Never Waste a Good Crisis

Never Waste a Good Crisis:
The Golden Opportunity for the C-Suite to drive for a New and Better Future

By Dr Darryl Cross
(Crossways Consulting)
Stephen Dowling

It was Sir Winston Churchill who said, “Never waste a good crisis”. Nothing was more true than in these unheralded times. What have we learned? What have we unlearned? What have we re-learnt? Where can we grow? How or what can we develop? What do we take from all of this?

Apparently, the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one signifying “danger” and the other “opportunity”. As we well know too, there are two sides to every coin, so what is the flip side for this pandemic called COVID-19? What is the opportunity?

Throughout history, awful events have contributed to real transformations. For example, the bubonic plague of the 1300s led to the modern employment contract. Cholera epidemics of the mid-1800s provided us with urban parks, gardens and open spaces along with improved infrastructure. With the 1918 Spanish Flu, there was a revolution in healthcare.

This global pandemic has already had a massive impact on the world economy and the full ramifications of which are still to be fully understood. What will be the long-term impacts? What will the new normal look like? What will be next? Are we now living in a world which will keep throwing up new unpredictable “black swan” events?

These events fundamentally change reality, and, what has worked in the past may no longer work in the future. Knowledge & skills can become obsolete overnight, and to ensure one stays relevant we need to be open & willing to unlearn the past.

Can & should we use this as an opportunity, a catalyst to continue to disrupt ourselves, and our organisations, so we can drive towards a better future?

Disruption does not apply to organisations.
The truth is it applies to individuals.
Barry O’Reilly

What’s the Immediate Lessons to be Learned by CEOs?

It was a stop and prop that no-one saw coming. We all stopped. Businesses stopped, jobs stopped, social engagement stopped, churches and conferences stopped, gyms and exercise stopped, sports and recreation stopped.

Never before in our lifetime have we ever had a full-stop like now. And we’re all in it together. Not just one country, or one state, or one locality. All of us. The whole planet.

What have we recognised first up?

  1. Our mental model (beliefs) have changed.

As a result of COVID, our mental model (& core beliefs) about the world have been fundamentally challenged and they will have been changed. We have unlearned some beliefs and relearned some new ones. Not having a choice in the matter has of course helped speed this transition, but the big part is that we’ve done it, and proven to ourselves that we can, in fact, do it when we have too.

It’s simple to see in the work-from-home or remote working. It’s taken over a decade for most leaders to accept that it might actually be a workable solution and previously, some have allowed their staff to work from home for, say, a half-day or even a day a week.

Then Bam!

Everyone has to work from home.  Believe it or not, the world kept spinning and employees kept working, and from most reports, employees are more productive and happier not to mention less traffic on the roads and less wasted time getting to and from work.

What other beliefs are we holding onto? What other areas do we need to examine? What other blind-spots do we have?

  1. We have all adapted quickly.

Change for most of us is slow. We are creatures of habit. However, not so with the pandemic. For example, we have been able to adapt with two years of digital transformation in just 2.5 months. We suddenly embraced software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams and the like. Leaders are recognising that these video conferences actually do work and that maybe we really don’t have to spend time waiting in airports and catching planes spending valuable dollars on travel and accommodation.

“We saw 2 years of digital transformation in 2 months”
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO;  30th April 2020

One South Australian food packaging company called Detmold for example, turned to making Personal Protective Equipment with face masks for front-line workers. Apparently, Dyson (the vacuum cleaner and appliance manufacturer) set about making respirators for ICU departments in hospitals.

The message is clear. We can adapt and quickly if necessary.

Where Are We Now?

  1. Things were already broken.

Many C-Suite would not always agree that things were broken. But think about it. Consider for example, the lack of work-life balance that is not sustainable and the low levels of staff engagement across various industries and sectors.

Firstly, the evidence of a broken system is the increasing levels of stress and burnout. Most organisations were struggling to cope prior to COVID, but now it’s getting worse.

The previous VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) was playing with our minds and causing us stress, anxiety and pressure with a lack of work-life balance for many.  The stress and burnout had become overwhelming for many.

What’s interesting too is that given we have all had to stop, many are now enjoying the return to a slower life and a life where it is not so fast-paced and where they have time to re-connect with their families and their children.

Secondly, there are poor levels of staff engagement across the global economy. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace, only 15% of employees are engaged in the workplace. What does that do to the bottom line?

