Over time, I’ve fielded questions from leaders in companies that have experienced client data exposure from hacks or internal fraud that harmed or destroyed the company’s reputation. The leaders are concerned with how to lead during adversity and whether they are putting their reputations on the line by staying.

This post is for the leaders tasked with cleaning up a mess, repairing customer relationships, supporting employees, and continuing to get the day-to-day work of the company done after an external or internal calamity.

There are examples of corporate wrongdoing that destroy the company, forcing reorganization or liquidation. More commonly, an event isn’t fatal to the firm, and the vast majority of employees and leaders continue working, but in more difficult circumstances.

If you are a leader charged with keeping things going, a few thoughts to consider:

Focus on stakeholders. When adversity occurs, fears run high with employees, clients, suppliers, and shareholders. We tend to fixate on what’s happened—what’s wrong—rather than on serving stakeholders. Employees need to know that leaders are still in place, eyes on the present, and engaged in answering a set of questions that nobody anticipated. Customers need to determine whether they can still trust the company. Suppliers need to learn if they will be paid. Shareholders need to know trusted people are in place to navigate the difficulties.

Do what’s required. Leaders who navigate through rough times become invaluable. Keep your head down, help the team execute, deliver to the customer, and know that this experience sets you apart from the vast majority of leaders who don’t experience this level of adversity. Capabilities expand and things you previously viewed as difficult become simpler.

Focus on the essential. The big rocks matter now more than before. Leave the small stuff untouched. The essentials are customer service, customer confidence restoration, team focus, process execution, and clarity.

Become change ready. Reframe problems in solvable terms. Don’t fixate on the unfixable. Scan the broader organization as you determine where to apply your talents. Raise your hand and step in to fill any leadership vacuum.

Middle managers aren’t mushrooms. These leaders keep the trains running on time. They are on the front line with customers and employees who need more information, at precisely the time senior leaders want to share less. Make sure they have the facts and as much clarity as is morally and legally possible. Don’t allow leaders to gloss over the current reality. Put people in place who know how to communicate and give them the explicit authority to do so. Transparency is a necessary condition for restoring trust.

Recognize the people doing the work. Distractions are at an all-time high. The situation requires leaders to make a conscious effort to thank people for staying engaged and taking care of business. A few genuine words of encouragement will go a long way to restoring energy and confidence throughout the team.

Ask essential questions

  1. How can you step up your contribution to the team?
  2. What processes can be improved, replaced, or designed to lessen pressure on the team?
  3. What struggling projects can you support to change the trajectory?
  4. How can you better support your distracted boss?
  5. What do you need to learn and know now that you didn’t before?
  6. How can you show up differently in your leadership role?

Handling concerns about your employee brand

If you question how staying and fighting will impact your brand and career, here are a few thoughts:

Interviewer: Tell me about your role at Global Inc. after their data breach.

You: I put my head down, led my team, and kept improving processes no matter who was in charge. If you want someone who can work in adverse circumstances, you’re speaking to the right candidate.

Interviewer: Why did you stay after the discovery of the fraud?

You: Employees and customers depended on me to lead and deliver while senior management was concerned with other matters. I had their backs, and they had mine.

Interviewer: What did you learn about yourself from this experience?

You: People are capable of more than they think. Decisions that were once difficult to make became easier. Company survival was on the line, and everyone had to step up to make it work. I now know that I can lead effectively in any situation.

Takeaway: It’s difficult to find the silver lining in adversity when we are experiencing it. While not desired or welcomed, adversity provides the opportunity to expand our capacity to lead. These hard-earned skills stay with us wherever we go.