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|Friday, March 28, 2014|
BY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER
As the world watched the unfolding mystery of Flight 370, and the seemingly inept response by various officials and agencies, the wise manager or leader should feel worried. (The horrible mud-slide in Washington State is even closer to home, for those of us fortunate enough not to have had friends or relatives on Flight 370.)
Because any one of us could be next in the public hot seat. The next mysterious (or disastrous) event could be one that you or your team might suddenly need to respond to, probably under intense scrutiny.
Scrutiny, perhaps not by the world’s media — but by your boss, the CEO, the Board, or a regulatory body.
Turns out, a crisis is a terrible time to have to learn the improvisational skill of responding to the unexpected.
How can anyone “learn to handle the unexpected” — isn’t that a logical impossibility?
No. It’s actually simple — it takes a bit of practice.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take today to make yourself and your team more resilient and flexible at handling any sort of unexpected, emergent threat or opportunity.
In a Crisis, You Must Lead
Followers and bystanders alike expect leaders to lead. That means in a crisis, you will be put on the spot, and you will be expected to act like you know what you are doing.
Whether you are the Prime Minister of Malaysia, or the owner of a local oil change franchise, you will bear the burden.
Do not succumb to the temptation of thinking that nobody trained you for this, so somehow expectations will be low. I promise you, nowhere in the handbook for being Prime Minister of Malaysia, is there a chapter on what to do when a plane mysteriously vanishes.
A lack of training, or the entirely true fact that nobody else foresaw this, will not protect you from harsh judgments.
And you should not simply be focused on protecting your reputation. In leadership, fast action can mean the difference between life and death. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin could have saved hundreds of lives by taking decisive action before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
(Nagin ignored instructions to evacuate early, and wasted 12 critical hours by not having the evacuation order written in advance, an obvious precaution. He failed to use available buses for the evacuation, and later ignored state and federal offers of help. Over 700 bodies were later recovered in the city. Dozens more have never been found.)
Today, it looks like no reaction would’ve made any difference for Flight 370, but when the next disaster comes, and it belongs to you, you have no way of knowing in advance what kind of stakes are playing for: your reputation, your career, or somebody’s life.
Here are the things you should do, whether you are a CEO or a team leader, to prepare yourself and your team for both the foreseeable and the unforeseeable:
Accept the Necessity
As a former GE strategic planner once put it, the most neglected aspect of senior management strategic thinking is in the area of risks. I would add, leaders neglect both risks and unexpected upsides.
As I was writing this, I realized I didn’t have what I advise — a one-page list of significant risks and opportunities. I brainstormed one in 20 minutes, starting with an Internet search (below) for risk categories to spur my imagination. The real trick is to keep it updated without going overboard — identify too many risks and you’ll feel overwhelmed and prepare for none of them. Here’s my short list, with my mitigation plan for each:
Top Risks for Tom on Leadership and Cox Business Consulting
Next, create yours.
You’re only prepared to the extent you actually do the work, not just read this list and tell yourself you should do it. Some techniques:
If you have an officer or senior team member who loves security or preparation or avoiding risk, this is a great task for them to own.
Make it a Game
Build mental flexibility by toying with the risks in a more-than-casual way, but nothing too serious. Here’s one of my favorites:
Doing this for ten minutes per month or per quarter is not a lot of work — and it makes people think.
Then annually hold a ‘real’ table-top disaster response exercise for senior staff down to front line supervisors. Combine it with food and some other annual activities. A free resource is here and there are many more good planning resources online. Most good consultants will be able to assist with facilitating the exercise and with helping your people make good plans.
Tom Cox blogs on leadership for Oregon Business.
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