What happens when the worst November snowstorm in history hits New York City on the inaugural day of your leadership development event? You roll with it baby! Here are a few insights on how to stay cool under pressure when things don’t go as you planned.
The snow had already piled high on the ground and was falling at a fast clip as my team and I were arriving at the WarnerMedia building in Columbus Circle. We tried to keep our boots out of the puddles that were quickly forming in the sidewalk while keeping our heads down to avoid messing up our hairdos. It wasn’t easy.
The worst snowstorm to hit New York City in November had caught it unprepared. And of course it had to fall on the day when we were hosting “Celebrating True Inclusion Stars” with a Cocktail Reception and an Awards Ceremony. It was the evening before our 7thannual RSM Signature Event and we were honoring leaders who had won the Hall of Fame and Red Shoe Leader awards during 2018. Guests were coming from Europe, Central and South America, Canada and the U.S. Thankfully, the out-of-towners had arrived right before the storm. The biggest problem for most people was to get to the venue from their hotels and homes.
As you can imagine, we were bombarded by messages from people being stuck in the highway, or without a cab. And from executives to honorees to our team members who had a role in the event who couldn’t make it. It was one of those moments when your patience and trouble-shooting skills are sorely tested. One of the opportunities to truly practice your executive presence.
Insights on how to stay cool under pressure
1Have a back up person for every key player
As can be expected when you put together a major event, last minute challenges are the norm. The day before the Cocktail Reception, we almost lost our EMCEE who wasn’t feeling great. As we anxiously searched for a replacement (and luckily found one) he called back to inform us he was doing better and was pretty sure he’d be fine for the next two days. But the truth is we hadn’t even thought about having a stand-in for our EMCEE. Big mistake. You should treat your leadership event as theater producers treat every play. They have understudies at the ready for each main actor.
2Train every member of your team to play more than one role
Some of the most important “losses” we experienced as a result of the storm were in our own staff. We didn’t learn about these absences until the very, very last minute as they were trying to reach our location and got stuck for several hours on the road. So a decision needed to be made right then and there to tell them to turn back and go home safely while we reassigned their responsibility to someone else. Now, how can you do this if nobody else knows the task at hand? We had a large team who knew what the event needed to look like, and what was expected of each person. Everyone had a general idea of what the others were responsible for. So it was relatively easy to delegate the roles to different people on the spot.
3Script as much as possible
I don’t mean to suggest that you should micromanage the team. But when you put together a leadership development event or any other kind of event, there are certain key aspects that need to be scripted. From the remarks everyone in your team will deliver, to the flow of the event, to the bios of key participants, and so on. The more you can put into writing the easier it becomes to provide the script to someone that has to quickly stand in for someone else.
4Use humor and engage the audience
Resorting to humor when things don’t go as planned is one of the best tactics to stay cool under pressure. Being transparent about what’s happening and what’s wrong fosters empathy and as a result builds patience. It helps you get people to cut you some slack.
As the storm delayed some of our honorees, we had to shift the order in which they were being asked to come up to stage to receive their award and say a few words.
The slides had been prepared with the AV department as a PDF, however, and they could not be shifted from their original order. So, we went around changing the name signs on the seats to keep straight the order in which each honoree was supposed to go on stage. But we couldn’t change the order on the slides projected on a movie-size screen. We had to play with the clicker moving the slides back and forth to find the right honoree. As this job fell on me, I made fun of the situation: “Moving back in time, we now call x” or “And now, we enter the time machine again and we move forward to y…” Making the audience part of the joke helps to keep things light and irons out any wrinkles in your perfectly planned presentation.
Even one the directors of our event, Teresa Correa, opened up the Award Ceremony by saying that the snowstorm showed the power of the Red Shoe Movement to give guests a true New York City experience.
5Be present with those who are present
When it comes to putting together a large event, there’s a common reaction when something happens (like a snowstorm) and not all the people who had confirmed their attendance can make it. I’ve been in many a conference when the organizers spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about those who didn’t come. The truth is that you should have the best event for those who did. And rather than spending time disregarding the audience you have, you should always be gracious, and grateful to them for showing up. That’s what we always do and this time was no different. Although, surprisingly, we hit the numbers we were hoping for, we could’ve had a lot more. We acknowledge the unsuccessful efforts others had made to join us and left it at that. The rest of the evening was focused on making our guests have a wonderful time.
Yes, this post is about a professional event and a snowstorm. But many of these tips work for any other kind of situation when you need to remain cool under pressure. When you have a seemingly impossible deadline, when you’re faced with any type of work-related crises or with the upcoming holidays. Preparing for it, using humor and rolling with the punches is a strategy that always works in your favor.