Helping your team thrive through crisis: Kanina Blanchard, Professor at Ivey Business School

Leader Lab Podcast

Our own Kanina Blanchard offers insightful strategies for leaders on helping their teams — and themselves — thrive through a crisis.

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A note to our listeners

Covid-19 has created an unprecedented time for leaders. There is no playbook or easy way for leaders to navigate the tremendous economic, social and emotional toll.  

With this in mind, we decided that it was important now more than ever for leaders to help each other by sharing their stories and practical experiences. So, we’ve decided to focus our upcoming episodes on how Leaders are navigating this crisis: how they’ve shifted direction, what they are doing to keep their teams safe and motivated, and how they personally managing through this tremendous uncertainty.

We are grateful to the number of leaders who have offered up their experiences. Their creativity, resiliency, humility and positivity has been inspiring. Our hope is that by sharing their ideas and stories we can help each other find a way forward.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Her one big message for leaders during Covid-19 (01:31)
  • Why it’s important to create a game plan for surviving a crisis (02:56)
  • Why you should think about how your actions will be judged in the long term (03:22)
  • The three C’s to keep in mind in a crisis (04:16)
  • What great crisis planning looks like (05:38)
  • What professional athletes teach us about preparing for a crisis (06:16)
  • The importance of including diverse perspectives in crisis planning (07:12)
  • Why it’s never too late to address a crisis (09:07)
  • What leaders can be doing right now to deal with he impact of Covid-19 (09:53)
  • The one aspect of culture she’d like to see leaders focus on right now (15:05)
  • How to build collaboration and connection virtually (16:33)
  • Why you shouldn’t try to be a superhero (18:50)
  • Positive lessons from Covid-19 (21:04)
  • What she does to recharge (23:51)

Kanina’s advice for leaders:

  • Align your game plan with your values (03:06)
  • Listen and show empathy (03:44)
  • Prepare for worst-case scenario (06:55)
  • Let yourself be uncomfortable (08:26)
  • Think about who you (and your company) want to be when the crisis is over (09:30)
  • Communicate in a way that creates trust (11:27)
  • Make sure your actions and words match – and are consistent with your values (12:15)
  • Don’t expect to have all the answers (13:05)
  • Keep your employees’ needs in mind (17:57)
  • Practice self-care (19:38)

More about Kanina Blanchard:

 Kanina Blanchard has led teams through crisis on four different continents, and is recognized for her ability to adapt, lead teams and projects, and navigate complexities across various sectors. She has extensive experience working in international business, the public service, non-profit and consulting in areas that include organizational and communication challenges as well as issues, crisis and change management.

Blanchard has coached thousands of CEOs, C-Suite executives and emerging leaders seeking to grow and develop their character, competencies and commitment over the last 30 years.  She is committed to providing targeted and customized strategic solutions to challenges that impact organizational and leadership brand, reputation and bottom line. 

She is a lecturer in management communications and general management at the Ivey Business School, the recipient of the Margaret Haughey Master’s Award for Best Master’s Thesis, and is currently working toward her PhD.

More about TILTCO:

TILTCO is a boutique consulting company that helps leaders define and execute their strategies in order to achieve extraordinary business and personal results. Founded by Tineke Keesmaat who has over 20 years of leadership consulting experience with McKinsey & Company, Accenture and now TILTCO Inc.

More about The Ivey Academy:

The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment

Links to additional resources:

https://www.ivey.uwo.ca/academy/about/faculty/kanina-blanchard/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1o0YpWlEugY

https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/to-a-better-understanding-the-leadership-odyssey-explored/

Memorable quote:

“Especially in a time of crisis, leaders need to ensure that what’s being done is the right thing and that it’s being done the right way.”

Full Transcript:

TINEKE KEESMAAT: LeaderLab is focused on having inspiring leaders share their stories and practical leadership tips to help others be more effective. Today is April 19, 2020 and leaders across the globe are in the uncharted world of dealing with the global health pandemic of coronavirus. There's no perfect playbook for leaders as they tackle the enormous social, emotional, and economic challenges brought on by COVID-19. Our next few episodes will be focused on how leaders are managing through these times. And our hope is that by sharing these leadership stories, we can find ways to help each other navigate through the uncertainty of COVID-19.


