Communicating With Executives When Your World's on Fire

Communicating With Executives When Your World’s on Fire

When your world’s on fire, and you’re working around the clock to survive, it feels like the last thing you have time for is formal updates. And of course, the bigger the fire, the more the senior team needs to know what’s going on. What’s the secret to communicating with executives efficiently so you can stay focused on critical operations?

Communicating With Executives: Lessons Learned

It was 2012 and  I was leading the outsourced call center channel at Verizon Wireless when we found ourselves in the middle of a literal firestorm.

The Waldo Canyon Fires were raging through Colorado Springs and were wreaking havoc on the Garden of the God’s adjacent to the call center which had 1100 human beings taking Verizon calls. Just across town, we had another call center which, with just a quick shift of the wind, would also be in the path of the fire. Most of the homes in the area had been evacuated and the firefighters had turned our call center parking lot into a base camp for fighting the fire.

First and foremost we had employee safety concerns. Was everyone accounted for? How could we best support those in distress? Who needed help? How would we communicate?

The next concern, of course,  was the massive operational impact of 20% of our team not able to get to work, and the growing wait times, frustrated customers, and the downward customer experience that comes from the cocktail of angry waiting customers and overloaded humans doing the best they can.

What’s our capacity at other centers? How fast could we cross-train the specialty functions that were handled from those centers? Could we bus employees to the nearest centers? How much overtime could we squeeze out, and for how long? What if the centers were destroyed? Could IT pull off a temporary center or a work at home strategy? How would we keep customer data safe in a scene like that? How should we modify our HR policies during this time? The list was long…and complicated.

We were doing the best we could, my team had been working around the clock. Everyone was completely exhausted.

The C-suite needed an update.

So I scrambled. I quickly pulled together all the details. I summarized our HR and cross-training strategies in an email. Sent another update on the IT concerns. Then another email with the real estate contingency plans.

My phone rang. It was the senior leader headed into the meeting for a C-level briefing.

“Karin, I’ve just searched my email for the name Karin Hurt. Oh, lots of emails here. Now guess what I’m doing now? Highlighting them all and hitting delete…yup now they’re all gone.”

She continued.

“I get that your world is literally on fire and what you and your team are doing is very important. I trust that you’ve got it handled. But I can’t handle all this info. I’ve got five other major issues to read out on and I’ve only got 20 minutes.

Send me a new email with five bullet points. Tell us how you’ve got this under control and what else you need.

5 Questions to Answer When Communicating With Executives in Times of Crises

I was crushed. We were working hard! I wanted the C-level team to understand the brilliance of our plan and to see how hard the team was working. But at a strategic level, what they needed most was to know: What happened?  So what? What’s next?

If you find yourself in the midst of a firestorm, here are 5 questions that can help you form your executive briefing.

  1. What happened?
    Consider this a newspaper headline. What happened and what’s the current and potential human and business impact?
  2. What have you done?
    Summarize key actions, timelines, and impact.
  3. What’s next?
    Outline next steps and timelines
  4. What’s in jeopardy?
    Ditch the Diaper Genie™ and be real with what’s at stake and what could go wrong, as well as the downstream impact on other projects and business priorities.
  5. What do you need?
    Where do you need help? What additional resources or support do you need?

Of course, you need to be prepared with all the details and to engage in deep discussion of why you chose your path and other options you considered. But a strong executive summary will save everyone time, get you the support you need, and and let you get back to what matters most– fighting the fire.

Your turn. What are your best practices for communicating with executives in times of crises?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons DIVDSHUB

Posted in Communication, Customer Service, Project Management, Winning Well and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.

5 Comments

  1. Karen – I feel like this is where I struggle quite a bit. When I feel the storm brewing it is very difficult for me to summarize the events that led to the storm, or the impacts. These are good notes and suggestions to follow. Thanks!

  2. Wow! You must have felt like you got kicked in the gut when you were told all your e-mails were being deleted! The Wow! is a reaction to how quickly you turned this around and settled on 5 bullet points to organize your crisis communication. Great story. Great idea!

    • Karyn,
      Well… what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right 😉 . Thaks for joining the conversation. Great to have you here.

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