Lessons from SVB: Leading Through Crisis

Stacy Richards | March 22, 2023 | Blog | 4 minute read

The Silicon Valley Bank failure here in the US preceded the infamous Ides of March by just a few days, but by March 15th most of us knew the SVB acronym and were well aware of the global fear of a potential banking crisis. For either personal or professional reasons, many people paused to find out what the hype was all about and whether they should be concerned. Some are dealing with a profound impact on their business or personal finances.

Like many leadership teams across the globe, The Bailey Group leadership team spent time last week discussing potential impact to clients, the economy, and our business projections for the year. As a leadership development and executive coaching firm, we also took the opportunity to reflect on the vital role that our clients, leaders in thriving organizations, play in managing through crises and providing reassurance to their teams. We have the great fortune of having dozens of experienced leaders working with us as coaches and consultants, and we capitalized on the opportunity to bring a number of them together to discuss the timely topic of leading through times of crisis or panic.

Leaders Sift Through the Noise of “Breaking News”

Several of TBG’s coaches who have held C-Suite positions in their careers reflected on the compounding effect that instant access to “breaking news” has on rumors and knee-jerk reactions, causing them to spread like wildfire. This is a relatively new phenomena that businesses must contend with, and one that makes quick-thinking and responsive leadership critical for organizations. In an interview early in the week, CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin spoke about the responsibility of journalists to measure their reporting in a crisis to ensure accuracy and avoid alarm. In fact, as Ross Sorkin explained, commentary on social media and the resulting panic contributed to SVB’s failure. Sorkin described the SVB collapse as “fascinating,” explaining that it was only possible in the “true age of social media, as well as what might be described as digital banking.”

The media’s responsibility in times of crisis is like that of organizational leadership. Even if a senior leader feels unease or fright on a personal level, they must be the voice and face of calm, because people will naturally look to them to understand how to react to a crisis. As one TBG coach put it, the responsibility of leaders during times of crisis is like the flight crew analogy: when you’re on a flight and hit turbulence, you look to the flight attendants for reassurance. In times of crisis, leaders must keep in mind that employees are looking to them for reassurance, especially when that crisis potentially impacts their industry or business.

Keys to Leading Through Crisis

Here’s how great leaders can show up productively in times of crisis.

1. Great leaders act as a strong, calm voice of reason. They gather the data and respond in a timely manner to make sense of the noise and provide rational perspective for the organization.

2. Avoid platitudes. Speak authentically, from the heart, and speak the truth. Don’t sugar-coat the reality of the situation but provide the full context and project confidence in your collective ability to weather the storm.

3. Check your sources and avoid getting caught up in the 24/7 news spiral. Help your teams and organizations understand what is really going on, and call out the speculation or falsehoods to avoid.

4. Turn moments of crisis into an opportunity to examine your business and identify any areas of risk. Now that we know what we know, what should we adjust in our business? As one TBG coach expressed, constantly preparing for risk in an organization is like writing a will: it’s never fun, but it’s always important.

5. Show up as soon as you can. People will draw conclusions about a delay in a leader’s statement when a crisis happens. There’s a fine line between reacting too soon and taking the time needed to gather the important facts and craft your communication with care. Rely on your team members (and communication experts when necessary) to assist.

6. Arm your team with the resources they need. In larger organizations, consistency in cascading messages is critical. Enable your fellow leaders to be confident, calm leaders for the rest of your team. Give them reasons to pull together and speak from a problem-solving, “all-hands-on-deck” position of strength and optimism.

7. Be open to ideas for working through crises, be willing to think outside the box, use new resources, and create new structures if needed.

As we are all acutely aware post-pandemic, times of crisis and even disaster are inevitable; yet they often give leaders the opportunity to step up and provide just the guidance and perspective your team and organization needs. One of our TBG coaches who led in the banking industry reflected that the 2008 financial crisis became one of the best moments in her leadership career. Good leaders understand that they will have to lead through difficult times and they prepare themselves for this important responsibility to the people they lead. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The most fortunate of us all in our journey through life frequently meets with calamities and misfortunes which greatly afflict us. To fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives.”

*Executive Coaches Vicki Turnquist, Edward Bergmark, and Tom Burke contributed to this post.