ANNOUNCER: Welcome to LeaderLab, where we talk to experts about how leaders can excel in a modern world. Helping leaders for over 20 years, your host, Tineke Keesmaat.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Today I'm excited to chat with Kanina Blanchard. Kanina is a recognized public affairs and policy leader who has led teams internationally through crisis, challenge, and change. From bomb threats to environmental and human health disasters, she has helped teams and leaders in both the private and public sector navigate their toughest scenarios. Kanina is a lecturer at the Ivey Business School, where she focuses her research in the areas of women in leadership and responsible leadership.


Kanina wants to help leaders navigate successfully through COVID-19 by being purposeful, empowering, and passionate so they cannot just survive, but find a way to thrive into the future. Kanina, thank you so much for joining me on today's LeaderLab. I'd like to start by asking you, what's the one big message you want leaders to take away from our conversation today?


KANINA BLANCHARD: I think what we all need to do is start by stopping. And what I mean is to stop. Stop and take a step back from the firefight we find ourselves in. Because in times of crisis, whatever that crisis may be-- if it's a family issue or an illness, or some of my lived experience includes bomb threats and fires and explosions-- that we need to take a step back because we fall into this loop. And this loop is one where we have a sense of fear. We have a sense of powerlessness, a loss of control.


And there is this deep need to do something. And that itself creates a problem, because we just do. And we keep doing. And we're driven by this sort of primal instinct, because actually doing something in the middle of a crisis feels good.


But that's not good enough, not for a leader. And especially in a time of crisis, leaders need to ensure that what's being done is the right thing and that it's being done the right way.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: I love that. So really, although we want to just act, act, act, what I'm hearing you say is pause and make sure that you are being purposeful. From a practical lens, what do you think leaders need to be thinking about as they're creating their crisis game plan?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Our game plan for surviving the crisis, but hopefully thriving when this is over, is an important place to start. And not just on what you need to get done, but the why you're doing it-- align those to your values and think about who you want to be remembered as when this is over. So not just you-- your team, your organization.


And sometimes when we think about these items, we may make some different decisions. Perhaps we still have to do what we have to do. For example, we're having to let people go. But how do we let people go, that matters. That matters for the kind of relationship you will have, the reputation you will have on the back end.


So listen more. Demonstrate through your words and actions that you care about we, not just me. So don't sit back and make decisions in a crisis and articulate them. Involve others. Help other people be purposeful. Find a reason yourself to be passionate, and remember that your attitude as a leader is truly contagious. And this may be a bad play on words, but truly think about, what do you want to be spreading right now as a leader?


TINEKE KEESMAAT: I know you talk about the 3 C's-- so crisis management, communication, and culture. And you've encouraged leaders in other talks to think about those three areas as they navigate through. So I'd love to spend a bit of time unpacking those and sharing your thoughts and tips. So if we can start with crisis management, can you talk to me about what that means?


KANINA BLANCHARD: In a crisis, we need to lead and we need to manage. But it's not business as usual. So when we talk about leadership in times of crisis, there needs to be a plan. We need to prepare to manage and lead through crisis. And we need to, hopefully, have practiced and been prepared to deal with the absolutely-not-business-as-usual challenges that come up.


I think about how many clients and people I speak to right now who say, you know, we've been trying to get a work from home policy in place for years and the company said no way. And now there are so many monitors being delivered to people's homes. So how do we manage? How do we adapt? How do we take on a mindset that we can manage through crisis?


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Can you talk to me a bit about planning? What does great planning look like in this context?


KANINA BLANCHARD: If we're going to actually lead through crisis, we have to accept that a crisis is different and that there are different emotions and different challenges. And it's uncomfortable to do this. So in a lot of large organizations and in my own professional career, we've done a lot of crisis management planning where we get down into the deep, the dirty, and sometimes the ugly and uncomfortable stories about what keeps us up at night.
What is it that we're afraid of, the worst-case scenarios? And we live in a bit of a culture where we don't want to talk about those things. And this is where we can take guidance from professional athletes and professionals in fields like astronauts, who a huge part of their life is to plan for the unexpected and to plan for the worst-case scenario.


