Leadership Lessons Learned During Crisis


This weekend we graduated another class of future leaders!

When I think about 22, I don't have to go back too far.  I'm 38, but with this crazy thing called the Internet revolution and the “Rise of the Female” sandwiched in between, I sometimes feel 60.  

So I’m not old enough to say this, but the world has changed tremendously.  We’ve shifted from an industrial way of life to an intellectual interconnected society where change, ambiguity, volatility and crisis are the new normal.

It's fitting my one piece of advice I offer 2014 graduates (and anyone looking for a job) today is...

Never Waste a Good Crisis

I’ve had an amazing career and life because of crisis.  Crisis is the heart of transformation and usually produces change. I’m not suggesting you create one,  but you need seek opportunity—not security.

It takes time to live through a few and come to see the gifts a crisis gives.

Crisis #1: My First Layoff

After a year into my first job, I got called into my supervisor’s office. One by one we were all informed that we were being “let go”.   I got a box and 10 minutes to pack. And since no one was left around, HR hired some security officers to escort us out.  I was humiliated and didn't want to call home to break the news. I worked extra hard and that didn’t seem to amount to anything. And in my mind, those “slackers” got to keep their jobs while I had to look for a new one. It just didn’t seem fair.

The company ultimately shut its doors after a series of fraud investigations and leadership changes.

The Learning: A layoff generally is more about a failing business in a down market or bad leadershipthan it is about you.  Don't take it personally.  Smile and thank them for the experience.   I committed that day I would build a strong network.  You have to always be building your village.  So, I took my box and began to fill it with business cards. (Back then we didn’t have LinkedIn!)

And speaking of boxes, I got a few in those early years….

enron_chartCrisis #2: Y2K and Enron

Y2K was an uneventful yet profitable crisis for my career. People feared every computer would crash and cripple business. Except…it never happened but we all enjoyed the work it produced.

They say everything is bigger in Texas. They were right!

Just as Y2K work was winding down, I got a call to move to Houston to join Enron. ‘We want and need your brilliance’ they said. “How’s $75,000, a bonus and a manager title sound?”

I packed my bags immediately and went “down the bayou”. A few months later,  I got sick with cancer.  That same year 911 rocked the planet and Enron imploded. It was a tough year. And while everyone (and I mean everyone) was looking for a job, I remained brave.

The Learning:  When it looks and sounds good too good to be true, it probably is. And when the world truly is falling apart around you, be brave and surround yourself and lean-in to that village you've been building.

Crisis #3: The First (and only) Time I Got Fired

Youre_firedA private firm recruited me to help transform their dinosaur-dated supply chain. I took a pay cut thinking it would be a good opportunity to learn.  I was unexpectedly pulled in to receive a performance warning. There were no specifics except the letter stated I had 90 days to improve or I’d be ‘terminated.’

90 days later to the date I was escorted to the door.  I later discovered my exit was purely political.

The Learning:  As you rise, it becomes less about your competence and everything to do with how you navigate the field, get to know the right coaches, create fans, and play the game.  I called my Dad sobbing.  He grinned and told me I had now earned the right to put “seasoned professional” on my CV. So, I did!

Choosing Crisis

Layoffs, my Donald Trump moment, and falling ill before 30 taught me a lot about the opportunities you gain through crisis.  I had plenty of failed relationships (yes I date plenty of the wrong guys and hung out with women who I should have divorced years ago) and experiences in my 20s.  This "drama" all created opportunities for me to learn, grow, share, and prosper.

My recent crisis is one I intentionally chose. In April 2010 an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon rig killing 11 people and injuring others. As a Louisiana native and leader in improving safety and environmental performance, I felt compelled to do something to help.

helloverheavenCrisis #4: Jumping Ship 

I decided to jump from a very comfortable career track at Shell to help BP, shortly after becoming a new mom.  (Yes, ladies, it was a little crazy!)   For the first time, I meaningfully moved my own cheese. BP represented the perfect opportunity to leverage my experience and lead with purpose. I wanted to help my neighbors, industry and the world make sense of it, move through it, and improve.

Oh there were days I wondered why I chose hell over heaven.

While at BP I discovered more in myself than if I hadn’t leaped. I learned from talented people...executives, engineers, ex-military leaders and a former US astronaut. And, we moved the needle amidst ongoing divestments, organizational restructuring, litigation and scrutiny.

The Learning:  It’s easy to lead when things are going well. But no one signs up for the hard stuff. No one wants to make unpopular decisions. When I left to go to BP, I was branded “crazy” and even called a “traitor”.  But I took many friendships with me and my mentors never left my side.  If anything, they were there to listen.  This experience has made me who I am now: pre-retired at 38 crisis-hunting!

The good news?

This new world is full of crisis (opportunity)! And yes, the market is tough. It’s transforming and we are in the thick of some interesting and amazing times.  Today's market is for the committed, the brave, and the savvy.  It's for the ‘crazy’ ones who never, ever waste a good crisis.

My hats off to the class of 2014 and to everyone in transition, whether you're 22, 42 or 62!  

May you find the fortune of crisis.

This post is a part of LinkedIn Pulse #ifIWere22 series. 

Related Posts