On this episode of The Digital Broker, Ryan Deeds interviews Brian Comerford, host of the Lead.exe podcast, about how to lead in times of crisis. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- How leadership in times of crisis differs from leadership in regular times.
- Which leadership challenges insurance agencies are facing because of the COVID-19 crisis.
- Which leadership adjustments you need to make in order to lead your team through a crisis.
Leading is tough enough when things are going well. It is extremely more challenging in times of crisis. Sure, some things stay the same. You need to delegate. You need to communicate. You need to behave consistently and with conviction. But the nature of the information at your disposal changes; therefore, your leadership style must change with it.
In times of crisis, information is volatile. That’s certainly what we’ve been seeing with the outbreak of COVID-19. We are bombarded with information, but the information frequently changes: what looked reliable last week is often in question this week. What’s a leader to do? Sit idly by until all information is reliable? That might never happen—so leadership, in times of crisis, must be more flexible, nimble, and agile than usual.
That’s the opinion of Brian Comerford. In addition to hosting the Lead.exe podcast, Comerford is an Account Executive at Vertafore, where he works alongside BJ Schaknowski, whose extensive military background reminds us that the basis of crisis management is a capacity to deal with incomplete information.
“When you deploy in the military, you are rarely going to a place where things are stable,” Comerford says. “You get into the field and you’re dealing with a lot of chaos. Part of that means being able to adapt very quickly, to decide what to do and what not to do. Right now, leaders need to demonstrate that they’ve got conviction, but they also need to demonstrate that they’ve got the ability to pivot and be nimble. This means acting on information quickly and changing direction based on changes in information because there are a lot of those.”
What about the times you don’t have any information? That is, after all, another hallmark of a crisis—not just the volatility of information, but the lack of it. We’ve seen that with COVID-19 as well. We’re data-rich in some areas—number of cases reported, geographical areas worst hit, the typical duration of the disease, etc. In other areas, we know almost nothing. How long do the lockdowns need to last? When will the economy pick back up?
Agencies are struggling with this, too, facing challenges that they did not see coming or were unprepared to deal with. “I’ve been hearing a lot about the need to have a great business continuity and disaster recovery plan,” Comerford says. “I don’t dismiss that at all—but how many of those plans have been developed with this kind of crisis in mind? Most of those plans are based around an office that might lose power, or a server that becomes corrupt and loses data. They’re not capable of dealing with a total crisis like COVID-19, where everything is closed and you don’t know for how long.”
Once again, this is no reason to sit back and do nothing. When the old playbook ceases to apply, leaders need to toss it aside and write a new one if they have to. This takes courage, but it can be done, must be done, and has been done. Comerford draws our attention to the case of Apollo 13: what was supposed to be a lunar expedition ended up being a near-death rescue mission that was successful only because the people in charge were able to improvise. “Here is what the mission was—and then, suddenly, the mission changes. The ship is hurtling out of control. People’s lives are at risk. Whatever playbook you were using up to that moment is useless now, because we have a completely different mission that was unplanned for, and we need to gather as much information as quickly as possible to develop a new plan of attack.”
That’s the challenge facing insurance agencies today: confront the crisis, collect information, develop solutions, and have the courage to deploy them. Some of those solutions might depart from conventional wisdom, but no matter how you change the playbook, one key quality of leadership is likely to stay steady.
“As I’ve thought about the key trait of leadership during this time, I would say that it’s emotional intelligence. Are you aware of how you present, how you maintain your emotional cool? Do you have the same awareness into the people you’re leading? Do you know who they are, what they need, what information they have, and what you need to communicate to them? Are you communicating regularly enough that they feel comfortable with you and trust you? If you’re slipping on that, you become part of the crisis.”
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