I love this story that Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the very well-known Canadian figure skating champions, talk about-- that when they were practicing for the Olympics, they basically had a protocol where their coach would do the completely unexpected-- where the music would die, where the lights would go off-- and they could continue their performance regardless. So they planned for that. So plan for continuation of your operations and those scenarios that you are most concerned about.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And preparing, what does that look like?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Preparing looks like bringing the right people to the table to do the work. And this seems kind of obvious, but one of the things that happens is we bring people around the table who are like us, who think like us, who focus on the things we focus on. But in a crisis, what we need to do is think about our audiences, our stakeholders from a very broad perspective and bring to the table those people who truly represent the voice of our communities, of our suppliers, of government, of other stakeholders.


And so to prepare in a way that is mindful of not only kind of our worst-case scenarios or situations that we would normally not want to deal with, but to do it with people and get the insights of the people that matter the most, which is our audience in these situations.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Fantastic. And finally, practicing-- what do leaders need to think about there?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Absolutely. So you know, it's funny. When I work with a lot of my clients, when I work with students, we do things like role plays or situations or scenarios. And some people love that, and some people are absolutely petrified.


And I tell you, if you're petrified and I'm working with you, I am putting you on point, because we need to get past that. We literally need to practice stepping into the roles, making decisions, taking risk, and learning that there will be failure. There will be failure.


And this sort of leads to this idea of communications and culture, and why it's so important to be able to manage through a crisis.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: So Kanina, this sounds amazing. But I'm sure there's some people listening to you saying, gosh, I wish I had heard Kanina a year ago, because I would have done the plan, prepare, and practice. But now they're living through COVID. Is it too late for them? How do you talk to leaders about what they can do in the moment if they haven't had the opportunity to do your three P's before?


KANINA BLANCHARD: It's not too late. It's never too late. In fact, we know in life there are some crises and issues that we can prepare for and some things that just hit us out of the blue. So we can absolutely bring our best self forward when things start to unravel. And for a lot of us, things are unraveling right now. So what do we do?


Let's think about, have we thought through who do we want to be when this crisis is over? Have we planned for who we want to be at the end of this? Have we brought the right people together to talk about and prepare for not only doing what we're doing today better, but preparing for this crisis is not over. And if we're just living in the moment and focusing on the short-term, we're missing both other risks as well as other opportunities. So use this time to prepare.


Then the last thing is we can still practice. We can practice, because when we realize that the most important thing we can be doing as leaders right now is not only stepping up into managing and leading through the crisis, but being the best communicators we can be and ensuring that our culture is one that's going to support us through this initiative and this challenge. We can be focused on what's coming. And that's going to help us, hopefully, thrive.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: You bring us to the last two parts of your three C's. Communications was one that you mentioned up top. Can you talk to me a bit about what leaders should be doing or how they should be communicating during these uncertain times?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Everything that you've been taught from a communications perspective, from a leadership communications perspective in normal business operations, applies today. But it is magnified and it is amplified. So do you communicate with your audiences? Are you authentic in your communications? Are you transparent? Are you consistent?


Now, when I say things like "transparent" and "authentic," let's be clear, this isn't about saying whatever is on your mind. This is about putting your audience first. It's about purpose. As a leader, when you communicate you are purposeful in trying to motivate, inspire, compel, and influence others. When you communicate in a crisis, that's even more important. But it needs to be done in a way that people believe and they trust.


I've had clients, as well as people that I've been talking with, who've said, look, my company is saying all the right things, but no one believes it. They're not making us feel like they're doing the right things. And that's key about communicating as a leader.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: I know some of the people that I've been talking to have raised this point around consistency of message during these times. Their leaders are saying one thing but then doing something else. Can you talk to me about that, how that comes to play and why it matters?


KANINA BLANCHARD: So when we talk about our values and all of these issues, what we say has to reflect who we are as an organization, who we are as people. And then we need to be very mindful to be consistent with that. So if we say to our employees in today's world that your health and welfare matters the most but then we back it up with actions and tell people to just go do things and take a risk, there isn't that consistency between what's being said and then what's being asked.


