They Can Handle the Truth: Communications Tips for Leaders during Crisis
In the 1992 legal drama film “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) barks an iconic and scathing reproach to Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and to the world at large, “You can’t handle the truth!”
While this made for an epic movie moment, Colonel Jessep got it wrong when it comes to team members in small-scale software businesses — they can, indeed, handle the truth. Actually, they require it. Highly intelligent and resourceful knowledge workers don’t need a ton from their leaders; but there is a short list of critically important must-haves, particularly in times of crisis. Specifically, they need to know these few things about company leaders:
1. Do they have an informed understanding of the economic realities and ever-evolving macro-environment?
2. Do they care deeply about the well-being of company stakeholders (e.g. team-members, customers, partners, etc.)?
3. Do they tell me the truth? In other words, are they sharing with me the information I need to be able to perform and manage my professional and personal responsibilities?
4. Do they embrace their own vulnerability, acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, and actively seek input and feedback?
5. Do they have a plan for how we move forward?
Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks trying to get a handle on things by understanding what others are seeing and hearing. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many company leaders about what they are experiencing and the nature of communications within their own teams. Particularly interesting to me is how they are choosing to address the harsh and uncertain reality of today’s business climate.
What I observed is that many leaders whom I deeply respect are being quite transparent regarding the challenges their companies face, and about the various options for navigating those challenges. A number of those same leaders expressed pleasant surprise at having received positive feedback following particularly hard-hitting messages to their teams. Intrigued, I researched further and was able to review and compare in varying levels of detail how a number of leaders have been communicating with their teams of late. What emerged from that informal study was a wide range of styles, but also a highly consistent set of practices employed by experienced and effective leaders. These include:
1. Leaders took great pains to explain aspects of the macro-environment in ways that painted an accurate and easily understandable picture of the widespread economic pain…and then effectively tied it back to how it relates to their own companies at a micro-level.
2. Leaders expressed clear and heartfelt gratitude for the team’s stalwart efforts amid the current crisis…and for the advantages and strengths the company possesses in the face of such challenges.
3. Leaders focused explicitly on the company’s unique values as a cornerstone for decision-making…and as a source of strength that will see the company through hard times.
4. Leaders articulated in detail the financial scenarios and related expense management that they will consider implementing as the situation plays out over time.
5. Leaders outlined a set of tactics that they will deploy as part of plans to meet whatever challenges come their way.
6. Leaders acknowledged their own uncertainty about what the coming weeks and months will bring…and they unequivocally opened the door for ongoing discussion. Importantly, they articulated and demonstrated a willingness to listen to their teams always…and particularly during this time.
7. Leaders strongly encouraged team members to conscientiously prioritize taking care of themselves, their loved ones, and their colleagues.
8. Leaders reiterated thanks to the team for their commitment to the company, to each other, to their clients, and to the values that bind them.
In sum, small-scale SaaS company teams want a few core behaviors from their leaders; and those don’t include babysitting or happy talk. Quite simply, they want the substantive and relevant truth. But neither do teams desire information overload. They don’t need every little shred of information that impacts the company either positively or negatively on a minute-by-minute basis. They should not be subjected to the turbulence and air-sickness which comes from experiencing first-hand every rise and fall in altitude as the company flies along. That’s a different Tom Cruise movie altogether.