Leadership through Crisis

This article is an extract of the conversation that I had with Karin Wierinck, who is a global HR business leader with close to 30 years of experience in HR. She is a renowned expert in people and organization matters including successful reorganizations, talent management, capability building and business or HR transformation. Having worked with countries such as Brazil, India, Iran, Turkey, Russia, China, in Europe and the USA she is keenly familiar with crisis management and the challenges and opportunities of remote working.

It was a pleasure to have her talk to our live audience in a session about Leadership in Crisis and Managing Work Remotely. 


Karin, I see you have a lot of experience leading through crisis. Can you please share a couple of personal stories about leading through crises?

Karin: As you already said I have close to 30 years in the field of HR. One story dates back to 1996 and the Upjohn company had just merged with Pharmacia. As a result, the international operations in Belgium were closing down and moving to Milano. I had to let go of many talented employees, and some were being asked to relocate. I was late twenties and one of the people impacted was ‘Mark’. Mark was in his late fifties and he was offered either termination or an early retirement package. He was not offered relocation to Italy. I had studied the package options and thought both were absolutely great! What I had not anticipated was that Mark would react very emotionally and totally unhappy, disgruntled. Mark wanted to receive also a relocation offer. He may not have actually relocated but the relocation offer for him was ‘proof’ of his value to the company. I learned a valuable lesson of EMPATHY that is also very relevant in these corona times. Don’t assume. Don’t project or enforce your views. Ask questions. Be human. And walk in the shoes of the other person. Anticipate the other person’s feelings, emotion and pain.  

My second story is a more recent one. I had just taken on a new role in an organization in ‘depression’ that had undergone significant and repeated downsizing and cost savings and was feeling let down by senior management. Trust was at an all-time low. I entered with my usual mindset of wanting to assess the situation and look for opportunities to fix or solve. That also entails looking for improvement and in my normal transparent way of operating, I gave lots of constructive feedback. The challenge with this approach is that I entered the organization and trust was non-existent. I, as a senior management representative – was looked at suspiciously and if I came with a hidden agenda. I learned the importance of building trust fast and that generosity and not judging or not appear to be judging are critical to BUILD TRUST FAST. Encouragement, praise and recognition, as well as only listening and asking lots of questions would have taken me much further faster.


Tell us Karin, how can we apply the lessons from these stories to what we are experiencing right now, as we go through the COVID lockdown and the subsequent crisis?

Karin: My 2 keywords from the stories are empathy and trust.

It is always important to build trust “fast” whether it is in person or virtually and whatever the circumstance. When struggling with a situation, I like to find frameworks that’ll help me get back on track at the earliest. I have done a fair amount of research on the topic of trust and here’s a framework that I like a lot and would like to share:

Build trust by BRAVING: it’s an acronym. B for setting boundaries. Even while being generous, not everything is allowed. Set boundaries, what are the ‘no-gos’? R for Reliability. Keep your promises. A stands for Accountability. You assume accountability and hold the other accountable as well. V stands for VAULT, because you will keep things that are shared in confidence in the vault, i.e., confidentially. I stands for Integrity. N for non-judging and G for generosity. You already heard me take about these in my stories above.

B oundaries / R eliability / A ccountability / V ault / I ntegrity / N on-judging and G enerosity.


Coming back to empathy that you mentioned before in this conversation. What is that in your personal definition, Karin, and how can one apply that in today’s context?

From my story, I guess one could sense that I associate empathy with walking in the other’s shoes and deeply relating to the other person’s feelings or pain. Empathy these days also means knowing and understanding each other’s circumstances and acting accordingly.

Someone who is single – or someone with a partner and small kids will have different needs today. For e.g., a friend of mine has agreed that her husband will work in the mornings and she will work in the afternoons. That is what they have agreed amongst themselves as a couple and what she has communicated (as her availability) with her manager and her team.

  • AGREEING clearly. Agree on a good time to connect with your team.
  • Stick to the agreements and schedule. Create a regular cadence.
  • When there is so much uncertainty, it pays to have structure and routine – so as not to introduce unnecessary chaos.

You may need to be on the lookout for people feeling more stressed. Talk about these feelings and discuss what you can do support or help.

This support can take different shapes and forms, for instance,

  • Ask what would be most helpful
  • Clarify/readjust goals
  • Don’t aim for perfection, 80% is good enough
  • Offer support from a partner/buddy
  • Discuss the future/vision/purpose in the new context
  • Reduce workload 


How can a manager and leader keep people accountable without micromanaging?

Start with defining what success looks like. At this moment in time, it is worthwhile to stop and assess if what was defined as success a few months ago is still valid. If not, redefine.

I would describe success in terms of what needs to be accomplished. What is the desired outcome? Years ago we introduced 4S to our sales managers as a coaching tool to help the sales reps think through their work. This could be helpful now as well. 4s stands for S = Success, S = situation, S = source / hurdles and S = steps to undertake.

As a manager you help define the desired outcome but you leave a lot of freedom to the individual how they will reach that. You agree on being kept informed of progress – when and how. You touch base if the person needs any support and you help remove hurdles. Recognition and encouragement, praise are greater motivators than constructive criticism.


How can leaders best manage mid-year evaluations remotely?

First and foremost, if you did not look at relavance of previously established goals, then this is something that should be done ASAP.

Today many companies are changing from traditional performance management with predetermined sequences to a more fluid approach of many shorter conversations.

Regardless of the approach you operate with, I would say that it is critical to have:

  • Keep an open mind – to share and compare views and adjust
  • Review the past vs. the future -‘post-mortem approach’ where you evaluate how something went and extract the lessons learned
  • Have transparency and clarity
  • Collect feedback from multiple sources

Good performance management is when you manage to a ‘no-surprises’ situation. You are on the same wavelength. Hopefully, you would have had lots of open conversation in the course of the year, through your 1-1 and informal sessions, with sufficient feedback.


How about hiring/extending team in this period? Is it recommended to do the hiring process remotely? Any tips?

From a financial/economic perspective, it is worthwhile asking if that position is a critical one to fill now. If you decide to proceed, examine if the mandate of the position is still the same. What is the impact this position is to bring? What are the projects and the outcomes to pursue? Has it changed? If so, you need to update the job spec. Also, keep in mind that a job specification is better expressed from an outcome perspective than from a task perspective!

It is very common to do the first rounds of the hiring process virtually. There are many tools – Webex, zoom, even Whatsapp or Facetime that you can deploy when interviewing. I would always opt for having ‘a visual input’.

It was not common – up until now – to complete a hiring process without inviting someone to meet with others at the workplace. So, if you proceed, it would make sense to organize an alternative for this experience: a virtual group meeting.

Once you have completed the hiring process and the candidate has accepted, the next question is whether you should have the person start immediately or later. Many companies do opt for delaying, again driven by economic considerations and because onboarding someone in a completely virtual fashion might be challenging.

If you proceed, then doing an exceptional job at onboarding is important. You may ask all stakeholders to introduce the person to the organization and to share not just about what needs to be accomplished but what the best ways of working are, to also share insights about the company culture, the history, the roots. It would also make a lot of sense to assign an onboarding mentor/buddy.

Here’s some additional reading. Link.


One last question Karin, what’s the most important thing for people to remember from this conversation?

Build Trust fast by BRAVING!

That’s a wrap!I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Karin. If you found this helpful, please share and leave a comment. If you have any questions, you can write to me at hello@meeraremani.com. Thank you!

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