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How to Lead Your Startup Through a Crisis



(The following post is by Joseph V. Gulfo, who is the author of the book, Innovation Breakdown – How the FDA and Wall Street Cripple Medical Advances. He is a serial biopharmaceutical and medtech entrepreneur and CEO. He teaches graduate courses in Cancer Biology and Strategic Innovation Management.)



If you do anything long enough, you will inevitably confront seemingly insurmountable hurdles that may or may not be possible to clear. That's not a crisis. I learned the hard way what a true crisis is--a shocking, unpredictable, and catastrophic event foisted upon your company that threatens its immediate survival and rocks all of its stakeholders to the core. Startups are more likely to face true crises than established businesses. So, how are you going to lead your company through your crisis? This is how I got through mine successfully:


1. Own it.


Shock and denial were my first reactions when the FDA issued what turned out to be an unlawful not approvable letter even though we did everything the way they told us to, and even when the clinical trial data met all pre-specified endpoints. I wanted to believe that it was just a bad dream. I remember telling myself that you are grieving and you don't have time for all 5 stages of the grief cycle, so stop denying it; don't look for scapegoats; don't make excuses; don't offer reasons. I owned the fact that the crisis had arrived--that's all that matters. And it was my crisis, and I made it the only 10 things on my 10 point to-do list. I told myself that this is why you were given the title, and now it's time to earn your keep. Somehow, some way, you are going to find a way to win.


2. Assemble the team.


Even though it was mine, I needed help from different quarters. We created a team of the best and brightest, and most creative, inside and outside the company, from the major disciplines that were needed to manage the disaster. Some members suggested the need for help from areas that I didn't think of, and so we set out to get experts from those disciplines on board. We had regular group meetings--at least once per week--in addition to meetings with individuals on the team who were in charge of specific areas of managing the crisis. I chaired the meetings myself. Although this was my crisis, and I was the leader, I knew that I could not do it alone.


3. Embrace the uncertainty.


We were in unchartered territory--the textbooks didn't cover this challenge. Without realizing it, we exercised the Scientific Method until we found something that worked--Francis Bacon would have been proud. Trial and error within the multi-component, parallel set of strategies and tactics was required, and so, we tried and failed, a lot. One of the hardest things was to give a plan enough time to start to show signs of working, while not wasting time before nixing things that didn't work. Another hard thing was to maintain alternatives for as long as possible, not irrevocably committing to a strategy that may not work to the exclusion of other alternatives. The opinion of the multi-disciplinary team of experts helped here, but in the end, that decision was on me, and will be on you.


4. Commit to a single-minded focus and delegate.


Many employees and consultants would approach me and ask how they could help. But, dealing with the crisis was the domain of a small group. I realized that I had to have a tireless and single minded focus and that anything not in service of solving the crisis was a distraction and superfluous. Because of the passion of so many other managers and employees, I was able to delegate everything else. Managing the crisis was the most important thing that I could be doing, and it often required pulling ideas out of other members of the team, which is very difficult and all-consuming. I appointed others within the business, people not on the crisis team, to manage all other priorities of the company. This was a tremendous blessing--more employees and managers realized that they were important to the company and made great contributions.


5. Prepare, reinvent and be schizophrenic.


I had to be engine of activity, the driving force, and model. The process required me to immerse myself into every aspect of the strategies and tactics because I was the central repository of all information and thought about the multi-disciplinary plan and tactics. Moreover, I had to accept the fact that I was at the helm when the problem happened, therefore, the way I was going about things got us into this mess, so it was unlikely that the same sort of thinking/approach would get us out of it. I had to force myself to consider drastically different approaches and ways of thinking by being schizophrenic (metaphorically)--coming at the problem from all sides that I could think of; this allowed me to accept good ideas from anywhere.


6. Be Jerry West.


I remembered what my basketball camp coach told me about Jerry West (the NBA logo)--what made him great was that in the huddles at crunch times with 10 seconds left when the coach would ask the team, "who wants the ball?" Jerry West said, "I want the ball." So, I had to want the ball, and to take the last shot. You'll have to take the last shot; take it and when it swishes, declare it a team win.





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