Len Schlesinger

Leading Through Crisis: A Conversation with the Man Who Led Limited Brands’ Response to 9/11

04/14/2020 |

Summary

During the 9/11 attacks, Len Schlesinger, as COO of Limited Brands, led the global retailer through an unprecedented time. Here he shares some of what he learned to help nonprofit leaders work through the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

During a crisis, you won't experience the same political headaches you might otherwise deal with, so lead confidently.

Len Schlesinger, Baker Foundation Professor, Harvard Business School

A Harvard Business School professor and former president of Babson College, Len Schlesinger was the COO of Limited Brands, a global retailer, during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He led Limited Brands’ response to 9/11, which included helping some 160,000 employees worldwide understand the events that were unfolding, while trying to locate 2,000 people who had been traveling across the globe during the attack and 1,600 people working in New York City.

Bridgespan Consultant Rayshawn Whitford recently talked with Schlesinger about leading through crisis, given the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Schlesinger provides his guidance on planning and decision making, execution, course correction, and communication during uncertain times.

Lead with confidence

People are looking for leadership. During a crisis, you won't experience the same political headaches you might otherwise deal with, so lead confidently. Big decisions are going to come your way. What essential services will you maintain? How will you maintain them? In a crisis, it can be a good idea to suspend the distributed decision-making process because it’s too slow. The work needs to be distributed, but decision making does not. It falls to the person in charge.

The best process for making big decisions involves three steps: first, establish criteria for every decision you make. You're going to need these criteria to help you make the right decisions and reassess them as circumstances change. Second, determine the lifespan of each decision and under what circumstances you may need to revisit it. Third, stick to the tried and true. A crisis is no time to engage in large scale experimentation…change is hard even in the best of circumstances. COVID-19 has forced most teams to operate virtually, and many are doing this for the first time. Don’t expect your team’s performance to improve significantly right now; it will be an accomplishment for them to match what they could have done in person.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Then course-correct

Put a hold on everything that is non-essential and re-orient resources to cover the essential work. Only after you’ve done this to your satisfaction should you re-allocate any resources to the non-essential. Reassess timelines for non-essential work as people aren't necessarily going to be as productive during a crisis and the psychological costs of anxiety and fear are too steep. Monitor priorities daily. Health and safety should always be a top priority. At Limited Brands, for example, the top priorities in the direct aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were finding our employees who were abroad and getting them home and ensuring our employees in NYC remained safe. Where prudent, report out on your priorities every day. Monitor your key priorities, and if your data is telling you that you aren't getting the outcomes you would expect, pivot to the answer the data tells you makes the most sense and course-correct.

Reassess timelines for non-essential work as people aren't going to be as productive during a crisis and the psychological costs of anxiety and fear are too steep.

With work life in upheaval closely examine how well you’re covering your bases. Ask yourself “How can we protect revenues? What are the least painful opportunities to manage costs? Am I engaging the heart of our organization, our team and clients, so that everyone feels connected, calm, and confident?”

From a personnel perspective, be sure you have a clear chain of command. In the event a member of your leadership team gets sick, you’ll know who’ll be able to step into the breach. It may be one of their direct reports or another member of the leadership team who has capacity.

Communicate often and with one voice

Leaders must change the message they communicate and the frequency of updates they provide. Along with one decision maker, you need one voice. Make it explicit who your staff will hear from, when they will hear from them, and how they will hear from them. If you can, designate a "press secretary" who can serve as the single point of contact for questions and a single source for all information.

Remind your team that now isn't the time for individuals to shine in communicating their own opinions on the crisis but to shine in executing their jobs.

Daily updates should reiterate what you know, how things have changed, and where staff can share their questions. Quickly connecting with relevant stakeholders before each daily report goes out will give you a good sense of the current concerns you need to address. Your job is to a) determine what information is critical for teams to continue performing at a high level, and b) synthesize the critical points coming from these various sources to share with staff.

Reassure your staff that you know they’re working under difficult circumstances and that, now more than ever, your clients need them. Remind your team that now isn't the time for individuals to shine in communicating their own opinions on the crisis but to shine in executing their jobs.

Your outward, public facing messages should be rather different, focusing on delivering the information clients need to use your services. Make the information easy to find with bold headers and allow your clients to get to it with relatively few clicks. Messages must be clear and simple, with emphasis on what the change is, how to get the service they need, and whom to reach out to.

Be the calm

One of the critical elements of leadership during a crisis is to alleviate fear. During this COVID-19 crisis, people will be worried about remaining healthy, remaining employed, and getting paid time off if they get sick. While your job is to understand the worst-case scenario, there’s nothing to be gained by asking your employees to digest things like hiring freezes, layoffs, and economic downturns. Let them focus on their health and doing their jobs under difficult circumstances.

There’s no overstating just how important it is to let your folks know you care about their well-being and the purpose of their work.

One of your responsibilities as a leader is to protect your people. Yes, you may have to make hard decisions such as layoffs, and if that occurs communicate quickly and clearly to your staff. Deliver the hard news and call it like it is, while ensuring focus remains on your mission. Making these difficult choices allows your organization to continue supporting your clients.

There’s no overstating just how important it is to let your folks know you care about their well-being and the purpose of their work. At Limited Brands, we shut down all of Limited's stores during the first big 9/11 memorial ceremony so that people could attend or tune in. It reminded us all what mattered.

Finally, leaders are sometimes called on to model the way. Very recently, Harvard's President, Larry Bacow, announced he had the virus. When asked what he was going to do to lead Harvard during this time, he said, “I've got a great team in place. I'm confident in them. My wife and I are going to take time to rest and recover right now so that I can come back and give everything I can to getting us through this. But I can't do that if I'm not healthy.” At times, following the rules is the best possible way to lead.

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