by Kim S. Nash

How to Be a Better Leader in a Disaster

Jun 29, 201115 mins
CIODisaster Recovery

From Japan’s triple disaster to tornadoes in the United States, catastrophe can strike anywhere. And when it does, your leadership will matter more than the specifics of your business-continuity plan. CIOs who have been through earthquakes and more share advice for calming, caring for and motivating employees who are coping with devastation.

Linda Goodspeed, vice president of IT at Nissan North America, was attending a global IT meeting at her company’s head office in Japan on March 11 and was caught in the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The quake was among the top seven most powerful ever recorded and the strongest ever to hit the country. “People were diving under desks. Women were crying. We could see fire outside,” she says. “Window blinds were moving three feet to the left and to the right. I thought the building would fall apart.”

Goodspeed wasn’t hurt, and, to her surprise, panic didn’t prevail. Her Japanese colleagues “went into repair mode,” she says, making sure visitors were OK, leading them to chairs in quiet rooms and providing comfort. “To see people execute on this was amazing.” (For tips on how to do this, see “4 Steps to Help Your IT Team When Disaster Strikes.”)

Her experience illuminates what may be an underappreciated aspect of disaster response: the preparation of corporate leaders and the workforce to handle intense, maybe unprecedented, pressure. CIOs are often initial responders to corporate emergencies, and they should understand the psychology of stress every bit as well as their IT contingency plans.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice. As companies integrate their operations with others’ around the world, they must prepare for a steady stream of trouble. CIOs have to consider the business and social turmoil that can be triggered by world events, including unpredictable natural disasters, social unrest and war—thousands of miles away from headquarters, perhaps, but nevertheless front and center.

A disaster’s dimensions can grow even within one emergency: After antigovernment protests this spring, ongoing civil war and prolonged Internet outages now disrupt life in Libya and in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Tornadoes and flooding devastate the U.S. Midwest and South. Companies doing business in Japan continue to deal with the effects of a deadly tsunami and nuclear radiation leaks. There, supply-chain disruptions now drag down the auto and electronics industries. At Nissan in April, global production dropped 22 percent from the year before, while exports from Japan sank 72 percent. In May, the company hoped to increase production but warned that it had to confirm parts delivery with its suppliers daily.

Despite the visible drama, many companies still rely on disaster-recovery plans that assume disruptions will be single and short, says Martin Gomberg, CIO of A&E Television Networks. In reality, the interconnected nature of global business demands new thinking about emergency planning. CIOs must replace outmoded ideas about returning to normal operations in three to five days with plans that consider the domino effect of disaster, says Gomberg, a business-continuity expert who founded Heroes Partnership, a group that helps companies and communities prepare for disasters. “When you talk about your business, you’re talking about your supply chain,” he says. Know their breakpoints as well as you do your own, he says.

Modern business-continuity plans must go beyond restoring operations to encompass the needs of employees, say Goodspeed, Gomberg and other IT leaders who have endured calamities. Critical practices include allocating time and physical space for employees to decompress, teaching them how to set up family emergency plans to relieve anxiety about the safety of loved ones, and recasting the mission of IT as making people—and therefore companies—perform at their best. Essential, too, is to nurture teams’ confidence in their decision-making capabilities, because command-and-control plans dictated from afar can delay recovery. Effective response, Goodspeed says, “is more than what’s on paper. It’s how you act during a disaster.”

If you haven’t incorporated these technology and management ideas, it’s time to rip up your business-continuity plan and start over.

Practice Teamwork

First to go may be the idea that a central power must make every decision. Sometimes people can’t wait for instructions from a senior leader before they need to act, so continuity plans need to disperse authority. Events on the ground can outpace the remote recovery process. Goodspeed, for example, was already on a plane home when she got an email from Nissan’s recovery group in the United States recommending that she stay in her hotel in Japan. “You have to factor in people’s personal resolve. They may do the unexpected, but it may work very well,” she says.

Screwed-up communications technology may also render a top-down plan useless. “You may not be able to reach the right executive,” Gomberg says. “You need default positions so people know what to do without specific instructions.”

CIOs can learn to formulate more-effective corporate-recovery plans by evaluating how formal and informal communities handle emergencies, says Elaine Scarry, a professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value at Harvard. She recently studied several kinds of dire situations, including natural disasters, nuclear fallout, and heart attacks that occurred all over the world, for her book, Thinking in an Emergency.

In New York and Los Angeles, about 1 percent of people who suffer cardiac arrest in public survive, compared with 5 percent in Stockholm and 12 percent in Osaka, Japan, according to Scarry. The X-factor? Governments and local organizations in Japan systematically train citizens in CPR. The more people there are who know CPR, the sooner a heart attack sufferer might receive it.

