Leading Your Association Through Crisis

Amy Thomasson
July 15, 2021

One definition of the word crisis calls it “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.” By its very definition, crisis necessitates action—but how do we ensure that our organizations, our teams, and ourselves as individuals take the appropriate actions in the midst of ever-evolving and ever-uncertain times? How do we lead rather than simply react? For answers, I reached out to Jacki Davidoff, Principal and Senior Consultant at Davidoff Strategy, an organization that provides consulting, training, and coaching services to enable non-profits, associations, foundations, and corporations to implement highly effective strategy and high-performing cultures.

What is the difference between leading through crisis and crisis management, and how can association executives ensure that they are executing in both of these areas?
Jacki: The distinction is what we call reactive vs. responsive planning. Both are needed. In time of crisis, reactive planning is important to determine the immediate actions needed to stabilize the situation. We are advising our clients to consider what the situation is and who all the stakeholders are before they act. Where some leaders fail in crisis management is, they attend to only one group of stakeholders and don’t consider the situation and all the stakeholders affected. 

For example, when the pandemic hit for one of our education clients, their schools needed to shift to remote education. Education associations and nonprofits were challenged with schools having a wide range of experience in implementing technology. There was relief when remote education was in place in the schools, which are key stakeholder groups, but there was not consideration for another stakeholder group, children and families that did not have adequate access technology in the home. There was also not consideration for the increased emotional demands of teachers to shift to remote teaching. So from a crisis management perspective, the crisis had been stabilized. But in not considering all stakeholder groups, their individual situations, and the implications of actions taken. This strategy revealed gaps could have been addressed with contentious scenario planning. 

One of the myths in leading through crisis is that we will get back to where we were before the crisis started. We are advising our clients that the silver lining of both the pandemic and the racial justice movement are that these offer a window for leaders to broaden their relationships and connectedness to the world, becoming increasingly relevant and contributing to conversations and actions.

How can association and nonprofit leaders create cohesive teams during uncertain times, and how should they balance personal and professional needs?
Jacki: People respond to crises in different ways.  Crisis causes many people to be reminded of earlier memories or traumas. It’s important for a leader to find out how their team members are doing in terms of their emotional response and their professional response. The biggest gift you can give people is a chance to talk and be heard and to know they are not alone in their experience. We advise our clients to take time to find out how people on your team are doing and to monitor for people who are not sharing. It’s a time to have empathy. You’re juggling the need for giving people extra time and space and also asking people to engage more to help manage through crisis. The job of social emotional intelligence on a leader’s part is to know how to manage the organization and its people though divergent currents.

We’ve been brought in by clients to be a third party to create discussions with groups of employees so the leaders can listen. One client was specifically concerned about the women in its 50-person organization and invited all the women in the organization to have a Zoom coffee with the CEO, who’s also a woman. We opened the meeting with a broad question: “Tell me about our experience working here as a woman.” That filled an entire hour. You could feel the energy and enthusiasm from the moment the email went out. The CEO said she’d never seen so quick a response from so many of her team.  We could see hearts open up and the sense that “someone is listening to me and investing in me.” One outcome for a leader is increased loyalty. Employees will be loyal to leaders who care about them and invest in their growth and development.

How can organizations and leaders innovate during times of crisis and use crisis as an opportunity for reframing and rebirth?
Jacki: A crisis reveals gaps and cracks in organizations, teams, and ourselves. Every day is a chance to recommit. Mission-Drivers, before they commit, update their vision of who they’re going to be as a leader, what qualities and principles they’re going to embrace and what they’re leading their organization to. A lot of organizations use this time to commit to greater levels of excellence in member services, innovation, and building better financial and communications and project management systems.  A lot of associations reassess what’s our best use and what makes us unique and different from other organizations we know to be our competitors, as well as how to we accentuate those differences in support of our missions and members, employees, volunteers, and other stakeholders.

While many organizations put off planning until the crisis is over, we have one association client whose mission is in the public health sphere that chose to do its planning through the crisis. They understood the crisis was exposing many needs among their members, communities, and the system that supports the public health sector. This client invested in a significant strategic planning process, including having an all-weekend summit of its board, many of whom are in front lines of public health crisis. They’re seizing the heightened awareness and real time experiences that the sector is facing and we’re using this opening to look at immediate and long-term strategies for transformation and greater effectiveness.