Challenges and crises, big and small, are a fact of business life. How leaders rise to those challenges is often the difference between success and failure for a business and its employees.

Leadership, when things are going well, is easy and often fun. We set plans, make decisions and our teams go off and execute – we succeed and celebrate. It’s when life gets challenging and difficult, that we as leaders, need to step up. It’s when times are hard that your teams turn around and look to you to ask; “So what happens next, what do we do?”

When we are facing a crisis, from changes in supply chains to global pandemics, we have to be more thoughtful in our decision-making and leadership. I’ve identified five questions that leaders can ask themselves as they move through a business challenge to ensure that they’re leading with integrity and for the good of their company and its community.

Do I fully understand the situation that I find myself in and what the impact of that is on my business?

Understanding the situation you’re in is a mix of insight and foresight.

Insight is understanding what has happened to the business and why it has happened. 

Foresight is being able to see ahead and understand what that means for the organisation going forward. This detailed comprehension of a situation and it impacts means that leaders are able to move confidently to the next step.

Am I making the right decisions and making the right plans in order to match our situation? 

Decision making and the plans that develop from those decisions need to be grounded in the insight and foresight of point one. Leaders need the ability to see decision making as an active process, where they check that their decisions are in line with their understanding and impact of the challenges they face.

Am I actively engaging and generating morale and motivation for my people?

Great leadership is built on the trust between you and the people who have to do the work you ask of them; to execute plans, lead teams and deliver results.

A part of building this trust is being visible and available to your people, showing up for them when they need you. Good morale is created when people feel listened to and valued. 

Reflecting on how you engage with  your people and generate a positive environment for morale to thrive is an important part of leading in troubled times.

Am I monitoring the delivery and execution to make sure it’s happening? 

If you’ve got steps one, two and three right you’re at the execution stage of your plan. You’re ready and standing by to support your team and drive the execution and delivery of your plan. This isn’t about you doing, it’s about being available to pick up and respond to problems and keep the plan motoring forward.

Which leads neatly to the final question…

Is the delivery and execution matching those plans and decisions? 

Leadership through a crisis is a circular process, with even more need than usual for you to be constantly reviewing progress against the initial analysis and planning phase.

We all know that no plan survives first contact with reality, things are going to change and new decisions will need to be made and plans tweaked, teams re-engaged and tasked with delivering the modified plans. 

Which means that you need to be constantly reviewing whether you’re delivering against the situation you find yourself in.

Leading an organisation through a crisis period, set of challenges or business pivot, requires leaders to be more engaged and more visible in the process. These five questions will help you focus on each stage of the process and ensure that you’re being the leader your team can trust.

What would happen in your organisation if you turned your leadership hierarchy on its head so the most important people, at the top of the hierarchy, were the delivery teams?

What is upside-down leadership?

Upside-down leadership, also known as servant leadership, is a model that has been around for several decades and can have huge benefits to an organisation. At its core is the belief that the CEO, leadership team or founder has a role to serve their staff rather than their shareholders.

Upside down leadership doesn’t do away with responsibilities attached to roles, leaders still need to decide on strategic direction, HR still needs to support staff recruitment and welfare, but it removes the focus of leadership on managing the doing in the organisation and empowers staff to find the best way to deliver their work. 

Examples of upside-down leadership in business

In the UK one of the best-known examples of upside-down leadership is the Timpsons group. The customer-facing staff are given the trust and responsibility to run their shops in the best way they see fit. John Timpson describes it thus;

“We trust branch colleagues to do whatever they believe will give an amazing service: They can change prices, they can invent new displays and they can pay up to £500 to settle a complaint.”

John Timpson

This approach isn’t confined to the customer-facing staff, every member of the team has the authority to do their job the best way that they see fit. Timpsons have been using this approach for over 20 years and it has allowed them to grow the number of shoe repair sites as well as expand into new services.

In the US, Nordstrom is another retail business that empowers its customer-facing staff to provide outstanding customer service. Retail staff are encouraged to “use good judgement in all situations”. This strategy is so effective that Nordstrom customer service has become almost legendary and impacts the bottom line by encouraging customer loyalty and word of mouth recommendations.

Trusting people and giving them autonomy in their work creates a culture of proactive problem-solving. Giving people the freedom to solve problems without having to refer up a chain of command or follow a set of procedures, means that a customer complaint is resolved quickly and easily rather than becoming a time consuming and costly problem.

While it may seem easy and obvious to trust people to prioritise customer care, both Nordstrum and Timpson’s approach also encourages creativity and innovation. The growth of The Watch Workshop, a whole new retail offer, came about at Timpsons when a shop manager highlighted how many watch repair sales their shoe repair shop was doing.

Staff that are empowered to take decisions also feel empowered to share their experience and insight, leading to a greater pool of ideas for a company to use to grow.

Trust as a part of upside-down leadership

The core concept of upside down leadership is trust. 

Trust is neither micromanaging nor leaving people to get on with things without guidance or support. Instead of asking “what are you doing?” or “why are you doing that?” it is asking “what support do you need from me?” and “have you got everything you need for this project?”

Trust is a two-way street, which means that not only will your people know that you trust them, they will learn that they can trust you too. When you show you trust your teams they will feel confident in you as a leader and know that they can come to you when things go awry or they need more support, instead of struggling through because they’re fearful of asking for help.

The benefits of the trust and autonomy seen in upside-down leadership aren’t multiple. In their 2019 report, PwC found that employees who feel they can act with autonomy in their day-to-day work environment tend to have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organisation. Trust creates loyalty, pride in a person’s work and in the organisation, and creates an environment where future leaders are easy to identify and develop.

What does this mean for me and my business?

Turning your organisation’s approach to leadership upside-down is not something you can do overnight, John Timpson explains that even as the head of the organisation it took several years for his staff and business to get behind the concept.

However, the approach can be applied at a micro level to how you work with your team by changing the questions you ask, the way you listen and how you manage people and projects. 

The idea of stepping away from old fashioned styles of directive leadership to empowering a team by serving them may feel counterintuitive, especially if you are used to sharing your experience to help others learn. Upside down leadership challenges people to walk away from the ego of leadership and centre their focus on their people not themselves.

It is asking the question;

“What does my team need from me to succeed, today, tomorrow and in the future?”

Neil Poynter

And then listening and taking action on the answers that come back.

I’ve created an infographic that explains more about upside-down leadership for you to share with your network.