Communicating With Your Team During Crisis
What to say when you don't know exactly what's going on.
The speed at which last week’s events unfolded around SVB left little room for many founders to breathe or rest. While Startup Parent is not directly affected by the bank closures (we are a bootstrapped company on solid footing), many you of you, our clients and network, are being roiled by the weekend’s events.
You’ve been reaching out to me asking how to communicate with your teams, venting about how angry this makes you, furious about the chaos this caused in your families, and telling me how absolutely fried and exhausted you are. Inside our leadership incubator, folks were swapping stories and resources all weekend—plus, several of our podcast guests are affected, so we’re updating our release schedule accordingly.
Last year, I shared my playbook for leadership during crisis, a work-in-progress framework that I review and update regularly. I use this to think about how I want to show up as a leader. Today I want to highlight three key pieces that are relevant to leadership communication, especially in weeks like this.
Being in a leadership position asks you to come up with answers and frameworks when they don’t exist, and communicate to people when you don’t have the answers. Leadership asks us for resilience, emotional vulnerability, and bravery. This is part of why it’s so hard. Building your own frameworks and playbooks for leadership can help you, especially during crisis moments.
There are also many folks falling sick from the stress and cumulative effects of dealing with crisis after crisis. That’s why building your own frameworks is part of creating a sustainable long-term leadership plan. You’re welcome to borrow from this and build on it as you create your own playbook.
Being in a leadership position asks you to come up with frameworks when they don’t exist, and to communicate to when you don’t have answers. That’s why leadership can be so hard.
Wait, so what happened? Quick recap of SVB+ so far
If you don’t know much about it, on Friday Silicon Valley Bank closed, putting many founders and companies in crisis because suddenly all of their money was potentially just… gone. If you're an entrepreneur who has spent years of your life fundraising to build a project and then suddenly find out that you might have to shut your company down and fire everyone—that’s the bottom falling out. This doesn’t just affect entrepreneurs, either: payroll companies have been affected, there’s always a slight risk of “contagion,” (when other bank runs happen because of consumer fear), there’s risk of corruption, and there’s a lot of talk about whose fault this is.
I'm not an expert on banks, the financial system, or payroll—but I do work with founders on leadership communications, boundaries, and building resilient businesses and teams. For better or worse, each new crisis gives me a chance to revisit my frameworks and build upon them.
As you navigate each crisis, take notes. Building your own frameworks and playbooks for leadership can help you, especially in future crisis moments.
Leadership during crisis: a few notes
Leadership today includes facing the ongoing crises of our generation: a pandemic, ongoing wars, gun violence, racially-motivated hatred, domestic terrorism and years of civil and global unrest. Part of the work of leadership involves dealing with big events, and leading your teams and people through hard times.
As you navigate each crisis, take notes. Building your own frameworks and playbooks for leadership can help you, especially in future crisis moments. As part of my own leadership practice, I journal notes and put together draft frameworks for my future self to lean on. This is a working playbook for navigating leadership in a crisis, a set of rules I’m developing as I learn how to navigate uncertain and challenging situations.
Below are highlights from the list that apply to this week’s bank events, and an additional notes I’m adding to the list going forward.
1 — There is no “one right way” for a leader to respond.
Some people are rash, some people are impulsive, some people are a calming presence. Some people don't respond much publicly. You'll see all types across the board. This is why there isn’t one way to respond. You’ll define and refine your response style by paying attention, taking notes, and creating a framework.
Which styles stand out to you, both positively and negatively, and which styles represent who you want to be? Keep a file of messages you appreciate and why. In these communications are ideas for the values you want to stand for during crisis.
Values for me: kind, clear, empathetic and brave.
Anti-values for me: rash, mean, impatient, blaming.
Note what happens to you during events and keep track. Collect observations like a set of data points that show you what your typical crisis response is. For me, if I start to feel overwhelmed or panicked, I can get into a place of blame, gossip, and impatience. When that happens, I know that I’m overwhelmed and I almost always need to go outside, go for a walk, and do breath work or talk to another human before doing anything sudden.
2 — It's okay to wait 48 hours before responding publicly.
Key word: publicly.
It can often be a good idea to wait before responding publicly. Especially if the news does not directly affect you or your team, listening can be a great stance. Listen, learn, read, sleep. Your organization does not need to be a breaking news organization, nor is it a sustainable business practice for you to add 24/7 news reactions to the work you do. Not every piece of news needs to be addressed within hours. Specifically, I’m thinking about international crises, wars, public relations blow-ups, civic unrest, and more. If we’re responding to everything in real time, we’re going to run our organizations into the ground and not do the focused work we came here to do.
