Leadership Lessons from a Successful Corporate Crisis Response

Diana Baker Freeman
H-E-B, a family-owned grocery store chain based in San Antonio, Texas, has reached an almost cult-like following in that state. While this is not completely unheard of in Texas (example: What-a-Burger and the Dallas Cowboys) because Texans love their home-state brands, it is unusual for a grocery chain. To see the magnitude of this grocery chain, note that H-E-B exists and operates in a single US state while also being the 12th largest private company in the country according to Forbes.

H-E-B opened as a single store 115 years ago, but Texans' love affair with H-E-B has blossomed over the last couple of decades as the grocery chain has extended their reach in Texas, but also as they have shown up big in moments of disaster and crisis. As H-E-B has reacted to COVID-19 in much the same fashion as they reacted to Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent flooding in 2017, Texas Monthly magazine interviewed executives, employees, and customers to find out why they were consistently successful in the face of crises. A breakdown of their approach reveals some basic tenets of crisis preparation and response that apply to any organization. Board and Council members rebuilding after COVID-19 will need to evaluate their response as they move forward reviewing and revising crisis plans; the success of H-E-B's proactive stance can inform other organizations' models. Here, the tenets of how they stay in a state of readiness are paired with observations and takeaways for community leaders:

1. Consider your role of taking care of your community seriously.

As community leaders, all public officials are entrusted to care for the stakeholders of their community. After being chosen and elected by neighbors, taxpayers, and citizens, the good of the organization and how it contributes to community culture should be at the forefront of every elected official's thoughts. Governing is setting the direction and creating a culture for the place you call home. Creating a positive culture through adopting belief and vision statements and carrying those out can have a cascading effect in a community.

2. Consider current resources for response; also consider what resources can be pulled in.

Maintaining current schedules of assets, facilities, and maintenance is not only key for activities such as budgeting, they are key in effectively responding to a crisis. You have to know what you have to know what you need.

3. Servant leadership is key in an 'all hands on deck' moment.

In a crisis response, no one should be above doing any job'from clean up, to delivery, to organizing around a desk, every leader can be flexible and fill in where needs exist. Seeing leaders offer a helping hand is tremendous for morale.

4. Involve a representative from the most impacted areas of your organization in decision making and meet frequently, if not daily.

While a crisis plan needs to be developed in advance, no plan can predict the specific needs to deal with a unique emergency situation. While the plan creates the foundation, a crisis response team is essential in the moment. No one person can have all the information or should be saddled with all the decisions. Often in times of crisis, information is coming fast, and the situation is ever-changing. How decisions will impact different constituencies, teams, families, and individuals needs to be constantly assessed. Creating a team from across the board ensures that many perspectives are represented.

5. Model good behaviors and practices always.

In terms of the COVID-19 response, social distancing was the word of the hour. Regardless of the emergency, it is likely that recommendations and mandates regarding safety will come from state or federal authorities. With some notable exceptions, community leaders need to adhere to guidelines and demonstrate this as examples to their constituents. Saying one thing while doing another creates confusion and skepticism at a time that is crucial for compliance.

6. Provide for the people on the front lines'bring in meals or other necessities that demonstrate value for the time they are putting in.

In times of crisis, we see 'front line' employees going the extra mile over and over again. First responders taking extra shifts, city workers working through the night, teachers meeting kids where they are, or cafeteria workers making sure there is plenty of food for families'all examples of employees that will work tirelessly to help their neighbors. Make sure that those people are being taken care of. Cots in a back room, pizza delivery...whatever it takes to help those people stay energized and nurtured. Provide resources that support the internal team to give them comfort and calm so they can provide services to external stakeholders.

7. Be creative in how you get and provide resources to stakeholders.

The elderly woman needing rescue from rising water, the student that can't return to school, the library patron that depends on internet access at the library to stay in touch with family--all dependent on services through your organizations. The challenge is to maintain services to the extent possible, to provide a measure of normalcy to the community. Sometimes extreme situations require extreme responses. Creativity is the key to extending resources whether it is school buses scattered through town to act as hot spots for students or calling in the boats from the local fishing club. Rely on communication from your crisis team and be willing to step outside the norm to get results.

8. The challenge is the unknown'be prepared to see the response through for as long as needed.

With some emergencies, it's easy to see when things will be over; the rain will stop falling or buildings will be repaired. With a crisis like COVID-19, it is hard to see where it will end so the challenge in some situations is sustainability of services and maintaining morale. Leadership is key in sustaining the response. Schedules may need to be adjusted, allowances made for family concerns, or fiscal reallocations for resources. A successful crisis team along with the board will monitor the situation and adjust as needed to effectively maintain support as long as needed.

9. Stakeholders want to hear from you.

Communication is key in any crisis. Consistent communication is key to maintaining public trust. Even if the communication is, 'We don't have all the details, but are monitoring the situation,' patrons want to know that they can trust you to stay on top of things and respond as needed. They need confidence and calm. Updated and regular communication helps them see that your organization will be the place they turn to for information they can trust.

10. Do your job with respect and pride to cultivate that in the community.

Crisis situations can and do create chaos. Bringing calm and reassurance in a community is a primary function of any elected community board. Nerves become frayed, voices become impatient and tired minds sometimes overlook the obvious. A board that has discussed its values and come to consensus on beliefs is better equipped to take that notion into its work in the community. Times of distress are where an organization can sink or where they can shine. Creating a culture of pride and respect requires work every day so that when crisis hits, it is second nature to continue that commitment.
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Diana Baker Freeman

Diana Baker Freeman is a Senior Customer Success Manager for Diligent Mission-Driven Organizations. She holds an MS in Education Leadership and has taught in public schools and at the university level. After being elected as a school board member she developed a deep understanding of board members' roles, and how they drive improved educational outcomes.

As a public school trustee, Diana was nominated and accepted to Leadership TASB, through the Texas Association of School Boards, and graduated as a Master Trustee. Diana became a Board Development Consultant for the TASB and has led boards through strategic planning, goal setting, ethics training and the examination of roles and responsibilities of board members. She has presented at various state-wide, regional and national conferences and developed online training for TASB as well as the Southern Regional Training Consortium.