Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

From peer to supervisor – Part 3: managing through your first crisis

Posted in HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on October 3, 2010

In an ideal world nothing would ever go wrong. You would have perfect information to work on and base your decisions on. All of the resources, human included that you need to complete your tasks would be fully available and precisely and exactly when and as needed. Every inventory and supply order would ship and be received on time and in perfect condition. Everything would function entirely up to specifications and there would be no bugs in any system. We, of course, do not live in such a world and we never have and never will. Problems happen and they can sometimes develop into full-blown crises. And even when we do not stand at the center of their creation, we may find ourselves with the responsibility for correcting them.

When I am evaluating the progress of a new manager I am interested in how they perform in the day to day and expected. But to me the real test is in how they manage the unexpected, and yes that first real crisis. This is where I get to see how well they think on their feet and on how effectively they communicate and work with others. This is where I see how they delegate and supervise and whether they enable and facilitate, or not. That first big problem will happen; it always does and for anyone who finds themselves managing a team and taking on that level of responsibility. This is a learning opportunity and for all involved and it is where you start to build your reputation with that business as a manager.

This is my third posting in a short series on making the transition into management, and my focus here is on facing and resolving your first real challenge as a manager – your first real crisis, or at least your first problem with real crisis potential. I posted my first two installments in this series as:

Part 1 – Moving into Management, and
Part 2 – Management Training Opportunities.

The first and perhaps most important message I can convey here in this posting is that:

• When you are managing – leading in a crisis your primary responsibility is to be the calm center of the storm.

People will be turning to you for guidance and for organizing assistance and you need to be there as a source of stability. This has some very important implications. One of them is that this is not the time to start pointing fingers or assigning blame. That can be turned to when and if appropriate in its own time. First though, you need to know precisely what happened that caused the problem and you need to focus on limiting it if necessary, and on resolving it. That may mean starting over again from some point and completing an ongoing task. That may mean switching to a Plan B, and if so you definitely need to know how Plan A failed so you don’t switch to a Plan B that will too and for the same reason. You may have to placate clients or customers and do not forget the in-house clients and customers in this. You will have to communicate and keep a range of others in the loop, definitely including your own supervisor.

Problems and even crises do happen. Plan for the possibility as best you can when and as you develop your ongoing Plan A’s and simply accept that no amount of planning or preparation will absolutely prevent problems from ever arising.

• Take responsibility. You may not be responsible for the initial problem when, for example, you find the entire shipment of some critical subassembly for a product you need to finish and ship has just arrived late and not up to specs. As manager in charge, however, you can be and should be responsible for resolving this.
• Communicate and let your stakeholders (e.g. your own supervisor, your clients or customers, your team members and others) know what happened and what you are doing and organizing to fix things.
• Be realistic and limit what you say you can do to what you can do. In this it is better to do better and faster than you initially offered than to miss your deadlines or otherwise underperform.
• Look at this as a learning opportunity and learn from it – you do not want your next problem to be a repeat of this one.
• Be faster to give positive credit to those who made significant contributions to spotting this problem, clarifying its details and resolving it, than to offering criticism. Support your team and recognize their positive contributions.
• A leader is a manager who helps others to perform more effectively in a crisis.

My next posting in this series will look into the issue of constraints, and the range of authority you have. This definitely includes matters of budget but it can also involve authorization to reach across silo walls and other internal to the organization barriers – and approaches for managing these limitations to get your job done.

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