It’s okay to take a few days to respond publicly.
Not responding at all is also a valid choice, as long as you have a clear framework around what you respond to and why, and you’ve communicated it to your clients and network appropriately. (See more in notes 4 through 7 in the leadership playbook.)
But your team is not the public. So often people focus on making public statements while completely stepping over the need to communicate to their internal team. With your team, you need to tell people as early as you can.
3 — Tell your people as early as you can that you are aware of the news, especially if this will directly affect your team, people, or clients.
This is new to my playbook this year. If the current news affects your team, you need to talk to them as soon as it’s feasible. Too often, people want to wait to have all the information before communicating. This can result in too much silence, and can cause anxiety and distrust in your team. The longer you wait, the more alarming it can be.
Think about what you do when you hear a piece of alarming news. Do you forget about it? Likely not—you text and ask loads of questions, or try to find out more. People will talk, gossip, or look to the leadership team to figure out what’s going on. Your clients, staff, and teams during a crisis will react in similar ways.
Here’s what’s going on in their minds:
OMG did you see this bank? Do you think _____ knows? Why haven’t they said anything? Are we in trouble? Are we going to get fired? Do you think we’re screwed? Are we going to get paid yet?
An absence of communication can be alarming and disorienting. But it’s still possible to create consistency and calm amidst chaos. As a leader, you'll often want to tell people as early as you can that you are evaluating the situation, that you don’t have answers yet, and that you’re aware of what’s going on.
This is a tricky place to navigate, so I want to break it down into three smaller steps and give more examples.
First, tell people you are aware of what’s going on, even if you don't have answers yet.
Say something even and especially when you don’t have the answers. People want to hear from you. Even a simple message that says, “I’m aware of what’s unfolding and we’re monitoring the situation,” is reassurance to people.
“Hi everyone, we’re monitoring the banking situation with SVB and how this may or may not affect us. Right now, I don’t have enough information to tell you much more than that—but you should know that we are aware what’s going on and we are contacting all of the right parties to get more information. We plan to tell you more by tomorrow afternoon, and we will keep everyone posted as things unfold.”
Second, tell people what they can expect from you, including when and how you'll communicate with them.
A message that tells people when you will be in touch with them next can be a huge relief for your team.
For example, if it's a Friday afternoon:
“Over the weekend, we will be in touch with you by Slack if anything urgent comes up. We would appreciate everyone checking in on Slack at 5pm on Sunday for any updates, and being available from 5pm-10pm on Sunday evening to prepare for Monday morning, but you don't need to check in any other time than that. Please take time to rest as much as you can before then.”
“We won’t have any news or updates until Monday morning. I know how stressful it will feel this weekend, so please do your best to take care of yourself. All of our senior staff and leadership team will be working round the clock this weekend in shifts to figure out our next best steps, and to put us in the best place for Monday morning. We’ll have a phone call for questions and venting available all weekend if you need to talk to someone.”
Tell people what they can expect from you, when you’ll be sending it, and how it will be delivered (a morning briefing? an end-of-work check-in? by email, phone, other?).
Third, remind people to take care of themselves.
In a world of constant crisis, we need more self care, not less. The speed of communication, pace of change, and ability/necessity to be “always on” means that our nervous systems are overloaded and don’t have enough time to decompress. As a result, the negotiation between wellness and work has gotten harder, not easier.
Sometimes the only way to give yourself a break is to take a break even when it's not convenient or even when it feels like a bad time. It will never be convenient, and if work always wins out over rest, then you’re on a road straight to burnout. As the popular book Burnout reminds me, the need for rest will take you down in the form of burnout or illness if you don't take enough time for rest.
Sometimes the only way to give yourself a break is to take a break even when it's not convenient, or even when it feels like a bad time.
For me, rest needs to be communicated, scheduled, and I need to loop other people in to hold me accountable. This is proven in various corporate settings—it was either Buffer or Evernote, I believe, that had a policy for a while that you got paid a bonus of $1,000 to take a week vacation but you only got paid if you didn’t ever check email.
How to do this with your organization? Here are a few examples:
Tell people who are over-working in the crisis to schedule compensatory days off to decompress. Often people go through a crisis and then keep working regular hours. This is a great way to get team members to quit outright or quiet quit. Send a note to your team this week that you’ll give them next Wednesday or Friday as a full day offline, with no obligation to check email or Slack.
