How to Get Out of a Corporate Financial Crisis

It is inevitable that you will at some point in your career face a situation that requires extraordinary courage under fire. For Citigroup, the world’s largest financial services company, that time is now. So far, the response is not impressive.

Part of the explanation may be the insular nature of the Citigroup’s culture. According to The New York Times, Citigroup’s CEO Charles Prince worried about the risk posed by mortgage-backed securities in 2007, but received assurances that Citigroup’s balance sheet was in good shape. How wrong can you be? Now Citigroup’s new CEO Vikram S. Pandit is facing his biggest test.

There are two rules to follow in a crisis. Rule number one is this: Protect other people first; customers, employees and citizens. Not your shareholders or yourself. Protect the public and your customers, and the shareholders will follow. Why? Because the company’s long-term reputation and goodwill are more important than any short-term risk to shareholder value or your own job security. Rule number two is a corollary to the first: Be prepared to reframe and expand your level of responsibility. In other words, accept responsibility even if you’re not at fault. This may feel counter-intuitive, especially when someone else is clearly culpable. But reframing and expanding your level of responsibility will help lead you out of the crisis.

Consider this well-known example. In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Eleven million of oils spilled onto pristine shoreline. In the immediate aftermath, Exxon’s CEO Lawrence Rawl was slow to accept responsibility. Instead he issued a flurry of press releases stating that the company was investigating the accident. The opportunity to quickly contain the spill was squandered. Hundreds of miles of coastline were fouled. Public furor built and the company’s reputation plunged. Several weeks passed before Rawl grudgingly announced that the company would take responsibility for the clean up. Eventually, thousands of workers and volunteers were mobilized to mop up the oil, save the wildlife, and minimize the damage to the extent possible. But Exxon’s public image was left in tatters because its immediate response was too slow. William Reilly, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said Rawl’s response was “a casebook example of how not to communicate to the public when your company messes up.” Rawl’s reputation never recovered.

In contrast, when a container of Odwalla apple juice contaminated by the bacteria e coli resulted in the death of a child in 1996, CEO Greg Stepensall stepped in right away and assumed personal responsibility. He recalled every Odwalla product. He paid out huge sums to the families affected by the tainted products. He held regular press conferences to ensure the public knew what was going on and how the company was responding. For more than a year, Odwalla retooled its production lines, adding flash pasteurization to ensure no future incidents could occur. Sales fell 90 percent but Odwalla survived with its reputation intact.

As the Exxon Valdez and Odwalla examples show, leaders have a clear choice in how they frame their response to a crisis. On the one hand, they can respond out of a “protect ourselves” mentality, as Exxon did in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Or leaders can think and act out of a larger ethical context, as Odwalla did. Citigroup has committed the financial equivalent of that catastrophic oil spill. Let’s see how they respond.

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