5 Tips for Leading When It All Hits the Fan

Sean L Adams
6 min readJun 30, 2017


Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

I’ve had to release product with impossible deadlines. I had the honor of asking my engineering teams to work over a few holiday weekends. After the team let loose some choice words in reaction and venting we reclaimed our inside voices.

What exactly got us in this position? Well, that’s a post for another day. Here are 5 tips for leading in crisis mode and getting the most out of your teams.

Don’t Hide

Some leaders only close the door and fume when a crisis hits. They shirk away from duties and solution brainstorming. They check out and start polishing up the resume. Then the tower comes crumbling down and the entire team is in a horrible position with no idea on how we got here and what we could have done or could be doing to fix it. The lack of transparency and the lack of forthcoming create a clear line of separation from those you’re accountable to as a leader.

Don’t hide it when trouble is brewing, clearly, NDAs and sensitive issues need to be handled with care, but the progress of the work in-flight and what we’re reporting up as a team to external stakeholders is typically information every team member should know. In one company we had a huge whiteboard wall in the office which we would lay out the work in-flight and future work. Everyone was aware of what was where and where our conflicts could arise. It was something similar to a release board but far more detailed…and manual.

Everyone should be on the same page. The only people who are surprised by your crisis communication are those who were probably not paying attention anyway — if the crisis was somewhat foreseen.

This isn’t the time for ice-breakers and little jokes, serious business face leaders, serious business.

Be Empathetic…Not Pathetic

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The best thing to do in a crisis situation is to understand everyone’s feelings on the matter but to not sponge up those feelings. Then you’re just part of the crisis to be managed instead of someone standing outside with a clear perspective. To this end, it’s good to take some time and clarify your own outlook and feelings before publicizing crisis info to the teams.

Empathy should permeate your communication as well. You’re not delivering good news, and you’re not looking to blow up on or blame anyone. The crisis is as it stands and that is just where you are. Your communication should be forthright and you should lead with the bad news and why we’re all here in this crisis. This isn’t the time for ice-breakers and little jokes, serious business face leaders, serious business.

Be Present

If you are asking your team to be somewhere on Thanksgiving then you are there too. I remember coming into the office on that cold Saturday morning and one my lead engineers said,

“Wow! I didn’t expect you to show up. I guess we can only whisper our grievances to each other.”

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After a laugh, I assured him that I’m part of the team as well and thus I’ll be where the team is. This is leadership.

On the point of presence — have any crisis information meetings in person and have all team members there at the same time. Also immediately send out a follow-up email with any information that is able to be shared, use your corporate policies in this regard. It’s not a good thing for people to find out crisis information via the water cooler.

Be Personal

I personally checked in and encouraged each of my team members outside of the bad news meeting. Some of the leaders I spoke to beforehand and afterward but everyone had face time with me regarding the situation we were in. I spent some moments no matter how few speaking with them about what mattered to them. Some were single and didn’t mind, some were planning travel, some were balancing an already delicate family; work/life balance at home. I spoke with each one about their specific situation and was empathetic. I didn’t go to offer personal solutions as much as to be a listening ear.

I’m part of the team as well and thus I’ll be where the team is. This is leadership

Bonus: Rewards and Food…lots of food!

As a Product Manager, I’m an influencer. No one directly reports to me except on occasion a few Business Systems Analyst or a few Product Owners. But usually, the Product Manager is an independent contributor role. So you need to find ways to reward your team members external from direct influence. One company I worked for had rewards which anyone could submit, a small recognition could equate to monetary rewards and/or honorable mentions for their annual review. Explore the paths you’re able to take advantage of to be someone who rewards those who sacrifice for you.

Lastly, regarding rewards, I have a personal policy; “When I Shine You Shine!” I don’t write code for the products I manage. I won’t always create the collateral and pictures used in a product either. I can’t manage the release of a product without a team. So if people are saying, “Great job Sean! You got that out the door on time.” My response is “Thanks. The team was awesome; Jason really rocked out on those 3rd party API integration. I know for a fact he was up ’til 2 AM with me most of the week on that.”

Photo by Riley McCullough on Unsplash

“When I Shine You Shine!” The grandest of rewards is to pass the glory to where it belongs. Recall that one guy who didn’t like passing glory and wanted to take all the credit. Don’t be that guy.

RE: Food

There is a great quote: “Good Food is Good Mood.” That’s right. No one who’s worked in tech for any amount of time will see after hour’s releases as a completely foreign concept. If you’re asking your team to meet outside of regular business hours though, why not feed them?

Chocolate and coffee keep a team fueled throughout the day, but on big releases or crisis hack-a-thons or code merge parties, it’s time for you to call in the caterers. Breakfast burritos, potato bars, pizza if you must or subs, I’ve done it all and it all works. Potlucks DO NOT work when you’re asking people to do overtime. Remember that! You’re basically asking them to come in off hours, on the weekend or something of that nature and then saying, “Oh, by the way, bring in some of that food you typically make for festivities.”

Photo by Brian Chan on Unsplash

No. You’re not just feeding their bellies, you’re feeding their hearts. So pull out the Corporate AMEX and expense a good dinner for the team that bends over backward in a crisis.

I am so thankful for the wisdom and experiences I’ve had over the years, good and bad. I’ve seen leaders do crisis management poorly, making matters worse and I’ve seen it done it well. Thanks for reading this article. These are just a few points to help you lead through any crisis. What are some of your tried and true tips, tricks, and methods?

Hi, I’m Sean; I’m passionate about CX and Products. Over the last decade, I’ve been privileged to lead product organizations at some of the most impactful companies in the world. Mainly in the healthcare space and most recently focused on an internal platform managing work for hundreds of clinicians and care for millions of patients. SeanLAdams.com is my little corner of the internet; stop by anytime.