Cervus’ Chris Mumford: Leading through crisis, inspiration from Churchill

Worldwide: Cervus Leadership Consulting founder Chris Mumford explores how businesses can take inspiration from the leadership of the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to guide them through times of crisis such as these.

In times of trouble people instinctively look to their elders to guide them, to console them, and to offer hope.

A child looks to its parent, a team looks to its captain, a nation looks to its senior figures of state, and a workforce looks to its boss. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill embraced this role on behalf of the people of Great Britain and its empire,  providing leadership during their time of need. Similarly, CEOs, managing directors and general managers of hospitality businesses in the current coronavirus crisis find their leadership credentials being tested as never before.

One of the key criteria for successful leadership is strong communication. The past few weeks, as the crisis has evolved rapidly by the day, have demonstrated the need for leaders to be in regular contact with employees, to message empathy and comfort, to provide hope and inspiration, as well as to have to pass on bad news.

Churchill’s arrival into power as Prime Minister in May 1940 with Britain very much on the back foot in the war provides some useful lessons for leaders in the current climate.

Move fast – When crisis hits, leaders need to get out early in front of their people. Especially in today’s environment where news travels fast, the sooner a leader can deliver a clear message the lower the risk of misinformation. Employees worrying among themselves in the absence of clear communication from above can have its own natural negative influence on performance.

  • Churchill: Three days after forming his cabinet, with France only days from falling and the very real threat of a German invasion of England growing ever stronger, Churchill delivered his inaugural address as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on 13 May 1940 in a manner which set the tone for the rest of his wartime leadership. The following extracts are taken from that speech.

Tip: Avoid a knee jerk reaction piece of communication but don’t prevaricate and risk being left behind by the news and social media. Make sure your employees hear about any significant company related news from you first, not third hand from elsewhere.

Tell it like it is – there is absolutely no value in being disingenuous with people in times of hardship. People will respect those leaders who tell them how bad the situation is, no sugar coating. Acknowledge things for how they are.

  • Churchill: “We are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history . . .We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.”

Tip: If hotels are closing, jobs are being lost, pay is being cut, there is no business on the books, acknowledge those hard truths and explain the situation for what it is.

Not normal times – If the communication is not as polished as per usual corporate standards due to time, cost, resource constraints then recognise that and speak to it rather than pretending it’s normal. The audience will understand that there are more pressing matters at hand.

  • Churchill: “I hope that any of my friend and colleagues. . . will make allowance for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act.”

Tip: If recording a video message to your staff standing in the middle of your kitchen or garden explain why, make a joke out of it, don’t try to professionalise a non-professional environment.

Be human – One defining characteristic of this crisis is its indiscriminatory nature. No one is immune, we are all at risk. Politicians and royalty have Covid-19. This virus has no regard for how much money someone has, what colour someone’s skin is, nor what gender they are. CEOs are human like the rest of us and are as susceptible as everyone else to the physical and mental risks. Those leaders who connect best to their employees are those that acknowledge this, that show their vulnerability and who speak from the same base human level.

  • Churchill: “I would say to the House: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Tip: Watch Marriott’s Arne Sorenson employee video message which he began by addressing the elephant in the room, namely his bald head as a result of chemotherapy. This immediately put his comms on the level of one human speaking to another. None of us is a superhero.

Talk action – Once a leader has laid out how bad things look, it is critical that they then move into discussing action. This brings energy and dynamism to the communication even if the specifics are unclear. Employees don’t need to know the intricacies of how it is happening but they want to hear that their leaders are moving the ball down the field. This gives purpose and keeps the workforce engaged.

  • Churchill: “What is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might.”

Tip: State whatever the company is doing whether that is furloughing employees, reducing corporate payroll, closing properties, operating with only volunteer employees etc. Explain the hard steps being taken in order to ensure survival so that everyone may benefit in the future.

Offer hope – Perhaps most important of all, a leader must present a glimpse of what the other side of the crisis looks like. They should confidently deliver the message that things will, at some point, improve and that life will be brighter.

  • Churchill: “What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs. . .But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.”

Tip: Reassure the audience that the current pain will pass and talk about the day when hotels will once again reopen, people will travel, meetings will happen and restaurants will be bursting. Remind employees how great a business they are a part of.

Togetherness – Finally, a leader needs to reinforce the message that they and their employees are all in the crisis together. There is no place for a ‘them and us’ culture. Only by pulling together will such a seemingly unsurmountable obstacle be overcome.

  • Churchill: “Come, then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Tip: drive home the values of the business, the need for collaboration, compassion and solidarity. Respect also the needs of the individual, especially in a health crisis such as this one. As a leader let it be known that the welfare of your employees is paramount. Watch Sebastien Bazin’s employee video message in which he talks about the need to care for oneself, for one’s family, and then for Accor.

Churchill was by no means perfect but he is nonetheless often hailed as one of the greatest leaders of the modern age. In a time of national and global crisis he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Cliched as it may be, parallels are being drawn between humanity’s current battle against Covid-19 and engagement in global warfare. As such, leaders in hospitality may do well to seek inspiration from the ultimate British Bulldog.

Mumford is an advisor to the global hospitality sector in the areas of leadership and talent. The founder of Cervus Leadership Consulting, he provides services in executive search, compensation consulting, organisational structuring, succession planning and management due diligence. He works on behalf of operators, developers and investors in the hotel, casino, restaurant, branded residential, and operational real estate sectors and is active throughout EMEA, Asia and North America.

Mumford was previously a founding partner of AETHOS Consulting Group following 11 years running the EMEA executive search practice at HVS.