Employees are now able to view a company’s culture through social media where businesses are more transparent than ever before. Not surprisingly, employees are voting with their feet to work for businesses where they feel engaged and empowered. How big an issue is this for organisations? Will you be able to attract and retain bright, creative and capable people?

And whether we like it or not, the world will continue to change at an increasing rate. Remedy?  We need to find a better way. It was not sustainable the way it was.

  1. It is clear that the top roles in any company or organisation outdistance the capabilities of any single person.

Part of the dilemma of the outdated command and control kind of leadership that we have all known, is that in a VUCA World, no-one individual can do it all. No one leader can now be across it all.

As Manfred Kets De Vries states, “In our global highly complex world, the heroic leadership figure has increasingly become a relic”.

An underlying assumption of the traditional top-down hierarchical model is that the further up the hierarchy an individual goes, the more they know, the more that they can make the best decisions in the interest of the organisation. How can this remain valid now in our rapidly changing and complex world?  It is no longer valid. It’s a myth.

It is little wonder therefore that a growing number of executive leaders are either declining the top job or choosing to opt out.

  1. The traditional command and control model of management is no longer relevant.

The world has fundamentally changed, yet we are still (by and large) using an outdated management model based on the thinking, principles & processes from the 19th & 20th century. This model is characterised by adopting a “top down” functional hierarchy based on a specific “command and control” way of operating at its core.

Would you believe the military actually abandoned “command & control” after the Napoleonic wars realising how ineffective it was in a fast-changing dynamic environment, but yet it’s still seen by the majority of CEO’s as normal and accepted best practice today.

Most organisations are trying to have a foot in the 19th and 20th Century camp while trying to cope with the 21st Century (see the Table below).

The big problem is, these distinct models will never work well together. They are fundamentally very different ways of thinking, working & leading.

Answers to these questions are very different under both approaches. How should we best organise ourselves? How should we assign & fund work? How should we control & manage work? What is the role of leaders & managers? The answers to these questions are very different and they will have very big ramifications within organisations.

If the CEO still has a mental model based on a top down hierarchical traditional “command & control” approach, then he or she could be the company’s biggest obstacle.

As a CEO, it is important to accept that the reality has fundamentally changed and the traditional management approach is no longer “fit for purpose”, and major systemic changes will be needed if they want to evolve to a 21st century approach.  If, as a CEO, he or she is currently on the left had side of the Table above, then this transformation journey will need to start with them! As the most senior leader in any organisation, it is critical to get onto the right page. Unlearning the old and relearning the new.

Where Do We Want to Get to?

As the great W.S. Deming once pointed out, “mankind invented management, so we can re-invent it”.

Here are two inspiring examples of people who are doing just that:

John Seddon from the United Kingdom is a thought leader in relation to leadership. His thesis for this new age stacks up. He has re-defined the work of leadership and argues that we need a transition from “command and control” to “motivate and mentor”. He this process the Vanguard Method. What does this mean? Now that leaders are in uncharted waters like never before, they have an opportunity to re-build alignment and commitment from their people by dispensing with the traditional tools of bureaucratic control. Instead, he proposes focusing on the system itself.

For example, the Vanguard Method was implemented by Owen Buckwell, the Head of Housing at Portsmouth City Council in England. Over 40,000 people rely on him for warm, safe and comfortable homes. Each year, he is responsible for dealing with 17,000 blocked toilets and 100,000 dripping taps in 17,000 council homes. Buckwell got curious about how his customers could be more satisfied, and instead of focusing on managing people and budgets, he focused on the design and management of work.

In this way, he listened intently to phone calls from complaining customers over an extended period of time. He learnt that at least 60% of the complaints were preventable. Hence, Buckwell went about designing a new work system that gave value to the customers (not value to his record-keeping, data and statistics around which the previous system was designed). Buckwell rearranged the work system in order “to carry out the right repair at the right time” for the tenant, not to try and receive favourable reports from the Government.

The result? Interestingly, not only do repairs now get done on the day and the time when the customers want, but Buckwell also halved his costs. Further, this all meant that he was able to change his supply chain and carry 25% less stock.

