When trouble strikes – do you know what to do FIRST?

This is the second of two columns excerpted from a presentation at the Drexel EMBA Alumni Lyceum in November 2011 entitled, Leaders Under Siege.

Tragedy struck just minutes ago. Do you know what to do first? Do you have a plan of action in your head so you can do the right things immediately?

I am convinced that CEOs and other leaders need to be prepared so that they know what to do instantly -- and can respond quickly to difficult situations where they may have to stand in front of the media or to employees.

Here are two simple things you can put into place right now to be better prepared.

I give them a very simple system they can set up in one minute. It will help them to know exactly what to track and what to say. Here are my instructions:

1. First get a clipboard and at least two pieces of paper.

Fold two pages in half. At the top of the first sheet write KNOW on the left half and DON'T KNOW on the right half.

Transient

On the second page, again in the left half write DONE and on the right half, DOING.

Under the KNOW heading, begin to list those things that you have reasonable certainty are the case. On the right, write in those things you do not know yet.

Transient

On the second page, jot down what's definitely been done so far (including any times available), and then on the right of that page, what is in the process of being done (and when it reasonably might be completed. You can update later as information comes in.

Here's how part of a briefing might go -- using your two pages:

"Ladies and gentleman, I am Michael Brady, the CEO of OSI Energy, and I am going to take you through what we know at this time and what we do not yet know, and then what has been done so far and what we are in the process of doing. And I will take a few questions at the end as time permits.

"We know that this incident occurred at about 5:00 pm this evening and continues even now. We believe it involved only one facility, our north pumping station. We estimate that 14 people were on duty in or around the building at that time, and all but two have been accounted for so far. There have only been minor injuries reported among the 12 and all are assisting in the shutdown and containment process.

From the DON'T YET KNOW side, (you might say) "I want to caution you about the two people that we have not heard from yet or have been able to locate.  We are hopeful that they're fine and involved in the containment operation and simply haven't checked in with us yet. They are trained to help others first and reduce any dangers that remain and then to report in. We're hopeful that that's the case, but we simply do not know that yet. We do not yet have any reports of serious injuries, but we do not know for certain either way. And of course we welcome your thoughts and prayers for everyone involved."

2.  Continue with the DONE and DOING pages in the same manner, keeping it as factual as possible.

As events unfold, having a system like this becomes critical in being able to talk to the media, to your team and keep your information straight. It also saves you from having to flip a lot of pages. It's so important to know immediately where the information is and where to write things, and of course your two pages can be supplemented with any updates that come in. The clipboard allows you to have a secure place to put stuff. You can also use it as the basis to delegate tasks and then follow up.

RECOMMENDATION    One last tip -- this clipboard is for YOUR eyes only -- and perhaps those of your senior team. NEVER put it down or let it out of your sight.

Carl Francis

For more on this topic, please see When Trouble Strikes, Will You Be Prepared?