Friday, April 23, 2010

First Time - Part 21: A Crisis

This is part 21 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Something bad just happened. Even if you have planned for this type of event, it is almost a certainty that whatever has happened is not exactly what you planned for, and it is an even higher likelihood that ‘today is a bad day’ for X to happen.

So, What do you do?

First, remain calm. Take a deep breath and remember that few things are as bad as they first seem, and even if they are, yelling and rubbing your hands raw will only spread worry and angst among your people. You, as the leader, must remain calm and, just as important, you must appear calm.

Second, call everyone in and get the facts. That first report that you heard that got everyone spun up is probably not accurate. You will soon find out that reports – even from the most trusted sources – get garbled during a crisis. Take a few minutes and get the facts. If the event is short duration event at a specific site, go to the site. You have to trust your people, but if you really want to understand the situation you need to get to the site, see it, hear it, talk to the folks at the site.

Third, if there is a safety issue, act on that aspect of the crisis right away, even while you are collecting facts. If you think folks should move out of a building, for example, act on that now. You can always send them back in. Don’t let safety take a back seat. If anyone has been injured, make sure they get treatment – first aid/CPR – immediately, and then get them to a hospital or clinic. Once the situation has stabilized, you will need to follow-up with them and make certain they are OK and also notify their families. Also, make sure you can account for everyone, including any guests in your facility.

Fourth, once you have moved past the immediate uproar, consider pulling one of your smarter folks aside and have him start constructing a plan to get things back to normal.

Fifth, if you see something that you feel warrants immediate action – Act! It is impossible to recover those moments, and there are few bosses who will be upset if you act to try to reduce the ‘damage.’ On the other hand, standing around and waiting for guidance is a good way to send the signal that you aren’t needed. One simple rule is that in a crisis you should be thinking about not only your role, but also the role of your boss, if he were there. If he is not, act for him, then follow the next step.

Sixth, notify your boss about the situation, what you know so far, what you are doing about it, and any additional help you may need. If you have any ideas on how to ameliorate the problem (perhaps ideas that occurred to you in the planning we will discuss below), now is the time to offer them to your boss. A crisis is bad, but when someone comes to you with a crisis, but also with some ideas, the crisis can be a lot easier to deal with.

The above are all BFOs – Blinding Flashes of the Obvious. They are also the things people forget in the midst of any yelling. And the best means to handle crises is to prepare for them. Consider this: there are really just a few categories of disasters: short duration (natural - severe winter storm, a fire, or a flood - or man-made (large scale accident) - or professional (a poor decision by someone – in your organization or not – that means you can’t accomplish your mission on time); and long duration (a recession or a war, etc.)

In the case of natural disasters, most of these situations can be at least minimized with some fairly simple planning. Have you followed normal fire safety procedures and is the building at least up to ‘code?’ Do your people all know what they are supposed to do in case of a fire? Do you follow safety rules concerning storage of flammables, etc? Similar questions can be asked about flooding if your facility is near a river or in a floodplain, etc. Are you near an area that can be hit by a hurricane? Are you in an earthquake prone area? In each case you need to make sure that you have thought through the steps you will follow to minimize risk to your people and to minimize the impact on your operations in the event any of these things occur.

You also need to make sure that you have procedures in place to protect key items: intellectual property, key equipment, etc. For example, are your blueprints copied and the copies stored someplace other than in your facility, someplace safe in the event of some catastrophe? There are checklists that are available on the Internet to help you answer a wide range of questions and help you prepare for these kinds of crises. For simple operations these checklists, and a few hours spent on these questions on a quiet afternoon every quarter will provide an 80% solution. For more complex situations there are any number of consultants who can assist your organization in preparing a ‘continuity of operations’ plan.

That answers some of the ‘simple’ crises you may face. But what do you do when the crisis is complex and persistent, when for example your industry is hit with a severe economic contraction?

The answer again is planning. What to do when your industry (to take one case) is plunged into a depression? This kind of planning begins when you ask yourself a few ‘what ifs?’ Once simple approach to this planning is to set aside one afternoon a month for a ‘what if’ session. Tell your people a week ahead of time that ‘next Friday afternoon we are going to spend the last three hours of the day thinking about hurricane (or whatever) preparation. Come prepared to talk.’ When next Friday arrives, buy a few pizzas and have everyone meet and talk about what they think, their experiences, what they have learned. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Planning can be easy if you do it well ahead of time. Right down everyone’s thoughts and create a short point paper. You have the first plan. Keep doing this, once a month.

At the beginning of summer, spend one session on hurricanes, or tornados (whichever is more prevalent in your area). If you are in an area prone to earthquakes, talk about your procedures for earthquakes. Make sure you have a plan that includes taking care of your people and their families. If nothing else, you need to know what your organization can and can’t do. Before autumn arrives, take time to look at your winter storm response plan.

Once you have a few of these plans under your belt, move beyond the realm of nature and start to look at the issue of man-made disasters and crises. Again, whether it is physical, economic or technological, some simple ‘table-top’ exercises (a ‘table-top’ need be no more complex then simply a brain-storming session where you sit around with some other folks and ask ‘what if?’ then talk yourselves through what you need to do if the following things – X, Y, or Z – occur) can make a world of difference in how you respond during the first few hours and days of any crisis.

As an example, have a ‘brain-storming Friday’ during which the question to answer/crisis to address is: Imagine our #1 competitor just developed a new technology, system or process that allows them to do what we do, but at half the cost. How do we compete? This is a hard question do deal with. But one thing is certain, spending time thinking about it before it happens may well be the thing that prevents it from happening.

One final thing: once a crisis has begun, don’t assign blame – that will happen anyway – just let someone else do that. If a specific person failed to act properly, ask yourself what should have been done to prepare that person to act properly: what training or drills should they have received that would have prevented the problem? Crises are an opportunities to fix things and prepare for the future.


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