Equipping average citizens with the knowledge to handle an emergency, Scarry says, allows them to act when a problem arises, producing measurable results. For CIOs, the corollary is to train all staff in emergency basics, she says. That could include IT procedures, such as how to initiate failover to a different server when a data center is expected to flood. But personal preparedness training should also be in the toolkit, she says, including breathing exercises to keep calm and a pocket checklist for first aid.

Local decision making is most effective when that kind of competence is a habit, Scarry says. For example, in many areas of Japan, neighborhood groups take care of their town and each other. They regularly clean streets and make repairs to common areas. When an earthquake hits, those citizens aren’t necessarily trained in the specifics of managing a quake’s aftermath. But they have practiced looking out for each other for a long time, Scarry notes. Their sense of self-reliance and community responsibility means they don’t wait for a regional or national leader to assess the situation and authorize actions.

“If I were a corporate executive, I would look at my company and ask, How much hierarchy is there? Do people at all levels feel they have a lot to contribute?” she says. “The greatest asset we have in an emergency is intelligent persons at every nodal point.” Too much command-and-control can inhibit recovery. “People walk around looking for a leader rather than the clearest path of action.”

Getting practice working together, however, makes teamwork more automatic in an emergency. Staffers can then devote brain power to analyzing the exceptional conditions they face, says Luke Denmon, a project manager in data center advisory services at CB Richard Ellis, a $5.1 billion global commercial real estate company. Denmon’s group helps plan data centers for his own company and for major clients. “You want people to rally not just around the task but the people affected by the task.”

For example, Denmon suggests that before any tragedy occurs, CIOs reset the mission of IT to convey that technology exists to help people be at their best. That should be the case during routine workdays when the general ledger needs to be reconciled as well as in times of uncertainty when coworkers need to contact family members and then each other. He also tries to reiterate that “we’re all in this together,” he says, to create an expectation that everyone can solve problems. People internalize that message and act upon it naturally during tumult, he says.

Lon Anderson was vice president of business process re-engineering and intranet development with Louisiana’s Hibernia National Bank when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and the experience changed how he approaches his role as a leader.

After Katrina, tight quarters added to Hibernia employees’ emotional stress. For six weeks, Hibernia had up to seven people in an office at its disaster-recovery location in Shreveport, La. Twenty people packed into a conference room, sharing one phone. The heat, the sweat, the noise unnerved staff, Anderson says. Employees arrived at the recovery location to check in with colleagues or because it was the first safe place they could reach. “They would have fairly disturbing stories to tell, which would cause a wave of anxiety to move through the group again and again,” he says. One woman arrived after having been out of contact for two weeks.

On the other hand, teams previously unfamiliar with each other worked elbow to elbow and gained new appreciation for what each group did, he says. Following Katrina, the work of Hibernia’s sequestered e-commerce team was exposed to other parts of the company, in many cases for the first time, he recalls. Likewise, he says, “no one on my team understood cash management before.”

Now, Anderson, who is currently vice president of corporate IT at services firm ICF International, recognizes the human need to vent in a crisis. He artfully guides colleagues to do so in small groups, away from the center of business-recovery work. But every day, he promotes interaction between teams so they will know how to work together when trouble arises. He learns about their families and their personal interests, and works to understand the sacrifices they make to do a good job.

“I did have a strong belief that management needed a line between them and staff and an emotional relationship of any kind should be not fostered. I came out [of disaster experiences] feeling the exact opposite,” he says. It isn’t so much the human connection he’s after, but the solid business results. “Faults start to show in crisis. You need your people, and your people need you, to fill in gaps that might cause the team to collapse.”

Fill Emotional Cracks

In an emergency, the impulse is to rush, which can produce faulty decisions that waste time. Simple and clear communication works best. When the earthquake shook northern Japan that March afternoon, carmaker Renault’s disaster-recovery team sent an email to Nissan and Renault employees (the two companies cooperate on purchasing, engineering, production and distribution) asking them to respond by typing “1” if they were OK or “2” if they needed help. The replies helped account for employees and pinpoint and triage potentially dangerous situations, Goodspeed says.

Tending to people’s immediate needs—whether physical, emotional or practical—is part of business continuity, says Sonya Christian, who was CIO at Slidell Memorial Hospital in Louisiana when Katrina hit. Christian, who is now CIO at West Georgia Health, says witnessing the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophes since Katrina has proved to her that one simple question—when asked continuously—is among her most powerful tools as a leader: “What is the most helpful thing that could be done right now?”

The question is especially effective, says Harvard’s Scarry, because it reminds everyone that they have a hand in recovery. Self-confidence is easily lost, she says, when emotions swell.

