Embracing Crisis as Your Opportunity to Shine

Is your company in crisis? Lucky you.

By John Daly

A few years back I was chatting with a very senior executive in a large and successful firm. I asked him why he was so successful (a question I enjoy asking people). He responded in the slow drawl of his childhood Alabama home, “John, even turkeys fly in hurricanes.”

It took me a minute to figure out what he meant.

Everything flies in a hurricane. If you happen to spy a turkey flying by you, well, that’s to be expected. But on clear, windless day seeing a turkey flapping across the sky is a big deal.

How you perform in the tough times is what matters.

It was almost impossible not to make money on Wall Street at the height of the dot.com bubble. Just adding a .com to your company’s name increased its market value. But when times got tough in the worlds of finance or technology, we discovered who was good and who wasn’t. To paraphrase Warren Buffett’s wry remark: When the tide goes out, you see who is wearing a bathing suit.

Think back to famous leaders : Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, Gandhi. All faced extraordinary challenges and handled them brilliantly. In business, Lou Gerstner resurrected a faltering IBM. Steve Jobs took over the failing company he had started and made it into the success story of the decade. Michael Dell faced near bankruptcy years ago. Crises cemented these leaders’ reputations.

It’s true in every aspect of our lives. If you respect your partner, it’s because you’ve seen her or him handle tough moments — unrelenting stress, difficult decisions, poignant personal losses. It’s easy to love someone in the good times. Respect grows in tough times.

So what does this mean for you?

Don’t fear tough times. Embrace them. Don’t take jobs where the people before you have done great. Instead, follow losers. Seek out positions that let you demonstrate your ability to turn things around. If you join a very successful project, how do you prove how good you are?

Crises are a great time to show how good you are. Greg Brenneman, who helped turn around Continental Airlines, Burger King, and Quiznos, and now runs CCMP Capital, tells people that if they have the choice of working for a healthy company or a sick one, choose the sick one.

“The sickest ones need the best doctors and it’s a lot easier to stand out in a company that needs help.”
— Greg Brenneman

What’s going to happen with Facebook? The company is in the news every day. Will Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg turn the immense PR problems they face into a success story? If they do, they will bolster their own reputations along with that of their company.

Professor John Daly, The University of Texas at Austin

Go to parts of the business that really matter — must-win accounts, challenging technical problems — where people will notice what you accomplish. Leaders and investors admire people who turn problems into successes.

Be ready for tough times. Become the “go-to” person when crises happen. Save the day.

John Daly is the TCB Professor of Management at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the Liddell Professor of Communication in the Moody College of Communication at UT Austin. He also teaches courses in advocacy, negotiation, and leadership in the Texas Executive Education program.