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How to survive a crisis

Cover of  by Anthony Holmes

It can be hard to stay in calm control through economic turbulence. As Rudyard Kipling wrote: 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ... yours is the earth and everything that's in it.' That's more easily said than done.

But, in his book Managing Through Turbulent Times, Anthony Holmes says it's important to distinguish between a crisis and a problem: 'A problem is straightforward, while a crisis changes and evolves.' So how do you keep a zen frame of mind even when your business is suffering?

Admit defeat

When things start to go pear-shaped, it's easy to hum loudly and hope the problem goes away. And denial may not come just from you. Wendy Tan White, CEO of website builder Moonfruit and seasoned crisis survivor, says that in the run-up to the original dotcom crash her business model clearly wasn't working, yet her investors put her under pressure not to change tack. The sooner you react to what's happening, the easier it is to work on a solution.

Look after number one

By its very nature, a crisis causes panic, so the first challenge is to think clearly. Often, your instinct is to keep pushing until you find a solution, but the best course might be to remove yourself from the situation - even if that means just taking a walk around the block. As the person in charge, says Tan White, it's important to look after yourself. 'Put your own lifejacket on first, keep your head clear, then you can look after everyone else. There's no honour in going down with a sinking ship.'

Phone a friend

When your livelihood is under threat, it's hard to look at a crisis objectively. If you're emotionally invested in something, it is difficult to set your feelings aside. If you find yourself at a loss for ideas, call for outside help: a friend, mentor or coach - one whose judgement you trust and who might have experienced a similar situation and can calmly talk you through your options.

Plan ahead

When you're up against it and your team is thinking with all the rationality of a cornered animal, this is easier said than done. Even in mid-crisis, though, planning is essential. Anthony Holmes says: 'You will need a well-thought-out plan B. It might not be as good as plan A, but if plan A isn't working, move on immediately. And the moment you do that, go away and work out plan C.' Jenny Irvine, chief executive of the Pure Package, adds that planning for the worst-case scenario often covers all eventualities. She had planned for her business to be 'burnt to the ground', she recalls, so when some laptops were stolen, it didn't present a problem.


When your business runs into trouble, don't beat about the bush, because once the rumours start, they will serve only to erode your employees' morale. The more open you are with your staff about what is going on, the better they will respond and the more empowered they will feel. Try to keep staff informed in advance about what their roles will be when a crisis hits. 'It is about knowing who is in charge,' says Irvine. 'People need to know whose job it is to step up and find solutions.'

Look for opportunities

They say every cloud has a silver lining - which is worth keeping in mind as 2012 shapes up to be ever-more financially taxing for businesses. But as your competitors slash their costs, keep your eye on the future and don't stop innovating. During the previous recession, many businesses dutifully battened down the hatches, only to find that when things improved, their competitors had outmanoeuvred them. One company's crisis can be another's golden opportunity.

Don't live in the past

The most important thing to remember is that you cannot turn back the clock. A genuine crisis isn't a temporary blip - it will change your business forever. As Holmes explains: 'You can't drive a car forward looking through the rear-view mirror.'

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