“Don’t take jobs where the guys before you have done great. Instead, follow losers.”
Four-and-a-half months into my job as director of communications at McCombs School of Business I began a journey that taught me one of the great lessons in leadership.
I received a visit from a noticeably nervous colleague from the computer services department. “We’ve been hacked,” he stammered.
As my mind began to wrap around the import of that statement he proceeded to lay out a worst case scenario for tens of thousands of potentially compromised social security numbers from alumni, students and staff. I immediately called my small team together and told them our communication skills were about to take on new importance for the next few months.
It was only in the aftermath of that crisis communications response that I was able to account for the personal career positives that followed. Yes, after months of 80 hour work weeks, scrambling to set up specialized communication tools, phone banks and mailings (while personally apologizing to perturbed alumni for hours each day) I actually recognized a silver lining in that miserable cloud. It turns out my personal brand within the university was burnished, not tarnished, by the experience.
Lessons in Leadership — Embrace Crisis
John Daly, a highly popular executive coach and communications professor at The University of Texas at Austin, encourages professional audiences to embrace crisis as your opportunity to shine.
“It’s true in every aspect of your lives,” he says. “If you respect your partner, it’s because you’ve seen her or him handle tough moments–unrelenting stress, difficult decisions, poignant personal losses. It’s easy to love someone in the good times. Respect grows in tough times.”
He even encourages looking for trouble spots.
“Don’t take jobs where the guys before you have done great. Instead, follow losers. Seek out positions that let you demonstrate your ability to turn things around.”
Taking Stock of the Opportunities
Looking back, I can identify several career benefits that would not have come to me as quickly without the data theft crisis.
Visibility to Senior Leadership: I was new to the business school and fairly unknown when I was suddenly thrust into high-level meetings with the president of the university, my dean, and other top-level university unit chiefs. Quite often a discussion would end with someone at the table looking to me with the question, “Will you handle this?” To this day I can walk into the president’s office and know we have a relationship of trust–something I might never have developed under normal circumstances.
Increased Influence in the Organization: the words “crisis communications response” were instantly granted new respect within the school. I’ve never had to convince a school dean or director to consider the reputational ramifications of school actions. I’ve never had to argue for a place at the table when considering high level initiatives.
Ability to Lead Out in Other Areas: a year after the data theft I received the dean’s staff excellence award for Outstanding Service to Constituents. About that time my team was rolling out the most comprehensive and progressive brand identity program the school had ever seen. I credit the ease with which we navigated that brand transition in part to the reputation I and my department had earned in difficulty.
How You Perform in Tough Times is What Matters
“In 1989, GE faced an enormous challenge,”Daly relates. “The company had to recall a million refrigerators because of poor design of the compressor. To this day, this recall was the largest one ever for appliances. One young manager was tasked with running the recall. He was only 33. He did a great job and quickly moved up. His name? Jeff Immelt, the current CEO of GE. Had it not been for the recall, and how he handled it, Immelt might never have been discovered.”
Whether you are taking stock of past career growth, or looking for an opportunity to shine within your organization, one of the great lessons in leadership is to look for what went wrong rather than what is going right.
This article is based on John Daly’s writing in Texas Enterprise, Big Ideas in Business from The University of Texas at Austin.