Uncertainty tests your values: 5 stories from times of crisis

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Leading is imperfect, and when a crisis piles on, it gets extra messy. Crisis requires we become decisive about problems we’ve never faced. Good leaders get extra brave, extra calm, and extra clear in moments like this one.

I’ve owned a bootstrapped, debt-free company for 32 years, and have ridden this crisis pony five times. How leaders face crises shapes a company culture and values. Duarte’s values of Belong, Lead, Innovate, and Serve (BLIS) have been forged during times of pressure and heat — and not just from all the free food and great parties.

At our monthly all-staff meeting, Mark and I shared five stories-of-crisis from Duarte’s history book. Now, we’re sharing them here. Through living these stories, we started to see that each dark side of a crisis delivers beauty, redemption, and sprouts of new beginnings.

The fifth crisis, is the one we’re in now — and our values have already sprung into action!

Instead of freaking out, the team fast-tracked more virtual training, and hosted a webinar on communicating virtually with empathy.

Exploring crisis stories

A crisis brings a test of our resilience, resolve, and values. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned through crises along the way.

1989, Loma Prieta earthquake: Prepare for the unexpected

My husband, Mark, started Duarte, Inc. in 1988 — so we were only a wee bit into this adventure. I was working my “real job” at an electronics distributor in the Silicon Valley, and Mark was home in our tiny, but beloved, 2-bedroom apartment.

He was whizzing away on his MacPlus 512k trying to hit a deadline when the 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit. He had five open project folders on his desk at the time (compared to the 443 we have open today.) We had no overhead and no employees, but knew that we were not prepared for the financial hit.

That night, we bonded with our neighbors, knowing that a bad thing happened, and none of us had properly prepared — but that together, we were more prepared. There was a common understanding that we may have just avoided “the big one.”

Mark and I didn’t ever want to be unprepared again. Business slowed, but was thriving again by fall of 1990, when I officially joined Mark in this beautiful journey of entrepreneurship. Then, he let me take it over. How sweet.

1993, Apple Layoffs: React, but don’t be reactive

Apple was our biggest client for the first few years, and when the Large Business Marketing department was dissolved, the bulk of our work went away overnight.

We waited and waited for things to turn around. After about a month, we laid off one of our two employees. Who, as you’d have it, were engaged … to each other! It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Our account guy was really great, like a son to me. We wept.

I never wanted to feel that way again because we were like family. A few weeks after, the phone started to ring again. All the Apple contacts had spread around the valley like beautiful seeds and began to call again from their new employers.

That layoff became the flashpoint of growth in the business. We hired back our beloved employee and he stayed for 13 more years. I’ll always regret pulling the trigger on laying him off so quickly. We didn’t quite understand economic cycles.

So, the next time this crisis-pony came around, we weren’t as surprised, and wanted to be sure we passed the test.




2000-2001, Dot Com Crash and 9/11: Do what your soul knows is right

The dot-com crash rolled around, and it was a biggie — twenty-five percent of our business went away, virtually overnight, and then with 9/11, it dropped even more.

Two dot com companies owed us lots-o-money. One owed $122k and the other owed $232k.

I asked many friends and spiritual advisors what to do. All of them said to bankrupt the companies because a bankruptcy in the valley for a CEO is like a badge of honor — it’s part of the risk / reward, risk / fail culture that makes this place powerful. These CEOs risk / failed.

It was only our corporate chaplain who said to forgive them, saying, “humankind has been forgiven so much, and this is only money, why hold this debt against them?” It rang so true in our hearts, we decided to forgive the debts.

I’ll never forget later that day when Mark and I walked to the park across the street from our office, took off our shoes, and danced in the grass because we knew we were making a sacred, not a secular, decision.

When I called the CEO and explained I was going to forgive the debt, he cried. I asked him to pay it forward, and said, “If you ever hold someone over a financial barrel, will you promise to forgive them too?” He agreed. He and I stay in touch to this day (he’s kind of a big deal).

I can look you in the eye and confidently say, this act of grace, is why we supernaturally bounced out of this crisis. At the same time, we kept the promise to ourselves that we would not make hasty decisions, but instead would do our best to ride out hard times with wisdom.

Downturns? They’re just the rhythm of doing business.

2008, The Great Recession: Create the future

Somehow, I knew this one was coming, 18 months before it happened.

My internal company presentations in late 2007 and much of 2008 came across like Chicken Little screaming “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” I would say, over and over, that we needed to optimize our process because financial hardship was eminent.

It hadn’t dawned on me that many of the millennials in my employ had not yet experienced a financial or business crisis, and couldn’t understand my urgency. At one point, a manager told me I would lose my internal credibility if I kept speaking of it.

When my friend Garr Reynolds encouraged me to write my first book, Slide:ology, I got that internal jolt and knew I needed to do it. I wrote as if the future of the company depended on this book.

Writing a book is h-a-r-d and it worked a new muscle for me.

When I FedEx’d color printouts to four publishers, I knew that this book needed to be on the shelf by my son’s birthday — September 3rd. I went with the only publisher who would commit to that date, and they were thankfully able to publish it quickly.

The book was published August 12, 2008. Not even one month later, the financial housing crisis tanked the global economy.

Many service firms and creative consultancies went out of business that year. Duarte stayed flat, and I couldn’t have been happier. That year, flat was the new growth.

After the book launched, calls flooded in for training, and it launched our thriving training department which is still transforming communicators by the thousands. This financial moment redefined the business model, and many employees who went through this season at Duarte still work with us today.

During this time, we learned that innovation is formed from chaos. Even though the world will change around us, innovation will always open doors.

2020: COVID-19 Pandemic: Values drive the outcome

When the novel coronavirus attacked the Bay Area, all 124 Duarte employees seamlessly flipped to working from home. Luckily, we had a flexible WFH policy, and a stellar Zoom set-up, already in place.

In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, the agility and fearlessness of the Duarte team has been humbling. As part of our value to “Lead,” the team has truly become generous experts. They’ve pulled forward a solid two months of innovation.

Most of our big customers are moving their huge corporate events to virtual ones, and guess who’s ridden that remote pony too? Yep, we jumped right into action and were prepared with innovative ways to make their presentations immersive and interactive, through the computer screen, instead of stage.

I take great delight in seeing our values seamlessly underpin our way of being and doing, even in the face of crisis. Fiscal strength helps me sleep like a baby. We won’t be reactive, but we will be wise.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m always brave and clear. I’m not. I’m about as linear as a hummingbird. Not every employee likes how I lead. Leading is hard, and I’m far from perfect.

But over the last 32 years, I’ve learned what it means to be resilient, and how important it is to stay true to your values — and, keep an eye out for the new ones forming, under pressure, right under your nose.


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Illustrated by Jonathan Valiente

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