Lead by example. “Once we are out of the immediate firestorm, I’ll be taking two mornings to go for long hikes as a way to rest my nervous system and stay healthy. I’ll be in at 12pm both of those days. If you’d like to put a four-hour block on your calendar for time away, please do so on Thursday or Friday this week and check with your manager about which time is best for your project team.”
Schedule a bonus 3-day or 4-day weekend within the next two months. For all the times you ask people to work late, to work weekends, so stay on high alert, they need times they can count on to be away and off. “We’re going to take Friday, June 16th and Monday, June 19th as a two extra non-work days so there is a 4-day weekend for rest, decompression, and holiday observance. Our offices will close on Thursday at 5PM. Any messages sent after 12PM on Thursday will go into our pause box and be responded to the following week. Thank you for understanding.”
Depending on your industry and organization, this can be tricky to do, but it’s so important. If you can’t do this within two months, that’s a bigger issue.
If you can’t give everyone time off all at once, you may need to stagger it across different weeks to have enough employees on deck, e.g., you can give a third of your team a three-day weekend the last weekend in April, another third the first weekend in May, and the last group the following weekend.
You can engage your clients in the decision and give them extra space, too. Tell them early enough that you’ll be offline for them to be able to plan ahead and coordinate.
Last but not least, take care of yourself, too.
You can’t be a good leader if you’re drowning.
Being in a leadership position asks you to come up with answers and frameworks when they don’t exist. It asks you to take risks and lean into bravery. It means you’ll often be unsure, or you’ll be wrong. I’ve been called out and called in and challenged so many times, and each time I’ve had to look further inwards and ask more of myself. There is so much I don’t know. The risk of failing is part of the job of leading.
That’s why it’s important to get support for yourself. Don’t just try to push through, or do it all yourself (hello, kettle, I’m pot—still learning this one). Identify people who can help you. Keep a resource list of trusted advisors, peers, therapists, and partners. Our latest podcast episode with Dr. Pooja Lakshmin is all about self care and well being, and I absolutely loved getting to interview her. It’s well timed for this week, too.
And develop a framework for yourself. That’s leadership.
Working on developing your framework can be more important than standing up in the moment. Yes, leadership involves reaction, but it’s important to react in a way that is supportive for the people you lead. This takes planning and long-term vision. If you don’t have a framework in place, start to pencil one in as a work-in-progress, and reflect on how it supports you and those around you each time big events unfold. If we’re only ever in reaction mode, we lose our power to take a stand for something and create action that moves the needle forward over time.
Leadership Communication: A Recap
There is no “one right way” for a leader to respond.
It's okay to wait 48 hours before responding publicly.
If this will directly affect your team, your people, or your clients, communicate with them early and regularly.
Tell people as early as you can that you are aware of the news. Tell people even if you feel like you don’t have answers. “We’re monitoring the situation and will update you on Monday morning.”
Tell people what communication they can expect from you, when, and how. “We’ll send an email every day at 5PM with an update.”
Remind people to take care of themselves during a crisis. Giving them clear communication can give them time to decompress, too. It sets a healthy and important boundary around stressful news. “We have people working around the clock on this, so please take time to rest this weekend. We’ll send news at 5PM on Saturday and Sunday, and we might ask people to be available Sunday from 5PM-10PM to step in. Outside of that, please don’t work.”
Take care of yourself, too. You can’t be a good leader if you’re drowning.
Read the full leadership playbook here.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
PS — Daylight savings is already tough for parents, and this weekend in particular? Well, I am starting to wonder what is up with March 13th, because this weekend is consistently a doozy.
ANNOUNCEMENTS & INVITATIONS
DR. POOJA LAKSHMIN — Our episode with Dr. Lakshmin is now available everyone on The Startup Parent Podcast this week, with a deep dive into why doing more doesn’t make us feel better—in fact, it might result in rage, depression, exhaustion, dissociation, and more. Her book is out today!
PANDEMIC STORYTELLING CIRCLE — On Friday, March 17th, 2023, we’re hosting an event open to the broader Startup Parent community—moms, dads, pet parents, caretakers—anyone who would like to can attend our special pandemic storytelling circle. Join us.
WWC SCHOLARSHIPS — Interested in joining us in The Wise Women’s Council? We have specific scholarship opportunities as part of our work towards social justice and social equity.