It is not a question of whether things will ever go wrong in business, it is a question of when it will happen. There are few stories of a straight upward trajectory to success and sustainability. As was first said by Robert Browning, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” A huge customer (and in retrospect that customer may have represented an unsafe percentage of the company’s business) walks away, throwing off budget and projections; the most important machine on the assembly line breaks down at an inopportune time, putting orders in jeopardy; or a key employee leaves and starts a competing business. Or even worse, government actions or inaction hurt the general economy and the business is in the tank.
When things break down, and in one way or another, they inevitably do, everyone should have some touchstones to consult to ground them and guide their decision making. After the first moments of panic subside and deep breaths bring the anxiety back to an acceptable level, the leader needs to have an action plan. Where to begin? There is, of course, no one right answer. There are a number of possible strategies. Here are a few.
Go to 30,000 feet
· Re-visit vision, mission and values
· Set aside anger, finger pointing and negativity
· Begin a critical thinking process on how to follow a different path to achieve the mission.
Keep feet planted firmly on the ground
· Look at the impact of the disruption across each of the business functions. If the assembly line goes down, determine how long before it is going to be repaired or replaced, how many workers are affected, how many customer orders are going to be affected, which employees are going to be impacted and how; how cash flow is going to be impaired and what the impact of that will be, etc.
· This involves piecing everything together to try to get a handle on what decisions need to be made.
· Communicate with all employees and stakeholders.
Pull out the emergency checklist
· Some leaders have a thing for emergency preparedness. They have thought through the potential disasters in advance and have put together a contingency plan for each scenario.
· The trick when relying on a plan laid out well in advance is to recognize how circumstances may differ from those considered in the plan. There must be some flexibility and some thought employed, even when going down a checklist.
There is a fascinating new book, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, which dissects the decisions made as the effects of Hurricane Katrina engulfed Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. Under horrific conditions, doctors and nurses worked to keep patients alive, to triage, to evacuate, and to ultimately make life and death solutions. The hospital had a large scale emergency plan that did not contemplate the conditions on the ground. Hospital executives, government officials, and health care providers all had their own agendas which did not all align with the overall mission of patient safety and well-being. Reality got in the way of what should have been clarity. Life gets in the way of previously made plans. As military commanders say, “All plans are great until the first shot is fired.”
It is obviously easier to lead when times are good and everything is humming along smoothly. Not all good “peacetime” leaders make great “war time” leaders. Not everyone thrives under adverse conditions. But everyone should have a methodology or a thought process that they utilize when those conditions arise. Every leader should know who to consult for assistance, who to utilize to help implement the emergency plans. And every leader should stay in touch with the vision, mission and values of the organization as the plans are implemented. Looking backward, after the disaster has passed, the thought process and actions will continue to impact the organization, hopefully in a positive way.