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Turning crises into opportunities

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Major, and even minor crises are often the stuff of nightmares for CEOs and senior management. But many organisations don’t understand and appreciate that if adequate preparation, communication and careful management is undertaken before and during potential crises, they can actually represent a significant opportunity.

One of the better examples I’ve seen of a CEO using a significant crisis as an opportunity was in New Zealand in 2008. On Friday 28 November 2008, an Air New Zealand training flight went down in Perpignan, France, killing all eight staff on board instantly. Immediately rumours hit the media that the pilot was at fault.

To give you some context, the airline was already in a sorry state of affairs. Just ten days earlier on 19 November, Air New Zealand announced that it was laying off 200 full-time employees as a result of the global financial crisis. On 22 November I watched as CEO Rob Fyfe spoke with a tear in his eye at a wine show sponsored by the organisation – little did we know things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Three and a half years later Rob Fyfe is still CEO of Air New Zealand and is one of the most respected and liked CEOs in New Zealand. The company is prospering. How did Fyfe and the company pull through such adversity?

Firstly, Fyfe acted immediately. He did not accept blame, but fronted up to everyone – families, staff and media. In the twelve hours following the crash Fyfe spoke to families of the missing men, personally briefed hundreds of staff and fronted three press conferences.

Secondly, Fyfe showed compassion. As he flew to the crash site with one of the widows, Fyfe said, “I’ve got one goal – and we’ll do our very best to achieve it – and that’s to bring our team members and loved ones home to their families.” Fyfe personally remained at the site until recovery efforts were exhausted.

Thirdly, he did not accept blame without evidence. Despite widespread accusation that the pilot was at fault, Fyfe refused to speculate or comment on the cause of the crash until adequate investigation was complete. Instead he focused his efforts on the families.

Finally, Fyfe demonstrated that he is a real person, and showed emotion. “I found that a very difficult time personally…I was pretty emotionally cut up. There were tears from all of us.”

Fyfe was rewarded for his compassion, honesty and action. When he checked his Blackberry en route to Perpignan, he had more than 300 emails from staff, business partners, and members of the public wishing him all the best. Fyfe had responded to every one of those emails personally by the time he reached Perpignan. I saw one of those emails, sent to a colleague, and it stays with me to this day as a fine example of a fantastic CEO prospering in the face of adversity.