Use a Crisis to Change Your Organization

By: Kristin Clarke, CAE

Management expert Bill George explains how association leaders can succeed under pressure.

"Good" and "crisis" are not usually found in the same sentence, but optimistic Harvard University professor and bestselling business author Bill George argues that they should be in his latest book, Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis.

George, who is a general session speaker at ASAE & The Center's 2010 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, talked with Associations Now about why leaders should "never waste a good crisis."

Associations Now: Are you finding a lot of CEOs reacting defensively right now as they struggle with the new economy? If so, how do you advise them to move beyond that instinctive stance so they can leverage the crisis?

Bill George: The Chinese have a symbol for crisis with two characters—one stands for danger, and one stands for opportunity. We need to shift now from the danger side to look at the opportunities—how we're going to build our companies and organizations and come out of this a winner, not get back to business as usual, because it's not going to be anything like that. [We need] to look ahead to the kind of organization we want to build that will meet the needs of the future and, frankly, lead a lot better than so many leaders [who] got us into this mess in the first place.

Let's start with an example you give in your book: the 1995 financial crisis at the nonprofit Teach for America. What happened?

In the case of Teach for America, young Wendy Kopp founded the organization at 22 [after] Princeton University because she felt that everyone should have the opportunity for a good education, and they weren't getting anywhere near properly prepared. She came up with this idea of a teacher corps modeled on the Peace Corps. Why not have a group of talented people out there improving education in our schools?

But at the five-year mark, she found herself in great difficulty when the initial funders had completed their start-up grants and teacher applications were down. She was running significant deficits with nowhere to go and had already borrowed as much money as she could. … She actually thought briefly about whether she should just shut down the whole thing, wondering, "Should I move on and bring in another CEO?"

To her everlasting credit, she saw this as an opportunity to transform Teach for America. She did painful things. That meant trimming a lot of expenses, letting people go whom she'd hired … but the important thing is she saw an opportunity to transform the organization to make things go well in the future. ...

Now, as a result, [Teach for America] has gone from $4 million to $55 million and has probably six to eight times as many teachers. It's doing amazing things, but if Wendy had not used that crisis to transform Teach for America, the organization would not have survived, and she certainly would not have been its leader these 12 years later.

Does transformation during crisis mean questioning your mission or just your tactics and strategies?

It means questioning everything! Basically, if you have a vision, and you believe in it, then you have to stay with the mission. Transformation during crisis is more on the strategies and tactics side: Is what we're doing working? Why isn't it working? How are things changing around us, and what's really important?

What skills should CEOs be focusing on now for themselves and their senior employees?

Leadership in the 21st century is about leading from within. It's not how you dress, how you look, what style you use. It's not even what skills and competencies you have—there is way too much focus on that.

Leadership is about being who you are and not trying to be something different than who you are. So [you need to] build from within that kind of deep confidence and capability based on your skill set and your capabilities, then surround yourself with [people with] skills you don't have.

That's what leadership is about: empowering other people around you to step up and lead, not trying to be domineering with them.

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is a writer, editor, and researcher for ASAE & The Center. Email: [email protected]