One fault many executives have is the overconfident belief that they can control any situation. It’s that arrogance that makes them poor crisis managers during a major disaster. As a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I have seen firsthand the awesome destructive power of hurricanes and learned that it is critical for all businesses to have a contingency plan in place to handle emergency situations. An executive must first have the epiphany that something bad can actually happen, because without a real belief in that, emergency planning is devoid of seriousness.
I have prepared and hunkered down for more hurricanes than I care to recall. Believe me, sitting in a darkened hall during the eye of a hurricane is no fun. However, there is solace in knowing that you have a real plan on how to deal with the situation and that your team understands its role.
To build a contingency plan for your business, there are four main areas to be considered. First, determine the true disaster threats for your business by doing a threat assessment. Whether it's hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, or earthquakes, go through a real “what if” evaluation of the natural disaster threat to your business. During this process, challenge your team to determine the ancillary threats such as cybersecurity, terrorism, and accidents related to nearby trains and manufacturing facilities. Rate your threats and then begin your planning.
After you have determined your threat assessment, create a pre-disaster plan that puts in place the pieces of the puzzle before the disaster occurs. This plan should establish the people, resources, and procedures for preparing for an emergency. Build a culture in your company in which people are mindful of threats and have someone in charge of your disaster planning so that details can be updated as technologies change.
Third, create a disaster plan to be implemented once a disaster occurs or is imminent. The plan should give specific instructions on how to react and what to do. The most critical element during an emergency is communication, because good decisions cannot be made without real, trustworthy information. Your company’s disaster plan should have a communications plan that gathers information from all employees and keeps them updated. The plan's primary focus, trumping everything else, should be on the life and health of your employees. As the leading executive in your organization, that message must be your constant drumbeat.
Your company should also have a post-disaster plan that has specific teams and assignments to ensure that proper help is on the way. It is extremely frightening for your team members on the ground when they believe no one in your business is doing anything to help. Public and internal communications are essential—know what you are going to say and do after a disaster strikes.
Unfortunately, executives are operating businesses in a time of great tumult, and our over-reliance on technology means we are one hurricane, earthquake, or hacked power grid away from a business disaster. On September 2, 1985, I was managing a lumber yard in Pascagoula, Miss., that was hit by Hurricane Elena, a Category 3 major hurricane that suddenly veered from the west coast of Florida. The next day, in hot, humid conditions with no power, no phones, no warehouse doors, and a roof halfway ripped off, my store did almost $100,000 in cash business on handwritten tickets with 10 employees. If something similar happened at your business today, could you do that? Are you prepared?