As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Crawford.
Kevin is a strategic consultant for c-suite executives with more than 40 years of professional experience as a fire fighter, fire chief, CEO of the United Way of San Diego, and City Manager at the City of Carlsbad. He has an extensive background in crisis leadership, having been a fire chief on the front lines of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2003 and 2007 wildfires that torched Southern California. Kevin currently serves as Chairman of the Board of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation in San Diego, and has served with numerous other nonprofits in recent years including the United Way of San Diego, San Diego Work Force Partners, LEAD San Diego and the Scripps Hospital Encinitas Community Advisory Board. He is a father of 4 and a grandfather of 7, and currently resides in Jackson Hole with his wife, Jolane.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m a current executive advisor with more than 40 years of executive leadership as a fire chief, City Manager for City of Carlsbad and CEO of United Way of San Diego. I spent most of my career in the fire service, but was very involved in numerous leadership positions throughout my career. My trajectory was atypical, as most of my school years, I could not read — all of my childhood and well into college. I wasn’t just a slow reader, I could not read at all. I was extremely insecure and acted out, struggled all through school, and only got into college on athletic merits. About halfway through college, I realized that my worth was not based on this one issue, and I worked incredibly hard to overcome my challenges, completed a law school JD, and went on to a fulfilling career in the fire service and beyond.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my career in the fire service, I worked with a childhood friend I had known since elementary school, and he outranked me early in our careers. However, because we were friends, I thought I could be a goof and I played a ‘prank’ on him by dumping a bucket of water on him while he was in a bathroom stall. In a matter of a few words, he set me in my place as a rookie, and taught me the invaluable lesson to know your place and know your audience. It has been a lesson I carried with me throughout my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The most significant role in shaping my life would be my father. He was a man of few words, but he was very character driven. He had strong boundaries and made no apologies for his exceptionally high standards. One of his biggest lessons: he didn’t talk much about standards, he lived them. He more clearly communicated with resolve with his actions than anything he could have said. I learned two lessons that have stayed with me all my life; 1) the power of relationships and 2) character. A lesser skilled yet committed person of character is far more valuable than the smartest employee. Character is what you do when no one is watching — that is telltale sign of who you are as a person.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
KCC’s vision is to enhance lives and companies through leadership deployments. What that means is that people find themselves overly burdened by their own personal issues and they get worked out in whatever business they’re in. This heavily influences how they see, analyze and decision make. This can be burdensome to psyche and soul of leaders.
The purpose of KCC is to help people be the best version of themselves in their work, their community and their family. When I was in executive positions, I felt I had few resources to turn to for counsel — it’s cliché, but it’s lonely at the top! In my role as an executive advisor now, I want to be that sounding board and objective counsel to help successful people transition from being technically sound to being impactful and significant because they’re reaching their potential.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I was the Incident Commander at Hurricane Katrine in New Orleans — it was a huge magnitude of destruction. I wasn’t going in with my complete team, I was given team from handful of people from across the nation in community I’d never been in before, with no understanding of resources around me. I learned, in very short order, you have to develop a team zeroed in on your vision, win them over in a matter of moments, go into environments that are not your own, and get them to a place where they are willing to transfer their authority to support you in what needs to be done.
I learned very quickly the psychology of leadership — the need to win people over to get them to line up behind you. You have to establish credibility, give a sense that you’re there for their benefit, and get people to agree to what you have to say so they can be better off.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I struggled throughout my childhood behind in reading. It was diagnosed as dyslexia at the time, and I was tormented all the way through school. Throughout school and into my career, I came to deal with the fact that this is my cross to bear, and it doesn’t define me as a human being. I learned you can manage your perspective of yourself and those around you. It was a gift I gave myself — freed myself from burden of saying self worth is found in something external.
I gradually got better as I got into college, and even though there were struggles, I went to law school and earned a JD. From a career in the fire service to several executive positions in Southern California, I stayed authentic to myself and never let my struggles define me.
One of the things that kept me going was my father. He was a man of few words, but he was very character driven. He had strong boundaries and made no apologies for his exceptionally high standards. One of his biggest lessons: he didn’t talk much about standards, he lived them. He more clearly communicated with resolve with his actions than anything he could have said. I learned two lessons that have stayed with me all my life; 1) the power of relationships and 2) character. A lesser skilled, yet committed person of character is far more valuable than the smartest employee. Character is what you do when no one is watching — that is telltale sign of who you are as a person.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
You must wall off criticism, you must compartmentalize, you can’t get wrapped up emotionally. That goes with leadership and managing in general — must not allow the emotions to run away with you. Good things happen when you’re objective, bad things can happen when you’re reactive.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
People look to leaders to take their cues on how to work, how to play, and how to experience the organization. Work culture is a product of the leader’s character more than anything. There is a lot written about culture, employee engagement, the most important thing that it comes down to is — character of the leader. The leader does more to set cultural tone and tone of employee engagement than anything else. As the leader goes, so goes the organization.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Like a farmer tills soil to prepare for harvest, so must a leader prepare to deliver difficult news. Leaders can’t control how people receive something, but can be controlled is the message, timing, etc., for it to be well received. A leader can’t control what goes on in the minds of people, but what one can influence is the environment which they find themselves in so they bring their best to the table.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Uncertainty can be unsettling for leaders, and the best thing to do during volatility is to prepare for it. Things like the current pandemic can transcend any amount of preparation, but one should play out potential scenarios (market downturn, weather disaster, civil unrest, etc.). The more you can prepare, the better off you will be to minimize effects of the crisis.
