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One Year Later-Seven Leadership Lessons from the Susan G. Komen Crisis

Friday, February 1, 2013
By James B. Moorhead, Steptoe & Johnson LLP

The Susan G. Komen Foundation is struggling one year after its January 2012 initial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. The New York Times reports that Komen's signature Race for the Cure attracted 19 percent fewer participants through October 2012 than in the same period the previous year. The Times cites a recent study showing Komen's “brand health” fell 21 percent, a drop only exceeded by Fannie Mae in recent years. Komen seems torn about what role its controversial founder, Nancy Brinker, should have going forward. Let's look back and pinpoint for other organizations seven crisis management lessons from the Komen disaster.

Focus. Focus. Focus.

We've all heard the expressions “stick to your knitting,” “keep your eye on the ball,” and “stay focused.” For companies and non-profits, straying from the organization's core mission is a recipe for disaster. Komen played with political firecrackers and jeopardized its core mission of finding a cure for breast cancer when it initially decided to fund Planned Parenthood because of Planned Parenthood's broader and more politically-charged mission. Komen's decision to defund Planned Parenthood then sparked the explosion. Komen's ordeal reminds other organizations why they should remain laser-focused on their missions.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

Komen's grants to Planned Parenthood in 2011 were relative pocket change for the breast cancer charity, around $700,000 from a budget of more than 400 million dollars. Yet the Planned Parenthood flare-up illustrates a classic phenomenon: big disasters are often triggered by small events. Large companies routinely dig out from messes created by small business units that broke the law and had been ignored by the companies' otherwise strong compliance programs. The takeaways? No part of your organization should escape scrutiny; every decision that has broader ramifications must undergo a rigorous, disciplined process.

All for One

At the center of the Komen controversy was now former Vice President Karen Handel. Handel had called for defunding Planned Parenthood when she was an unsuccessful Georgia gubernatorial candidate. Once Komen's decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood took the spotlight, Handel's political platform and anti-abortion stance suggested the decision was based on politics, not principle. All organizations should carefully consider their senior-level hires to ensure that their personnel have an undiluted focus on the mission without potential conflicting side agendas.

One for All

Komen's response to the firestorm reminded me of freshman U.S. Senator Terry Sanford from North Carolina, who in April 1987 wanted to vote against a major highway bill while his fellow Democrats wanted him to vote for it. Torn between his colleagues and his conscience, Sanford managed in the space of 24 hours to vote three different ways on the bill: “present,” “no,” and “yes.”

Komen fell into a similar trap. It originally said it decided not to fund Planned Parenthood because of newly adopted guidelines that barred grants to organizations under investigation. Then Komen's president said that the funding decision was not sparked by the congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood. The next day Komen reversed its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Companies under pressure must speak with one voice and provide consistent, accurate information. A mix of conflicting explanations triggers a loss of credibility.

Use a Wide Angle Lens

An aide to President Richard Nixon used to ask about presidential decisions under consideration, “How will it play in Peoria?” All organizations face the risk of succumbing to the fanciful view that they operate in hermetically sealed capsules where their decisions won't be scrutinized, second-guessed, and challenged. Keep the lens angle wide and the listening posts far-flung before making major decisions.

Be Flexible

After we make a mistake we must summon the strength not to worsen the situation. Of course, the best approach, as President Teddy Roosevelt advised, is to make great decisions from the outset so we aren't trying to dig out from our mistakes. But no organization throws a perfect game. So after a poor decision, stand tall and stop it. Komen did that well. Once it recognized its mistake, it quickly reversed its decision, apologized, and is in the process of working to restore its reputation.

Look Back

We all remember the Biblical story of Lot's wife who took a backward glance at Gomorrah and was reduced to a pillar of salt. Modern wise men have chimed in with similar warnings. Baseball pitcher Satchel Paige advised, “Don't look back, something might be gaining on you.”

When it comes to disasters, this advice is wrong. If you have just come through a crisis, look back, see what you did well, identify what you'd like to improve, and calculate how you can prevent future disasters.


Jim Moorhead is co-chair of the crisis management practice at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C. and author of The Instant Survivor: Right Ways to Respond When Things Go Wrong.

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