5 Crisis Lessons for Companies and Colleagues

The stories of Lehman and Bear Stearns provide opportunity to learn about living through a crisis.

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So many lessons are learned in hindsight. Crises give way to particularly great opportunities for after-the-fact philosophizing. Employers and workers across the country have watched the implosion of investment banks on Wall Street, and many may have wondered if their business could encounter something similarly calamitous. Here are a few lessons learned from recent headlines:

1. Don't assume your company is unique. Sure, the company line may be that no other does what you do, but there are probably a few that come close. The problem with this sense of singularity is that it sets up employees as loyalists in hard times but can make them totally paralyzed in crisis. Rick Peterson, a Houston-based recruiter for the financial services industry, says brokers at Lehman Brothers were befuddled by the possibility that they would have to find new jobs. "They felt that nobody could offer the same services that Lehman did to its clients, and so nobody else would measure up," Peterson says. "All sorts of firms offer the same kinds of services, but they just didn't know that." When recruiters began calling, brokers couldn't help but feel suspicious.

2. Rally the troops before the crisis. Good leaders are able to rally their employees when the chips are down, says Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. But companies need to be achieving that kind of unity, focus, and lean efficiency before they hit rough waters. Lencioni points to Andy Grove, longtime executive at Intel, who said: Only the paranoid survive. During the dot-com bubble, many tech companies had begun to grow complacent, Lencioni says. That proved their downfall when the bubble burst.

3. Crises are career-making moments. It's understandable for a depression or sense of fatalism to overcome employees of companies that are in dire financial straits or are similarly challenged. Some workers may heap blame upon themselves or envy colleagues at healthier firms. But they are missing what could be a pivotal moment in their careers. Anybody can work in an industry that's thriving, Lencioni says. It takes stronger, smarter people to lead or innovate during a crisis—and this is a chance for employees to showcase those qualities. Lencioni puts it clearly: "This is a defining time for you."

4. Know your assets (a.k.a. what you will take with you). Lehman brokers had clients to help make them highly attractive to recruiters. In the wave of the investment bank's collapse—and prior to the sale of its broker-dealer operation to Barclays—recruiters were going nuts over the sudden opportunity to pluck top talent and their major clients. All employees have assets that would make them attractive to other employers, but many have never taken the time to catalog those assets—whether they are skills, contacts, connections, or degrees—and really examine how they would benefit other companies.

5. Leaders don't have all the answers. We learned that from Bear Stearns and from Lehman Brothers. A few months ago, Lehman executives insisted they were sure of its liquidity. In the days before his firm was sold to JPMorgan Chase, Bear Stearns's former chief executive, Alan Schwartz, was assuring his investors that the investment bank had sufficient liquidity. When investors were listening, employees were, too. Enron employees were treated to the most harrowing injustice—intentionally deceptive statements about the health of their company by their top executives. The bank failures have largely proved the depth of uncertainty about the current marketplace. Employees can't afford to believe all they hear. Skepticism is a healthy response in hard times—and easy.