A Superb Example of Crisis Leadership in Action

Posted: September 1, 2008 in Leadership

The listeriosis contamination at Maple Leaf Foods, tragic though it is, provides an opportunity to see crisis management in action by a major Canadian company. Even more important is the ability to see the president and CEO, Michael McCain (of the McCain frozen foods clan) provide crisis leadership at a time of great stress and anxiety for the company and its customers. I think he has been doing a superb leadership job and I would like to examine his performance through the lens of four key principles of highly effective crisis leadership.

  1. Take full responsibility. McCain has definitely taken responsibility, both for his decisions and for the company. He appeared in a video on YouTube to apologize for the listeriosis outbreak and to reassure people that the company would do everything possible to root out the problem and provide safe products. He has stated several times that “the buck stops here,” referring to his own accountability as well as the company’s. Whether a cause and blame can ever be found, he has made it clear that he bears full responsibility and is accountable as the top officer of the company.
  2. Be visible and in the forefront of action and decision-making. McCain has appeared several times on the news and, as mentioned above, has put out a video to explain his position and the company’s actions. He has also put out several open letters in French and English language newspapers. The company website is also very straightforward and informative. There was an article last week in the Globe and Mail that included commentary by a variety of crisis management experts.” One in particular found that McCain’s willingness to intervene early and personally in the crisis was a risk and meant that the company had no ability to escalate it’s public response. I find that opinion cynical and ludicrous in the circumstances. McCain intervened as soon as he realized there was a reasonable probability that a number of deaths had been caused by an infection in one of their plants. What would the public outcry have been had he waited to appear in public or to take full responsibility? Not only would it have hampered resolution of the problem, it would also have branded the company as heartless and incompetent.
  3. Solve the problem. This one is often overlooked in discussions of crisis management and crisis leadership, the whole purpose of which is to actually correct the problem and get back to a semblance of normalcy, not just manage the company’s image. Another tendency is to start discussing preventive measures that can be adopted in the future and what should have been done differently. This is essential to ensure systemic learning, but it helps no one in the short run. McCain has made it clear that the company will do everything that needs to be done to correct the problem and reassure its customers and the wider public. Luckily, actions have followed words. The company has recalled a number of products even if they only suspect possible contamination. As mentioned above, they have also issued a number of warnings and explanations of their actions, highlighting their intent to solve the problem and not just to manage their image.
  4. Lead by example. This one is simple, but direct. If you want your executives and employees to act correctly from an ethical, legal and technical standpoint, then you, as the supreme leader, must set the standard and instantiate it in your behaviour, demeanour, and communications. I have no insight into the inner workings of Maple Leaf Foods and its “war room”, but I have no doubt that everyone in the company knows what that standard of leadership and action is, simply because they have their president and CEO as avatar.

I firmly believe that when the leader of a company or organization takes full responsibility for a crisis and is intimately involved in its resolution, then this serves the public good and the long-term good of the organization. When the crisis is resolved Maple Leaf Foods will need to rebuild its reputation and public trust. The costs will be great. There might even be lawsuits and other unfathomable costs. However, and this is critical, there is no viable alternative to McCain’s actions and declarations. His due diligence has set the standard for his employees and executives. It provides the best possibility of rapid resolution of the crisis but also the best defence in the future, as the company will inevitably face calls for increased regulation and possible legal action.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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