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leadership in times of crisis
May 5, 2022

3 Leadership Lessons for Guiding Teams In Crisis

leadership in times of crisis

“And here I am, OK, I’m a finance guy.  How’s the finance guy going to fix safety?”

Tim Murray is no stranger to career changes and professional pivots. From ARC Automotive in Knoxville to Aluminium Bahrain (Alba) halfway across the world, Murray rose to the position of CEO.

There he faced a blackout that destroyed an aluminum potline worth over $700 million in annual revenue—and a dangerous safety crisis.

Now head of Cardinal Virtues Consulting, Murray has refused to define himself as “the finance guy”—or any role, for that matter. He joined us on The Adapter’s Advantage podcast to discuss pivotal moments that shaped his highly successful career, and some of the lessons he’s picked up along the way, such as:

  • Using strict enforcement to build long-lasting internal structures
  • Creating meaningful downstream change by taking responsibility at the top
  • Effectively adapting to and recovering from a massive crisis

1. Use Crisis Management Tools to Recover

“So I think we adapted pretty quickly. We were fairly resilient given the situation, again, a blackout had never happened, we had never even lost a potline.”

At Alba, Murray was faced with a CEO’s worst nightmare—in his case, a blackout that destroyed an aluminum potline worth over $700 million in annual revenue. Through hard work and a new strategy, Murray and his team were able to recover remarkably quickly and effectively.

He identifies four factors that are essential in crisis management and workplace adaptation:

  • Top-down, open communication: For Murray, this refers to the who as well as the what. He points to the value in receiving a message from the CEO, rather than the manager or superintendent. But this direct communication has to be paired with openness and honesty from both sides—or, as Murray directs, “communicate, communicate, communicate, and over-communicate.” In times of crisis, the decision-makers need all the available information, even the bad news.
  • Leading with positivity: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. So, you have to be positive. If you’re positive, your people will be positive. If you’re negative, your people will be negative.”
  • Actively listening to understand: In the workplace, we’re often too busy to really listen, or at least we think we are. But it’s an invaluable piece of the puzzle, especially as you rise up the corporate ladder—“are you listening to reply, or are you listening to understand?” Murray asks.
  • Building a culture of learning: According to McKinsey, a global management company, one of the key predictors of resilience in times of crisis is a learning culture. “Your competitive advantage is your people, and your good people. You want them to stay? You need to train and develop them.”

2. Hard Work Now Yields Positive Results Later

“And from that day forward, that was the enforcement. And the reality is, if I didn’t do that, they wouldn’t do it. There would be some that would, but I had to make it very painful. … But otherwise, they wouldn’t be disciplined enough to do it themselves.”

When Murray—an avid reader and life-long learner—first became Alba’s CEO, he had the idea for a series of day-long off-site workshops, where his entire senior management team would discuss and learn from a book of his choosing. Much to his dismay, more than half of his executives neglected to read the book the first time around.

But he didn’t give up; he also didn’t make the same mistake twice.

For the next book, Murray practically forced his team to read by mandating weekly progress updates and instituting a mini oral test to allow people to participate in the off-site.

As he says, his techniques were “very painful” and even juvenile—but they worked.

Eventually, Alba had a culture of reading and learning that his teams deeply enjoyed and participated in willingly. This concept is what host Mark Magnacca calls, “hard now, easy later”—like house training a puppy or getting your toddler to eat solid foods.

“So, to build upon the reading culture,” Murray says, “I said, OK, let’s pick the best of the best people and get them MBAs.” It took time, he admits, for the initiative to transform from what they jokingly considered “Tim’s pet program” to something everyone wanted and recognized the value of.

“And so by the time I left,” he says, “I think we had around 60 MBAs either graduated or in process. And basically when I was CEO, when I started, it was one. It was me.”

3. Own Responsibility as an Executive Leader

“You can outsource a lot of things but not safety. And we didn’t have the belief, we didn’t take the ownership. … And so shifting that, the monkey is now on our back. There is no consultant to call or blame. It’s us. And it really did change the perception of people.”

On Murray’s second day as Alba’s CEO, he fired the company’s safety consultants, a decision that surprised and dismayed nearly all of his executives. In the midst of a major safety concern—on the heels of their fifth fatality in less than three years—firing the team members in charge of safety seemed incomprehensible.

But that was the crux of the issue: The responsibility fell on only a few outsourced shoulders.

“They all told me, ‘Don’t do this. You’re a new guy, you’re a finance guy, why are you taking this risk? They’re going to blame you.’ We love to blame,” Murray says. “But I said, no. I said, ‘I am responsible.’ And I said, ‘Now we’re all responsible.’”

Murray’s radical yet ultimately effective solution had at least four prongs:

  • Drastically changing the conversation: Murray couldn’t just pivot. He knew he had to scrap the current plan and replace it with a significant upgrade for people to recognize that they were serious about these initiatives.
  • Showing genuine investment from the highest echelon: Unlike other CEOs, Murray left the comfort of his corner office—his corporate ivory tower—to visit the plant himself, complete with a flame-retardant uniform and the sweltering heat. “I don’t have to do these things,” Murray admits, “But they saw there was some genuine care, I think versus just, ‘Oh, we’re checking the box: plant visit. Here’s the report for tomorrow.’”
  • Getting everyone to buy in: “In Bahrain, it’s a Muslim culture, and one in of our campaigns, we used this phrase called, change starts with belief. And this is from the Holy Koran. And so we plastered it everywhere, and it really hit home.”
  • Simplicity is key: “My advice here when you’re doing big campaigns or big change management things: It has to be very simple.” For Alba’s safety efforts, they created posters with the three basic principles in vibrant colors, a meaningful slogan, and a distinct image, all of which could transcend the language barrier.

Adapting to the Pandemic

“I think it’s going to take years for us to recover from this. It’s not going to be a normal situation. … So, work hard and don’t always think about what’s in it for you.”

As things slowly return to what we once called “normal,” Murray recommends a nose-to-the-grindstone approach for young people especially—this, and the ability to listen, learn, and adapt (and, of course, read).

To continue the conversation with Tim Murray, you can contact him at tim@cardvirtues.com, on LinkedIn, or through his consulting company, www.cardvirtures.com. For the rest of our conversation and more fascinating tidbits, check out the full episode of The Adapter’s Advantage.

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