Zhang Rummin, CEO of Haier took over the struggling company in 1984. Haier is a whitegoods appliance maker based in Qindao, China, and is currently the world’s largest appliance maker with a turnover of (US) $35 billion with 75,000 employees. It wasn’t always so. The trigger to the turn-around was not a pandemic, but the fact that the company was making poor and inferior products. Rumour has it that in the beginning, Rummin lined up scores of appliances in a row and in front of all the staff got employees to smash up these appliances with sledge hammers; the point was that that was all that these appliances were good for and that things were about to change.

Now the company has about 4,000 self-managing microenterprises. About 250 are market facing (“users”) and the rest (“nodes”) supply them with components and services like IT and HR support. Users can hire or fire nodes or even contract with outside providers if they deem that IT and HR for instance are not providing adequate services. The Nodes revenues are tied to their Users/ success.

Ultimately, everyone is accountable to the company’s customers. Everyone is encouraged to be an entrepreneur. All targets are ambitious, and rewards are tiered, performance based and potentially hefty.

The result? For the last decade, the gross profits of Haier’s core appliance business have grown by 23% a year while revenue growth has increased 18% yearly and there has been $2 billion in market value from new ventures.

We see these as two foremost examples of people who are re-inventing management and finding a better way.

How Will We Get There?

We are very aware of the massive challenges that exist here. On the face of it, the task at hand appears very overwhelming, maybe even an impossibly.

So, where do we start? We start by getting the foundations right.

In his book “The One Thing“, Gary Keller says that success at anything is all about lining up a series of dominos.

We need to start by figuring out what are the first most important dominos that we need to focus on. At any point in time, you should be able to identify ‘1’ thing which is most important at that exact moment in time. What are the starting foundations which everything else will build on? What will make everything else easier down the track? What will help us build momentum? Identifying these is of course, the big challenge.

To learn a fundamentally new way, we need to first be open and willing to “unlearn” the past, otherwise it will never work. You will just end up trying to map new thinking onto your old mental model which will never gel.

We all act based on our mental model of the world. What do we believe is true? What do we believe is the best way to get stuff done? How do we best achieve our outcomes?

The world as we have created it, is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
Albert Einstein

Before we can learn a new way, we need to unlearn the old. This is the very big challenge as it’s not something which is typically easy to do. We each need to find our own path up the mountain and the journey is everything.

To be able to change your mental model you need to see & experience things for yourself.

However, as we’ve said earlier, the great news is we’ve proven to ourselves with COVID that we can do it. We can change our mindset (beliefs) & behaviours. Not having a choice did of course make it a bit easier than normal, but let’s see this as the great opportunity that it is and build on this for the future.

What Will Stop Us?

Even though all the rules have now been broken and there is a grand opportunity to create a new way of operating, the majority of leaders will fail themselves and their businesses by retreating back to what they knew in the past.

1. Overcoming Fear

Like a rubber band that is stretched, leaders will ping back into their original shape. Why so? Fear.

Fear that they will somehow lose control if they don’t do as they’ve always done. Fear of looking stupid or ignorant or less knowledgeable if they try things differently. Fear of looking vulnerable. Fear of riding on uncharted waters where they might be out of their depth.

“What if I muck up?” “They all look to me as their leader, so I have to look like I’m in control.” “What if it didn’t work out?” “I don’t know where to start.” “I’m stuck.”

As one book title aptly says, “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

2. Overcoming Learning Blocks

It was back in 1991 when Chris Argyris stated in his Harvard Business Review article that, “Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure”. True words decades later.

It is a truism too that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. Sadly though, the C-Suite will generally do all they can to continue to look good, look like they are in control rather than being vulnerable and acknowledging to themselves and those around them that in these unheralded times, it is about experimentation, trial and error and trying things differently. This kind of transparency and honesty is real leadership which is endearing to followers.

The basis of success for the C-Suite is usually about clear vision and goals, time-lines set in place, experience-based judgement, the ability to convert data into useful patterns and themes in order to make decisions, but in a pandemic, this evaporates overnight. Then what?

Things are now happening so quickly that time-lines become redundant and the ground is constantly moving which means executives either become paralysed or scramble frenetically to try to re-plan. Hence, time-tested approaches involving careful analysis and consensus building are no longer relevant.

Leaders with a healthy ego, and a sense of who they are, will not balk at trying something different now. Level 5 leaders (see “Good to Great” by Jim Collins) won’t retreat from experimenting and seeing how they can dispense with the traditional management methods in order to adopt new and better ways of thinking, working and leading.

