How many businesses go through their existence without ever facing a crisis? Ten years ago who would have thought that General Motors and Chrysler would file for bankruptcy? The meltdown of the global financial markets was never front and centre on our radar screens. The traditional mom and pop corner stores have been pushed out in favour of national chains like Starbucks and Seven 11. The viability of the traditional family farm is being challenged by an economy where larger conglomerates are buying up independent operations and in turn can no longer be managed by the next generation.
It doesn’t matter what size of business or industry you are in, crisis can and will appear. It may be as a result of adversity or it may be as a result of success. An unexpected environmental issue like a tsunami or an earthquake may cause the crisis throughout an entire region. Or the crisis may be an individual company’s financial failure. Crisis may appear overnight or be the result of the final straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.
Those businesses that have strong, positive corporate cultures are best prepared for crisis management. In Steven Thulon’s words: “Conflict builds culture, however crisis defines it.”
For Canadians living in Eastern Ontario and Quebec there was no larger environmental crisis than the January 1998 ice storm. And while winters in Ottawa are known for snow and cold, this particular storm that blew through was not one of those nice fluffy snow storms where we all love to run out into the street and catch snowflakes on our tongues. It was a raging storm that blew pellets of ice sideways across the region. Not for an hour, but for several days. The ice landed on everything: rooftops, open streets, trees, and power lines. Hour after hour the coat of ice grew thicker and heavier until tree branches, hydro lines and even hydro poles snapped. Homes were slammed into darkness.
When the storm finally passed and the clouds dispersed the region resembled a war zone. People were out of power and out of heat. And because of the hydro disruption, internet and television were also disrupted. Communications were reduced to battery radios and daily newspapers. For us in the cable business, crisis had arrived. Over 2,000 aerial cable lines had snapped leaving thousands of homes without communications to the outer world. To put this in perspective, our crews handle 1800 broken lines a year. We had 14 months of work dumped in our lap in two days! Crisis had arrived not only to our business but to our communities as well.
Thank god we had established a culture of teamwork, because more than ever we needed TEAMWORK! Instantaneously a war room was formed. Ten of us sat around the table – not even knowing where to start with the enormity of the situation. We all looked at Dennis, the technical director, wondering how he was ever going to find enough manpower to complete all the work that lay ahead. We looked at Annette, wondering how she was going to answer all the phone calls when half her staff was stuck in their own homes trying to manage their own personal crisis’s. Not only did we need to manage the business, we also needed to provide support to so many of our employees who were without power or day care or had other family members requiring assistance.
Values define the magnitude of the crisis
The reason we were able to dig our way out of the ice storm crisis was because of the values that our leadership team held; Teamwork, accountability, customer focus, respect and service. If we had had a culture of personal gain, risk adverse, and resistance to change it would have taken us months to restore our services. Customers would have taken the opportunity to find other suppliers who were not dependant on direct lines to the house; our revenues would have taken a big kicking. The impact to our bottom line, and ultimately our employees would have been disastrous. Our brand would have been damaged, and future sales would be impacted.
These values were core to our company, they came naturally. Because of this we were able to focus all our energies on managing the crisis and not on battling each other. In addition, we just didn’t have the capacity to take on any new internal crisis due to poor culture. As Henry Kissinger once said, “There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full”.
Waiting for a crisis to find out about your culture is a crisis waiting to happen. And while a crisis on its own may take you out of business, having a secondary people crisis at the same time leaves you feeling crushed under the weight of the world. When others around you are facing a similar crisis, if you only have the main crisis to deal with, your chances of survival are far better than those who are facing a landscape of multiple waves of crisises.
3 Important questions YOU should ask yourself for better Crisis Management…
Is your culture ready for crisis?
How does your culture need to change to face crisis?
What part of your organization needs the most focus today to prepare for tomorrow’s crisis?