Assuming some preparation is done before a crisis hits, the best thing one can do is to have the most accurate perspective of what’s going on. The best response during times of uncertainty is preparation.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
During this challenging time throughout the globe, I encourage people to bring your best self to the forefront. Show kindness, respect, and set aside anxiety. Prepare yourself for potential outcomes and exude calm and restraint.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1) Not accurately evaluating the crisis they’re trying to manage. Most often, leaders sense crisis/disaster and react without it being a thoughtful response to the elements of the crisis. But it’s not deliberate and measured reactions — those are based on accurate assessment of situation, need discipline to not take action that is not well conceived and based on evaluation of current situation.
2) Don’t take yourself too seriously — you get caught up in the trap of image. There is an image portrayal you are too concerned with. If you can laugh at stupid mistakes, then you’re okay with who you are.
3) Self awareness is a lost art among many c-suite executives. Once executives reach the pinnacle of their careers and industries, there are few resources they can seek for sound counsel professionally and/or personally. Executives tend to surround themselves with like-minded people, and don’t always hear what they need to in order to make the best decisions for themselves, their organizations or the people who work for them.
4) Especially during these challenging times, people tend to take on ‘panic clients’ and get out of their areas of expertise, which does everyone a disservice. Leaders should take stock of what they do best, and stay as much in line with that as possible.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I remain true to myself, my expertise and always stay authentic. I go to meetings with global CEOs in my jeans, cowboy hat and cowboy boots because that is who I am, and putting on a suit would mean I was making a mockery of them and myself.
I also counsel as many people as I can, not only paying clients, without expecting anything in return. Clients will come when people like and respect you, and I never sell myself or my services — I let my character speak for itself.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Executives throughout the nation and across the globe have been navigating the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to the ‘new normal.’ Just as many were finding their footing and preparing to reopen, another national crisis erupted in the form of protests and riots that has impacted businesses already reeling from the ongoing crisis of the pandemic.
A crisis is defined as anything that disrupts day-to-day operations and overwhelms your resources. While recent events may seem unsurmountable, the key for executives is to look beyond the minutia of each crisis and focus on the large-scale management of the organization. Any crisis will create ‘small fires’ that need tending, and executives must delegate extinguishing those small fires to ensure they focus on the greater emergency and manage the organization holistically.
Executives need to serve as the “Comforter and Chief“ to give great hope, and have a steady hand to keep responses appropriate. People tend to allow crisis and hysteria to outpace the emergency, and executives need to be the deep rudder for the humanity in any organization.
Executives need to maintain a macro focus on their organizations, regardless of the minutia of the crisis. Below are a few tips to help any leader gain their footing and keep their organizations from devolving into chaos:
Be Data Driven
Be Selective With Sources — A leader’s success during times of crisis is based on accurate data, and the analysis and application in forming an action plan which is paramount to the efficacy of decisions.
Some tend to latch on to the loudest and most persuasive voice in the room, but it’s the collective of all perspectives where the most reliable intelligence is found.
News Cycles — While media can provide valuable information, it shouldn’t be a primary pipeline of information to drive critical decisions.
Refresh — Establish a periodic refreshing of assumptions and results. Force your response systems to ask the hard question(s) concerning your plan’s effectiveness.
Set The Tone
Leaders make sense of chaos. Mentally prepare for all possibilities, and approach a crisis with objectivity and an actionable plan.
Leaders bring stability and hope. Be a resilient voice and encourage effective tasks.
Leaders inspire people to follow authority. People want to follow in times of crisis, it is ineffective leadership, specifically a lack of credibility, that gives people cause to do otherwise.
Effective leaders invite critical thinking and a safe place for others to interject contrary views. In addition to systematic review of established plans, ensure team members feel free to flag potential errors without consequence.
Manage The Crisis
Surround yourself with an experienced team prepared to face the unprecedented. Have a solid leadership team to lean on in the event of a crisis.
Don’t react, respond — 1. Identify the incident and its effects, 2. Establish achievable objectives, 3. Develop a plan to accomplish the objectives, 4. Communicate and execute the plan, 5. Evaluate and revise the plan against the objectives and ever evolving situation.
Be the example — unease begets unease, calm begets calm, hope begets hope.
Do Not Politicize The Disaster
By definition, politics is not objective. It never instills confidence, hope or resilience in times of emergency. In turn, it polarizes and divides during a time when unity and commitment is most needed.
Prepare For The Next Crisis
Observe everything, heighten awareness of events, and take stock of actions and emotions as a leader.
Take notes to study lessons learned. The next event is coming, although it may look different, its fundamental elements are the same: 1. Unplanned event that overwhelms everyday operations, 2. If not managed appropriately, will have far reaching implications, 3. taxes the emotional and physical wellbeing of those affected.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“How we experience life is product of how we process it.” We each experience the world as we see it — a product of our experiences, upbringing and education. Those who work for us will have a different world view, and we need to lead with empathy and compassion to maintain morale.
A well developed leader is one who is listening to what is NOT being said. At times, what is being said is not even the most important thing that needs to be heard. Facilitate the release of creativity, foster the reach of individual potential, and increase a sense of fulfillment. People are compelled to wear masks to hide their real selves at work and to convey a fictitious identity, allow them to remove the mask and be authentic.
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