February 19, 2019

Keith Martino

Leadership in a crisis: Get engaged, get facts, get results

Imagine my skyrocketing pulse when I got the news: “Jim Barksdale is on the line for you. He sounds angry!” 

My heart sank. Jim Barksdale was chief operating officer at FedEx. Many of my comrades on our FedEx management team respected Jim almost as much as they loved our founder, Fred Smith. I was one of Jim’s biggest fans. 

I hastily grabbed the phone, and he launched into a passionate tirade. “Do we have a guy on our global sales team named Rick?” 

“Yes,” I stammered. 

“Well, you need to FIRE him!” he exclaimed.

Not a great salutation. I assumed Jim wasn’t having his best day. The rap got worse. Jim had just returned from lunch with an important FedEx customer. The customer had skewered Jim for an hour regarding Rick’s demeanor. They made him seem like a price-gouging villain. They complained about Rick’s lack of attentiveness, described him as arrogant, and then topped off the discussion by saying they would likely switch over to our largest competitor. I quickly agreed to check into the matter. Still shaking, I thanked him for calling.

Keith Martino is head of CMI, a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership and sales development initiatives.

Little did Jim know that Rick was in my Texas town for a strategic planning session. He was waiting unsuspectingly down the hall. All eyes were upon me as I walked back into the meeting. 

“What did he want?” someone asked, as I entered the room. 

“He said I should fire Rick immediately.” I responded. 

Everyone looked at Rick. Rick froze in mid-sentence.  You could see the blood slowly drain out of Rick’s face as the gravity of Jim’s phone call set in. He seemed to want to say something, but his lips didn’t move. Stunned speechless was an understatement. Rick was mortified. 

“Rick, you and I have only one choice if you want to save your job. We need to be on the first flight to Memphis in the morning.” Rick agreed. 

We were perched in Jim Barksdale’s office when he arrived the next day. He looked at the two of us and invited us to come in to talk.

I had seen Jim in many pleasant situations, but this wasn’t one of those. It wasn’t an awards ceremony or a celebration dinner. It was to be the scene of a very important sequence of leadership lessons that I would never forget. The following three lessons will serve you well in a crisis:

Lesson one: STOP! Discern the facts before taking action.

Jim methodically stepped Rick through the details of his customer encounter and then turned the floor over to us. I spoke up and made a case for Rick’s reputation. It wasn’t eloquent, but it was sincere. Jim listened intently and then asked for Rick’s side of the story. When Rick finished, Jim wasn’t angry anymore. In fact, he was feeling pretty good about the manner in which Rick had handled the customer’s unreasonable expectations. Jim listened.

Lesson two: Once you have clarity, take action and make a positive difference.

Jim weighed all of the details and spun around in his chair to make another phone call. “Who was he calling now?” I wondered silently. The senior executive that Jim had dined with the day before answered the phone. Jim apologized for the early morning call and proceeded to set an appointment for Rick to meet with the customer the following day. He used his influence to get Rick back into the dialogue without making the customer angry. It was a riveting display of professionalism and persuasive positioning.

Lesson three: Model the leadership you expect from others.

Jim apologized to Rick for having assumed that the story the customer shared with him was gospel. He explained that he had violated his own policy of always pursuing both sides of every incriminating story. He thanked Rick for stepping up to the plate and visiting him immediately when the pressure was on.

In short: Jim listened with an open mind. He took action to correct his mistake. He demonstrated humility and moved us forward. More important, he modeled the leadership style he expected from us. Rick met with the customer and ultimately turned the situation into a game plan that deepened the relationship between FedEx and their company. 

Jim Barksdale later became CEO of Netscape until it merged with AOL – and then he became quite wealthy. Never one to miss an opportunity to help, Jim took a portion of his estate and established a foundation to equip underprivileged kids with literacy skills. I went back to Dallas and thought about my unexpected trip to Memphis and what Jim had taught me in that brief span of time. 

Think about it. When the world seems to be imploding and you don’t understand why employees seem to be conducting themselves in a counterproductive way, get the facts. Listen with an open mind to both sides of the story. Take action in a positive manner by leveraging your most persuasive abilities to move the situation forward. Lead with humility and model professionalism in your words and actions.

Imagine my skyrocketing pulse when I got the news: “Jim Barksdale is on the line for you.” 

I would love to get that call again today.

Keith Martino is head of CMI, a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership and sales development initiatives. Martino is the author of Expect Leadership, a series of leadership books – The Executive Edition, in Business, in Engineering, and in Technology. After more than 20 years and numerous awards at FedEx, Xerox and Baxter Healthcare, Martino and his team provide world-class counsel and proven web-based tools that produce consistent results. Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax Finance, the FedEx Worldwide Manager’s Pak, and several metropolitan business and industry trade journals. For more information visit KeithMartino.com