After more than two decades in charge of the company she started as a 25-year-old, Nina Vaca has faced her fair share of crises. These challenges have been both professional and personal, but no matter what form the crisis takes, she knows that there are certain things she has to do to be able to meet them head on.
Vaca has guided Pinnacle Group, a workforce solutions company, through these times all while raising four children with her husband Jim. Her ability to navigate family challenges while heading up a thriving business was honed as a teenager when she and her sister had to take over the family travel agency after the tragic death of their father.
As she developed business skills and learned how to run the business, she was driven to get a college degree. Once she had her degree, she moved to New York City but soon missed her family and moved to Texas where they were living. In Dallas she founded Pinnacle Group, an IT staffing firm. Everything began going her way—she was winning new clients, growing the company, getting married, having kids—and then it all came to a grinding halt with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Suddenly, none of her clients needed her business anymore. The economy was crashing and Pinnacle Group was heading down with it. She even had a liquidation plan in place, but instead of putting it into action, she decided to stop taking a salary and start seeking solutions. Eventually she and Pinnacle Group figured out what their clients needed and pivoted the business to meet those needs. After, they had even better relationships with clients, and the company was on more financially sound footing than before.
Vaca and her associates used this same strategy to overcome the 2008 financial crisis and several other personal and professional challenges. Even with the COVID-19 global pandemic, Pinnacle Group has continued to grow because of the same principles of seeking solutions, pivoting to client needs and financially sound practices.
Vaca’s experiences have taught her important lessons about how to respond when crisis strikes. Here are her top five pieces of advice for facing challenges:
Vaca says that the lessons she and Pinnacle Group learned from their experience after 9/11 has served them well during the COVID crisis as well as other crises they’ve encountered. The most important thing in a crisis is what you’ve done before it even hits.
“Your past serves as an incredible teacher for the future. We learned a long time ago about diversifying our portfolio, having a healthy balance sheet, doubling down on infrastructure, reinvesting in the company and making the right technology investments,” Vaca says.
Making those smart decisions before a crisis can help keep you afloat while you search for ways to survive, or even thrive. Maybe you don’t own a business like Vaca, but principles like diversifying your portfolio, saving money, and investing time and money into improving yourself are smart no matter your circumstances.
2. Respond, don’t react.
“It’s very important for a leader to not react but to respond. And that means taking the time necessary to gain the perspective and be thoughtful about setting your course of action,” Vaca says.
It’s so easy to try to immediately think of quick ways to fix the problems that have been caused by an unforeseen challenge, but it’s much more effective to take a step back and take the time to do your research and ask the right questions—to respond appropriately.
3. Be honest.
“Transparency is imperative in a time of crisis,” Vaca says. She has found that as a leader, people are often looking to you for answers, but they will always know when you’re bending the truth. And that doesn’t just apply to leadership, it applies to people in all challenging situations. It’s much more important to be honest and admit when you don’t know the answers, but that also means you need to do what you can to find the answers.
4. Be empathetic.
Sometimes a crisis doesn’t hit you as hard as it hits your co-workers, friends or family members. That is when empathy really comes into play. Talking with those who are going through something very difficult and offering ways you can help, even if you are also struggling through similar issues, can be a way to not only help others but to help yourself.
As the CEO, it could appear that Vaca might not be able to sympathize with what her employees are going through, but she makes it a priority to learn the challenges they are facing and ways that she and the company can help. “Empathy is an incredible part of leadership, to be able to put yourself in their shoes. To lead them and role model what they can be if they’re willing to put in the work,” Vaca says.
5. Work on transforming.
Often the focus in the midst of a crisis is trying to get back to “normal,” but Vaca says that’s the wrong mindset. Crises fundamentally change us, and we shouldn’t focus on going back to the way things were before these challenges. Instead, Vaca recommends working on transforming during these times so that you come better on the other side.
In difficult times, people have to adapt by learning new skills and adopting new habits. Vaca says it’s important to reflect and focus on what new skills you want to take from it as well as any old habits you want to keep. By combining your recent experience with existing positive processes, you may find you emerge from the crisis with a new skill set or a new way of doing business. Instead of reverting to the way you did things before, you transform into a more well-rounded person, ready to meet the next challenge head on.
No one asks for challenges to come, but they inevitably do. How you respond determines how well you will recover.