When trouble strikes – will you be prepared?

This is the first of two columns excerpted from a talk to the Drexel EMBA Alumni Lyceum in November 2011 entitled, Leaders Under Siege.

TROUBLE NEVER SEEMS TO COME WHEN IT'S CONVENIENT or when everything and everyone you need is close at hand.

Transient

When 9/11 struck, Jeff Immelt had only been CEO for few days and most of GE's top management was away from headquarters. Then all the airports were shut down, making immediate return flights impossible.

Thankfully, events like 9/11 or whatever is a critical situation or crisis of equal magnitude for you happen rarely, but they do happen. What should you do to be better prepared...to be in a stronger, more capable position?

Here are a few guidelines that are simple and low cost... but could be extremely helpful should you need them.

1. Think now about what you would need if trouble struck.

I know. You're thinking that there are a million possible situations that could arise. Maybe. But actually most fall into a few categories. Identify those categories,  think them through, and you will be ready to respond and adapt to almost anything.  Here's how...

Pull together a few of your key people for a one hour session and divide the time into 10-15 minute chunks. Tell them you are going to set up four possible scenarios to help them focus on things most likely to happen to you.

Setup:    Imagine we had a very serious situation erupt suddenly involving (pick four such as these:  a technology failure, a natural disaster, a big legal problem, bad news, a leadership transition, a scandal or a financial trauma). Then for each of the four scenarios, ask questions like these:

Q:   In this type of situation, what would be  our priorities?

Q:   In the first  minutes and hours, what would we do right away?

Q:   What would we need in terms of resources?

Q:   Who needs to be available to us?

Leaders who regularly ask their teams to think about and discuss what-if scenarios(whether about trouble or competition or the future or anything) tend to build into their people stronger skills of both strategic and quick thinking. It's not difficult to do. It just takes a bit of discipline to build that kind of thinking into the leadership culture – and later to encourage it to filter throughout the organization.

RECOMMENDATION    Get your team together for one hour and start to train them in how to respond to difficult situations rapidly. Keep the session moving rapidly so they feel the urgency of making good decisions fast.

2. Choose your team for each kind of scenario.

During my talk, I explained that this area is all about saving time and increasing confidence and certainty for the person(s) in charge of a critical situation or crisis. And it's both simple to do and costs nothing.

Here's how it works. We advise CEOs and leaders to figure out who their ideal team of advisors is, and get every single one into the speed dial sections of their smart phones. That way, when a situation arises, you start calling the right people immediately. No delays. No fumbling. No excuses.

Here are some of the questions to ask your team – and yourself:

Q:   Who do we need on the team and ready for action?

Q:   Who is best suited to being in charge for each type of situation?

Q:   How would we communicate with each other? What if the usual ways aren't working?

Not only should 911 be on your speed dial, but all your advisers and department heads and the people that you would need to reach so that you can go right down the list and make the calls or delegate them to somebody else. This way you have the numbers, the information, the email and text addresses, all available instantly – right at your fingertips 24/7.  There's no looking around.  There's no wondering what to do.

Why not just have a list in your desk?  That's fine, but it's not enough. The list should be in your smart phone. After all, you may not be in your office. It may be the middle of the night. Your office may damaged. No, the list has to be with you.  Better yet, if you can send group emails or texts and alert everyone on your situation team at once and ask them to reply with an ETA immediately, you have saved  a lot of time – and they can start taking action such as communicating with their people – immediately.

Those first few minutes are invaluable – and it's critical you pull your team together quickly and efficiently. This can all be set up in advance by an administrative person or by you while you're watching TV. Simple to do , but it could be extraordinarily valuable when you need it.

RECOMMENDATION    Appoint your leadership teams for the kinds of situations most likely to occur and make sure everyone has at least a basic understanding of their role and priorities. They can adapt as needed if what happens is somewhat different.

RECOMMENDATION    Get your leadership team lists into everyone's smartphone ASAP. You know how to do a phone tree for the kids' soccer games. The same principles apply here. Use the technology you have.

3. Decide in advance who will speak for you. And who does not.

The issue of your spokesperson(s) is also important. We typically recommend that you have a plan in place for two different kinds of spokesperson.

One spokesperson deals with internal issues and can manage and speak to the issues that are going on inside the company. This is often an operations or management person, and as high ranking as possible, and who can also answer questions and provide leadership to your people.

In the case of an external threat or problem, a second spokesperson is needed. This individual should probably be the CEO or highest ranking officer available who is skilled and able to talk to the media. You have to understand that the world is watching at this point (at least your world and those that matter to you). They are watching how you perform under enormous pressure, and they want to know what is happening – especially concerning any family or friends – and how well  the company functions.

Make no mistake. A difficult situation or crisis is a test. All those who are watching will make judgments about your leadership and the company – including how in control of the situation you seem to be. These judgments can stay with you for years and affect careers. Therefore it's important to have people who are trained and skilled, ready to go, can think on their feet, deliver clear messages, and have the confidence to say we don't know yet.  Ask questions like these:

Q:   Do we have skilled people with actual experience under fire to speak for us – not do we simply think they are ready?

Q:   Should we get them some professional training to make sure they are ready and don't make unfortunate mistakes?

Q:   Do people who are NOT designated to speak know how to handle inquiries politely and refer questions to the right people?

RECOMMENDATION    Appoint one or more spokespersons and get them some training from a media pro. They'll get practice and learn how to be smart and assured in tough situations and how to give information, confidence and reassurance to all those who need and deserve it.

RECOMMENDATION    Develop a simple policy about who speaks for the company and who does not. Make it part of employee training, along with simple guidelines about referring questions to designated personnel.  And then immediately activate the policy, reminding people what to do (and not do) should the need arise.

This topic continues in a second column entitled, When trouble strikes, do you know what to do FIRST?

Carl Francis