So that is really important, because that is your legacy through this crisis. Will people, including your own employees as well as your customers in the community, be able to trust you based on what you did? Don't expect that you are going to have all the answers, that things are going to work at the same pace, that things are going to happen exactly the way that everybody would have expected them in normal times.


But as a leader, set expectations. But work with people to bring their best selves forward. And you do that by connecting with people at the emotional level. And we could say, well, you know, how do you do that when everyone is leading at a distance?


So there's lots of literature on this topic. But at a very simple tricks and tips level that I would love to see people truly take in, if you're talking to somebody, you're trying to build connection, stop looking at your screen and look at where your camera is. Because the reality is that most of us are speaking on cameras most of the day while we're looking down at someone on the screen. Or we might be looking at ourselves on the screen.


What other people are seeing is you looking down at them. Lift your head, and know that that little aperture of your camera is your audience. And care enough to look at them and talk to them clearly, authentically, with purpose. Be values-based, and connect with them as human beings right now. That's what's going to motivate them to bring their best selves forward.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: The last of your C's was around culture. I'm curious, Kanina, what do you think are the most important elements of culture that leaders need to get right during COVID-19?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Well, there's so much about culture, right? It's hard to change a culture in the middle of a crisis in some ways, because we bring everything that we have been to that moment. However, crises create an incredible opportunity and a raison d'etre, or creates a bias for action. And so if there was one part of culture that I would love to see leaders focus on right now is collaboration.


If we lose touch and if we lose connection with people at this time, the good parts of our culture will start to erode. And in the vacuum of collaboration and connection, we will drive movement toward people feeling more isolated, less purposeful, perhaps not knowing where their place is-- which will create more fear. I know this adds a burden to a lot of leaders. It's spending more time trying to connect. But creating opportunities for people to bring their best selves forward to collaborate on aspects of your business continuity plan and your future plan right now can do more to keep your employees, your customers engaged and motivated than anything.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Any practical tips or insights about how to build collaboration when everyone is working at home and has slightly variant schedules and potentially is distracted by their own personal issues or complexities? Any suggestions for folks on how to build virtual connection?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Absolutely. There are so many, and we only have so much time. But just a few ideas. One, be patient. Everyone is in a different place. And what we know about communications as a field is that different people resonate with different kinds of communication.


So some people read. Some people are auditory. Some people are visual. So keep in mind that if your goal through your communication is to ensure understanding or build awareness or to create collaboration, you need to think about that all your employees or your stakeholders are also different. And so just doing things one way blanket in one email doesn't mean you've communicated. All that means is you've sent out information.


So think about the different ways you can communicate. You can write it. You can record a video. You could have open town halls. You could create social spaces like coffee or cooler discussions, where people who need that social interaction can self-select to come in.


Offer to do it at different times. If you're working in a global environment-- it's one of the things I've found working internationally, is that my colleagues in Asia were always the ones-- and when I worked in Asia, I learned this myself-- are always the ones starting the earliest and ending the latest. So if you're going to have a session with your employees or you want to meet one-on-one, think about what time zone they're in and do it at a time, it might be inconvenient to you. But boy, that's going to send a signal of collaboration and care to someone sitting in Hong Kong 12 hours away that very few other things can do.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's fantastic. And again, what I'm hearing from you, again, as a leader is really just thinking about your employees, stakeholders-- where they're at, and kind of bridging the gap by meeting them at that starting point versus just what's convenient for you. So again, some care and compassion in these times.


KANINA BLANCHARD: You know, someone might be out there listening going, how much more can I possibly do? It just seems like we load more and more on managers and leaders. And considering these times of opportunity to be the best you can be is really important. But I would say, don't go down the superhero path.


We've seen through the last many decades that superheroes tend to not only burn out and harm themselves and their families and their organizations, but that's not a way to win. We are in a marathon. COVID-19 is a marathon. It is not a sprint. So these are all best practices. And I hope the leaders listening are motivated by the difference they can make. But it also starts with self-care.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And what does that mean, self-care? That's a hot term right now. But from your perspective, how can leaders practice that, or what do they need to be mindful of?