To be a great leader now and into the future, the most important attribute we believe is courage. To be able to break free of the old outdated traditional models will be exceptionally challenging and brave leaders are needed to lead organisations on this path.

Courage is the first of human qualities because
it is the quality which guarantees the others.


If ever there was an opportunity for leaders to try something different, this is it. This is the moment. We wouldn’t have wished this pandemic on anyone, but now that it is here, it provides the perfect springboard for leadership to be brave enough to try a new way.

As a result of COVID-19, all leaders have had to adapt. Limiting beliefs have been smashed and we need to use this as an opportunity to challenge many more beliefs which underpin our existing “command & control” management model.

Mankind invented this model of management so we can re-invent it. The current model was created for a very different time (a world of mass production, economies of scale, & standardised products), and it’s “used by date” has well and truly passed.

Sadly, it is our prediction that most leaders won’t be courageous enough, but those who do, will thank themselves, their businesses will thank them and their stakeholders will also thank them.  The future for all involved will be brighter and sustainable beyond this crisis.

So, if you are up for the challenge let’s focus on knocking over these dominos one at a time.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Chinese Proverb


Giving Negative Feedback: The stressor for managers and leaders

What Commonly Happens

In the coaching work that I do, it is certainly true to say that almost all leaders and managers who I encounter want to create a positive culture for their staff. They want a good team environment.

However, it is also true that the one thing that seems to get in the road and causes leaders and managers the most stress is when they need to have crucial or challenging conversation with their staff where it is important to provide negative or corrective feedback or where there are disagreements or perhaps problems that need to be addressed.

Typically, I find that most leaders simply “hope” that the problem will go away and will privately confide to me that this is certainly what they trust might happen. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Instead, the problem or issue only gets worse and magnifies over time which has the impact of eroding a positive culture, creating poor morale as well as affecting the reputation of the leader concerned and perhaps also reducing productivity and efficiency.

I’m also acutely aware that most leaders and managers will say to me that they do not know how to start the crucial conversation before launching into delivering any negative feedback. Again, there is a tendency for leaders to tiptoe around the issue and talk about the latest football results, or the weather, or some other current topic. Instead of delivering the feedback or pointing out someone’s shortcomings or perhaps identifying poor behaviour, managers typically soft-pedal around the issue essentially trying to avoid offending the staff member. This only serves to undermine the trust in the relationship as well as undermine the leader’s reputation for being genuine and authentic.

Not only do they not want to offend people and their team, but at a dynamic level, there is also the sense that they want everyone to like them and everyone to think that they are a good leader. Leadership is not about winning a popularity contest.

Ironically however, failing to provide effective feedback and skirting around issues only means that others (including the so-called offender), see the leader as incompetent or weak and not particularly effective.

Anecdotally, I have also had leaders tell me that as a way of trying to remedy the problem they perhaps thought it would be okay to provide hints to the individual staff member without actually addressing the issue. Otherwise, they may refer the matter to Human Resources to deal with, or they may refer the matter to the Employee Assistance Program.

The Remedy

So how do you communicate in a straightforward genuine manner without creating defensiveness or hostility from the staff member? How can you discuss with the staff member in such a way that you do not intentionally offend them? Professor Kim Cameron in his 2013 book titled, “Practicing Positive Leadership” provided an important distinction.

One of the most important attributes of supportive communication is the ability to be descriptive rather than evaluative in the delivery of the message.

In other words, evaluative communication makes a judgement, provides an opinion, or places a label on individuals or their behaviour. For example, comments such as, “You did it all wrong” or “It’s your fault” or “You are ineffective” are all evaluative in style. They do not suspend judgement. They are generally critical and fault finding.

Needless to say, individuals who receive such evaluative statements generally feel attacked and tend to retreat and become defensive or occasionally aggressive or hostile. Naturally enough, they push back and defend themselves by proclaiming that they are not wrong or it was not their fault or that they are very capable as individuals.

In contrast, descriptive comments are more objective in kind and allow the leader to be more congruent and authentic in the delivery of the message. Descriptive communication involves three steps:

  1. Describe the event, behaviour, or circumstance objectively,
  2. Describe outcomes and/or feelings and not the other person’s attributes,
  3. Suggest alternative solutions that could resolve the issue.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Firstly, describe objectively your observation of the event that occurred or the behaviour that you consider needs to be modified. It is important that this description should identify elements of the behaviour that can be confirmed objectively. In other words, you need to be able to see or hear the behaviour. For example, “You have been 15 to 20 minutes late for work each day this week” or “Your report missed the deadline”.

