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Preparing to Lead in Times of Crisis: How to Sail the Ship Like a Pro

Preparing to Lead in Times of Crisis:  How to Sail the Ship Like a Pro,
Image credit: Stoyan Yankov (left), Cristobal Alonso (right)

Stoyan Yankov is a Bulgarian-born productivity & performance coach with an extensive international background. He spent 10 years in Denmark, working as a movie and video producer. Since 2016, Stoyan has worked with 550+ companies in 35+ countries, helping them to improve their culture and results. Stoyan is also a coauthor of the books: PERFORM and PERFORM in Times of Crisis (with coauthor Cristobal Alonso, Startup Wise Guys).

Challenging times are never convenient. Nobody wants to go through difficulties and adversity.

However, we can all agree that being an entrepreneur and building a startup is a journey with a lot of ups and downs. Hristo Borisov, cofounder and CEO at Payhawk joined me for a podcast interview and said it well:

“The real journey is a rollercoaster. You get up in the morning, super fresh, super pumped, that you are gonna have an amazing day. You come to the office and you receive the first “slap”…Then you recover by the afternoon, and there’s another slap.”

Entrepreneurship is hard. And when we add to the equation the turbulent environment in the past few years in a changing world, it’s become even more clear: We need to be well-prepared to lead in crisis times.

Before I switched careers I worked as a movie producer. Let me tell you, being a movie producer is a “constant crisis management” mode. You show up on set ready to film, and something breaks. By the time you fix it, the next problem occurs. It’s an intense industry but it toughens you up. Entrepreneurship is similar in many ways.

You can never predict 100% what could go wrong. But you have the responsibility to yourself and to the team to do your best to prepare.

While researching for the two books I wrote together with Cristobal Alonso from Startup Wise Guys, I had the chance to interview over 250+ very successful leaders such as the president of Starbucks, the founder of Reebok, unicorn founders, and bestselling authors (like Guy Kawasaki).

Let me share with you a few high-level ideas on how to prepare best to lead in crisis times.

4 tips to be well prepared for tough times


1. Stay alert for risks & threats

Effective leaders are obsessive about risks. They are constantly on the search for “what can go wrong”. They keep track of and stay updated on news, trends, and industry developments.

The founder of Vivino (the largest wine app in the world), Heini Zachariassen shared with me a curious story. In February 2020 his co-founders and he were watching closely the spread of COVID-19. They didn’t leave anything to chance. They started anticipating all potential risks that could hit the company if the situation evolved. He likes to ponder on the question “What’s the worst that can happen” and then generate ideas on how to prevent it or at least minimize the impact. When the pandemic hit a global level in March, Heini and the team were well prepared.

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“I always like to work on different options. Do we have a Plan B and a Plan C? It also helps you mentally to talk about those things at least.” Fortunately for Vivino, the pandemic turned into a great opportunity in the end. People were locked at home, so what did they want to do? Drink alcohol. But it could have been the opposite as well. He shared that he would do the exact same thing if he was to relive the situation.

2. Toughen up your team

As founders, we like to run stuff. And often when sh** hits the fan we want to take over and solve the situation immediately. And while it’s good we “lead by example”, there’s the risk we can “cripple our team”. For your team to grow resilient, you need to let them solve problems and emergencies. So when a real crisis happens they are ready to respond.

Inconvenience leads to growth.

Ilma Tiki, cofounder of MailerLite (Lithuanian startup, acquired in 2022 for $90M+ shared with me: “A crisis is a great time to find out if you’re surrounded by people you can trust, but you don’t need to wait for a real crisis. Astronaut training includes having hard experiences together – such as “uncomfortable hikes” – to learn more about each other and build trust.”

She and her team started creating uncomfortable team buildings. For example, they will split the team into small groups and let them do an 11-hour hike in the mountains. Each team competes against each other and they have a psychologist assigned to accompany them. The day after they reflect on the experience and talk about the learnings and lessons.

  • What can you do to toughen up your own team?
  • How can you upskill them and help them build trust & collaborative spirit?
  • How can you prepare them to act in challenging times?
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And part of it comes from hiring mentally tough people in the first place.

Momchil Kyurukchiev (Cofounder & CSO of Leanplum) calls them “soldiers and fighters”.

“In your startup, you need people who are hungry, people who never quit. You can not hire people solely on their skills and CV. They have to be fighters as well, so when things get tough you can rely on them.”

In his perspective that needs to be a MUST-TICK box in your recruitment checklist.

3. Build a strong support network

In the book we talk about the 3 areas a leader should keep at all times: body, mind, and support network. I will focus on the latter.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it’s been in my career to have a strong support network. Early on in my career, while building my video production business in Denmark it’s been what kept me afloat. My partner at the time and I decided to set up an advisory board.
We invited 5 trusted, experienced professionals to join our advisory board. We would do quarterly meetings where we share our results, and our goals for the next quarter as well as discuss challenges and struggles. As part of the setup, we could contact them at any time for 1-1 meetings or advice on a specific topic. These people were not only our advisors. They were cheering for us and supporting us when we got into trouble.

Do not wait for a crisis to happen to build your support network. Surround yourself with strong, like-minded people. A couple of ideas:

  • Build a strong bond with your co-founders
  • Set up your own advisory board
  • Get a coach or a mentor
  • Join a local business club or entrepreneurial community
  • Create your own private mastermind group

And most importantly – be a giver. Help out people. Connect good people with one another. Provide value (without waiting for something in return).

When the tough times come and a crisis hits you, you will need all the support you can get.

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4. Learn to manage your mental state

Because you have no other choice. Knock, knock – you are the leader. All eyes are on you.

Kaidi Ruusalepp, founder at Funderbeam and former CEO at the Tallinn Stock Exchange shared with me a story about it.

One morning she woke up “on the wrong side of the bed”. On the way to the office, she was stuck in traffic and the weather was bad. At work, her office was at the end of the corridor, so she had to walk past everybody else’s desks. Within 15 minutes, the head of HR was at her door. “Kaidi, what’s wrong?”, she asked. “Nothing… Everything is fine. I just had a bad morning. I didn’t get my coffee yet.. That’s all.” “OK. Good” – said the HR lady. “Because a few people from the team came to my office and asked me if everything is alright? Is someone getting fired or what’s going on?”. This morning Kaidi learned – that how you show up – matters a lot.

In crisis time your first responsibility is to find your strength.

What gets you back on track? For some it can be:

  • Closing your eyes and doing breathing exercises for a few minutes
  • Taking a break and going for a short walk to clear your thoughts
  • Going for a run
  • Sharing the challenge with someone from your support network, seeking advice and perspective on the issue
  • Opening your notebook and journaling your thoughts
  • Listening to a specific song that brings you back to a better mental state

Whatever it is, do it fast. In crisis response speed is of high essence.

No matter how much you prepare, some crises are inevitable. It will hit you and it will hit you hard. Don’t be discouraged. It’s part of the journey. And you signed up for it. Show up strong and lead. Good luck!

If you want to learn more make sure to check out our new book PERFORM in Times of Crisis. It Includes examples & cases from 60+ highly successful entrepreneurs and business leaders.


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