in charge

How they’re in charge is as important as who’s in charge

February 7, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • Being brought into an organization to advise often creates tension with the incumbents. Consultants with an overbearing attitude will only alienate the incumbent more.  
  • A positive, supportive attitude will drive greater engagement and commitment from the people you are supporting.
  • Look at things from their perspective and act with compassion, thoughtfulness, and grace to drive success in both the short and long-term.

A typical scenario for us is to be contacted by the CEO, General Counsel, or possibly the board of directors during a crisis situation. They feel that they need an outside perspective, additional technical expertise or merely additional communications capacity. However, in these situations, there’s also a head of Communication, someone who’s primarily been responsible for sunny-day public relations. However, Kith has been brought in to help navigate through this particular situation, but our responsibilities overlap entirely with their own. This always brings a degree of tension into the relationship. They could be a man or a woman, young or old; it doesn’t matter. That overlap creates tension.

In the world of commercial marine traffic, there’s a very similar situation with someone called a pilot. Every port around the world is different and its unique characteristics need to be considered when a vessel is entering or leaving. These considerations are more pronounced with a major tanker or a large cruise ship, so any vessel over a certain length and weight needs to use a pilot to help guide them in. The pilot is transferred to the other ship and, by law and tradition, takes command of the larger vessel entering or leaving into port. This is the pilot’s home port, so he or she knows how to navigate the vessel through the waterway safely.

Although this is a time-tested and established practice, taking command of someone else’s ship is an extremely fraught issue if not handled properly.

Pilots face the same issues and choices that we do when we enter someone else’s organization to work with their management team. 

The outcome depends almost entirely on how they interact with the crew they are joining.

Some walk in, say, “I’m in charge,” and start barking orders. Everyone else has to stand down because that’s the culture and tradition which has been established over time. Plus, they know that the pilot genuinely has the knowledge needed and their expertise is critical to the vessel’s safety.

However, this approach still leaves a sour taste in the mouth and makes the whole experience quite stressful. 

However, more experienced pilots come in with a much more low-key approach. Similar to a benevolent movie producer or director, they have such confidence in their skills, that they can instruct and explain to the helmsmen and the other folks on the vessel what to do next without threatening the Captain’s authority. This is much more effective and, particularly when it’s a crew they’ve worked with previously, it’s a pleasant experience for everyone.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation. 

Earlier in my career, when I was called in to help with a crisis situation, I was keen to exert my authority and show that I was in charge. I would be telling everybody what to do and not taking the time to listen. And in the process, the head of communications – man or woman, young or old – developed a great deal of resentment and frustration with my approach. Even though I was still adding some value, I wasn’t truly effective, and these engagements were often quite tense.

As time has passed, however, I’ve taken a similar approach to that benevolent director or pilot. I try to be someone who comes into a situation in as low-key a way as possible. I want the head of Communications to know that I understand their challenges. I’m there to help them get through that particular episode, not to wrest control from them. I’m there to pilot the ship, offering instruction, insight, and guidance in the moment. But, just as importantly, I’m also making sure that I help the head of Communications enhance their own skillset. I’m looking to earn the authority and trust that the organization initially granted me.

Interestingly, although some of my skills have improved over the years, much of my advice is similar to that of my younger self. The critical difference, and basis for my increased success, is that my attitude is now very different. 

It didn’t take me long to realize that my more dictatorial style wasn’t very effective and I needed to change.  This didn’t happen overnight, but I started by putting myself in the shoes of a director of Communications running a crisis. What other challenges were they dealing with? What was the broader context of the situation? What did they already know, and what could they already do? Where were gaps that needed to be filled? And then, the big question: how did I want them to feel at the end of my relationship?

Either approach could be effective in the short term, but I saw that increased humility, self-awareness, and grace was more productive in the long-term.

So my recommendation to anyone parachuting into a situation – whether as a crisis communicator, pilot, or some other ‘gun-for-hire’ – is to be a good counselor and give clear and direct advice, but listen and do it in a way that is full of grace and thoughtfulness. 

Meanwhile, the head of communications, or those around them, also have a choice. 

They can either be self-aware and understand they lack certain skill sets or a perspective that the crisis communicator may have and welcome the support. Or they can be selfish, feel threatened, and shut out the help they’re being offered.

In general, I would strongly encourage all of us to be more self-aware. Always seek opportunities for learning, both to enhance your skills but also to enhance your relationships. 

But this awareness is particularly valuable if you are supporting a crisis or piloting a vessel through a treacherous channel. You need the people you are supporting to remain engaged in the success or failure of the endeavor in the long term: barking orders at them won’t do that. So take a moment, think about things from their perspective and act with compassion, thoughtfulness, and grace. The advice and directions you give may be the same, but the delivery is what makes you effective.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.