Secondly, describe the reactions of yourself or others to the behaviour and describe the consequences of the behaviour. For example, “When you are late to work, it disappoints me that you are not adhering to the team’s guidelines and it sends a message to the rest of the team that a lack of punctuality is tolerated and it’s probably fair to say, that it’s not fair on the rest of the team either who do arrive on time or are early to work” or “Missing the deadline, means that others in your team are now penalised and need to work back in order to compile the data necessary and that certainly is not good for team morale or for effective teams”.

Thirdly, suggest a more acceptable alternative or solution unless of course, the staff member can come up with a better solution. This kind of discussion focuses on possible solutions and not on the person and as such, avoids accusations. It also helps the other person save face and avoid feeling personally criticised because the behaviour is not attached to their self-esteem. The discussion preserves self-esteem because it focuses on something that is controllable and upon which both the leader and the staff member can possibly agree. Therefore, the emphasis is on finding a solution that is acceptable to both people rather than figuring out who is right and who is wrong and who should change and who should not.


In short, the three steps of descriptive communication are as follows:

  1. Here it is what I just experienced, saw or heard;
  2. Here is how I feel about it, how others feel about it, and here are the consequences or the impact;
  3. Here is an alternative solution that might be more acceptable.

Further Tips

A really good rule of thumb in this area of crucial conversations is to avoid using the word “you” in providing feedback. “You” only serves to target people who then become defensive and naturally want to push back or defend their cause. Instead, using “I” as much as possible is important. As outlined above, the leader targets the behaviour, the event, the consequences and the standard that has not been met as well as focusing on possible solutions.

However, it also really important to state that once a descriptive communication has been delivered that it is important for the leader to stop and listen intently to what the staff member has to say. If the leader is not able to effectively listen, then the communication exercise for crucial conversations will be greatly diminished. Effective listening is not something that leaders typically do well. This is one of the reasons why I authored the book, “Listen Up Now” ( for business leaders.

Because leaders are often stuck about how to begin such a conversation, there are a number of ways by which the leader can introduce the crucial conversation including the following:

  • “I’m hesitant about raising this issue because I don’t want it to be blown out of proportion or be misrepresented in any way”
  • “I’d like to talk to you about something – will this time work?”
  • Can I give you some feedback?”

Once the leader has delivered the descriptive communication, then the way of ending the three-step delivery is to finish with something like:

  • “What I’d like now is [state the solution], but maybe there is something I haven’t thought of or I’ve missed”
  • “Next time, I’d like to see this happen…”
  • “What thoughts do you have now on how this might be resolved?”
  • “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
  • “Instead, can you do…”

Leaders need to become proficient in knowing how to have crucial conversations according to the formula and recipe listed above.

Honest communication and feedback is one of the hallmarks of not only effective leadership, but of creating a positive culture where people trust each other to be able to give and receive appropriate feedback.

Yes it takes courage, but the more times a leader becomes practised in these crucial conversations the more effective will be their team, the better the team moral and the more enhanced the leader’s standing.


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach along with being an accredited family business advisor. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people and leaders to find their strengths and reach their goals as well as grow their businesses, become more productive and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]

Leadership – What Is It Really?

It’s easy to recognize the need for real leadership in today’s world.  Just glance the headlines in any newspaper and you will notice that the quality of leadership is the first thing questioned whenever something goes awry in society, the world of business or government.

Even in the world of sports, it’s often not the play of the athletes; but instead, the leadership that falls under the heaviest scrutiny if a team doesn’t play well.  In most cases, the coaching staff will be dismantled as a sign that change is being implemented, before roster changes are made.

Change the leadership and perhaps players will play to their expectations because the culture and environment have changed.

An explorer is only as good as the map that navigates them.  A child has a better chance of succeeding in life with good teachers and role models providing them solid direction.  A building doesn’t get built without an architect drawing up specs to relay vision and direction to the builders.

And many people, regardless of individual skills or intelligence, can only come together as a team or perform to their highest ability when quality leadership is present.

So, what exactly makes a good leader? […]

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Leaders with whom I have worked closely and admire, leaders who are people of integrity, are well-liked and respected and yet somehow, they make poor decisions, miss vital information, get the dynamics wrong and miss opportunities. Why? What goes wrong? […]