpected. They can be from within the organization, such as a shock resignation of a key member of the executive team, or from without , such as a denial of service attack bringing down the company’s computer network, or a breaking news story.

Although blindsided for the moment, an effective leader will be able to ride out the immediate storm and turn a negative situation, as far as possible, to a positive outcome.

Here is a simple, five point formula to help leaders handle negative surprises effectively:

  1. see the big picture
  2. act calm, even when you’re not
  3. take responsibility
  4. be transparent
  5. review your systems

Clearly, Scott Monty saw the big picture. He knew he had a team in place in the Asia-Pacific region who could handle the PR emergency. He knew he could trust them to work over the whole weekend if they had to, and which they did. He could also have been confident that by this stage Ford’s social media presence was well enough established that their response would get as fair a hearing on the social web as could be hoped for.

Keeping calm, or at least behaving without obvious agitation, may not be something you will find included in your company’s crisis management protocols, but we all know that when a leader who behaves calmly  – not indifferently or dismissively, but calmly – in the face of a negative surprise, will just by that fact engender confidence in that leader’s team that the situation is not catastrophic and may in fact be quite manageable.

Taking responsibility when there is a negative surprise is not something every leader does intuitively. But when leaders step up and takes responsibility for unanticipated situations, that can engender great loyalty from their teams and enhance respect from other executives and a board of directors. It also means there is more chance of a successful resolution of a difficult situation.

For many in the corporate world and in government, being transparent does not come naturally. But in today’s post-Wikileaks world, a world of smartphone videocameras everywhere, effective leaders know that being transparent is a much better default response than trying to cover up.

Finally, once the immediate issue has been handled and the dust has died down, an effective leader will make time to review what happened, and establish whether and what systemic failure might have been involved, and what steps might be taken to mitigate against a repetition of the negative surprise. That will be much more productive than a not untypical corporate response of looking for a scapegoat and instituting more rules and checkpoints.

Handled by an effective leader, a negative surprise can be a good learning and teaching experience.

What else would you include in a handy checklist for effective leadership when a negative surprise hits?

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