People are working 18 hours a day when their homes may have been torn apart and family members or friends are injured or dead. It’s not clear how or whether they will be compensated. They might need to talk about how their work is proceeding, but their personal needs are the priority. “You’re asking the near-impossible of your people,” Anderson says. “You need to give them the flexibility to manage through that in whatever way they need.” They might want a walk outside, the chance to talk to a sympathetic listener, a regularly scheduled visit with their kids and spouse at the hotel, a break to find a toothbrush and a change of clothes, or time to cry. “It’s not a waste of time if they’re able to get on with their job after that,” he says.

Gomberg suggests CIOs reach outside the corporate boundaries by teaching staff about family emergency preparedness. Ask them to make wallet cards for all family members containing phone numbers and their plan for where to meet in an emergency. Enacting a “home-continuity plan” during a crisis will help staffers know their loved ones are safe, freeing them to focus on the job of restoring business, he says.

Be prepared, also, for the stress to overwhelm some workers. One of Christian’s network administrators was due to work as a member of the storm team but didn’t show up. “He gave notice eventually because he’d relocated to another area of the country,” she recalls. Another network administrator did report for storm team duty but when he was released on break, he didn’t come back. Surprised, she had to reassign duties. “Staff members that had been solid and steady had maybe not the same level of dedication to their jobs” in an emergency, she observes. Now at West Georgia, she designates backup staff for the first-wave response team in case some employees waver.

Show the Way

To make a company whole again, good leaders must keep themselves and their people together during what can be a lengthy recovery. CIOs should have a plan for organizing their and their team’s time according to clear goals, with allowances for periods away from the work site. Just as during normal operations, IT teams have defined projects and no one lives at the office.

After Katrina, Christian helped run Slidell’s command center, working 10 days straight, mainly in an area set up for hospital staff coming off shifts but unable to go home. IT staff and hospital employees saw people being assessed at a makeshift triage center across the street. Common afflictions were skin lesions and dysentery from sitting in dirty water. While sewers weren’t working and portable restrooms weren’t yet set up, she recalls, people used the nearby ground. “This alarmed a lot of our staff. They’d never had to deal with that, even people who worked in the emergency department,” she says. “I saw department directors come back and sit down and cry.”

And she let them. She herself stole moments alone in the stairwell, she says, to do the same. On her eleventh day, she went home for an hour, the next day for four hours. Then she took two full days off. Since then, when faced with drawn-out emergency conditions, such as hurricanes and tornadoes that have touched down since Katrina, she builds time in the response team’s schedule to leave work. The breaks renew the spirit, she says. “Everyone on the disaster team needs to get away from the immediate work area, even if they feel they don’t want to.”

Amid that kind of chaos, CIOs must also weigh decisions with big financial implications. At Hibernia, Anderson learned to step up and set clear goals for the rebuilding phase. IT’s top business priority was to get online banking back up. Residents evacuating the area and dealing with destruction of their homes needed access to their money, he says. Phone and power outages heightened the sense of panic, says Anderson.

Although Hibernia’s IT systems were in a section of New Orleans that wasn’t in immediate jeopardy—though it did flood—the decision by then-Mayor Ray Nagin to close the city for at least 30 days meant the office would be inaccessible should something go wrong. Customers might be cut off from their accounts. “You can’t show people zero balances,” he says.

So the bank’s IT recovery team hauled its mainframe—with its core banking applications—to the recovery site in Shreveport. Hibernia was the first bank to restore service in New Orleans East—one of largest and most devastated areas, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

However, the disaster was so far-reaching that some people doubted companies could recover, even one as big as Hibernia, he says. Knowing immediately that restoring online banking would be the number-one priority helped the team prioritize work, Anderson says. If a task didn’t contribute to getting customers their money, it was set aside.

The pessimism that he says hung over the staff magnified the team’s accomplishments. Jobs that would have been routine on a normal day, such as configuring a new server, were celebrated as victories. That attitude of taking satisfaction where you find it strengthened the staff, he says. When Anderson and his group restored online banking, “it was recognized by leaders across the organization as a phenomenal achievement in a horrible environment.”

At Nissan, what Goodspeed learned from her Japan earthquake experience has already been tested. In April, a tornado came close to her Tennessee office. The winds caused windows and the ground to shake. She and a woman who had traveled with her to Japan calmly told coworkers to sit in the stairwell and reassured them they’d be all right. “Because of the earthquake, I learned to skip the shock phase and move directly into response mode,” she says. The tornado caused no damage to Nissan, and the colleagues around her remained unruffled, like she did.

The leader, Goodspeed says, sets the tone.

Follow Senior Editor Kim S. Nash on Twitter: @knash99.