KANINA BLANCHARD: I think everybody is different, and so there is no one checkbox or list that's going to help. But I think that one thing I've seen developing over the last 30, 35 years that I've been in business is this idea of the importance of reflection, this importance of taking time-- whether it's even 10 minutes-- to stop and to think, and sometimes simply clear our minds. So there are people who are practicing meditation or mindfulness. It could be taking a walk. It's the small things that we do to take care of ourselves and take care of others.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And it's interesting, as you've talked-- and a thread that I'm taking away from this call-- is a bit of this authenticity, right? We're all in it together. Saying I'm tired, my neck is hurting, and just putting that out there allows people to connect at a very human level-- which I think is really important during these times, because people are in that place of fear and uncertainty. So I love this message that I've been hearing anyway around just being you and being authentic, and sharing that with others.


So Kanina, you have seen the before and after of many crises through your career. I'm curious, from your vantage point as you think about COVID-19, do you foresee any positive impacts or lessons or practices resulting from this scenario?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Absolutely. I think about the things that I'm seeing in the news today-- we have young people who are starting businesses that aren't there to make money. But they're volunteering their skills to develop-- for example, in Portugal I heard about a young student who started a web app where people who cannot rent their homes right now are being matched with health care providers who can't go home in the fear of spreading disease. I've heard about people who have developed apps around COVID where they've been offered money for their apps and instead they've said, no, this is a public service.


We're seeing governments do things that are truly unprecedented. We have governments that are stepping up early and fast and trying. And of course, there's always going to be criticism and critique, and there's always going to be things that we can do better. But look at the packages that are being put together to help ensure that people, even in these hard times, we can have food on our table. We're trying to help marginalized people make sure that they have food on their tables. We're trying to help students.


There is an effort under way today that we will learn from. And in reality, when the next crisis comes-- and it will-- I think we will have learned so much, a lot of good and some bad. And if we embrace the failures and improve on the successes, we will together succeed moving forward and grow.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: I love that, a feeling of hope and a recognition that even in these tough times, people are generally good and everyone is trying their best to kind of navigate through. Kanina, this has been fantastic. And I know I've taken a number of notes and lessons that I will use in my own world and share with friends and colleagues. So I really do appreciate your insights and your enthusiasm that you shared with us today.


ANNOUNCER: And now, let's get to know our guest a little better with some rapid-fire questions.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: As we wrap up, one of the practices that we would like to do on LeaderLab is to help our listeners get to know you even more as a person with some rapid-fire questions. So if you don't mind, I have five questions for you here around the themes of the time that we're spending at home. So don't think too hard, but your first response. Your go-to comfort food?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Gluten-free pasta.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Do you like to go for a workout or curl up with a book to regenerate yourself?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Oh gosh, neither. I'm working on my PhD, so I read when I have to. I love my audiobooks, and I love walking with my family and my ridiculous basset hound who howls and sings and always brings a smile to our face.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: Nice. One item you could never live without.


KANINA BLANCHARD: Well, I think my answer needs to be my husband right now. And I don't think I should call him an "item." But I think one of the things that we're learning-- we have eight people living under our roof right now. And what helps us survive, I think, is each other and that sense that you're not going through it alone.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: That's wonderful. Your favorite cartoon character?


KANINA BLANCHARD: I think it sort of maybe depends on the day. For some reason, just what popped into my mind right now is the Tasmanian Devil. I have no idea why. Maybe that reflects the way the world is feeling right now. That's what I've got for you.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: And your work from home attire-- PJs, fully dressed, or a little bit of both?


KANINA BLANCHARD: Absolutely a little bit of both. You'll never catch me in pantyhose. But at least from the waist up, I feel that I am more productive and I am engaging with the people who I'm speaking with in a respectful and honest and a professional manner when I've gone the business casual route, for sure.


TINEKE KEESMAAT: I love it. I love it. Amazing. Kanina, thank you again for the time today.


ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining us today on LeaderLab. LeaderLab is powered by Tiltco, helping exceptional leaders achieve extraordinary results, and the Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School, Canada's home for learning and development. You can learn more about Tiltco and LeaderLab at tiltco.ca. And to find out more about The Ivey Academy, go to iveyacademy.com

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