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Crisis Management: 7 Skills Required for Leaders


Last week, Regina Phelps presented a webinar, “Leadership During Times of Crisis,” where she touched on numerous topics, including seven essential crisis management skills all leaders should have when managing a crisis.

  1. Gain situational awareness – First, begin by gathering and assembling the key facts of the incident, which is often under conditions of great confusion and uncertainty. It is critical to use multiple sources as some may be confusing or conflicting. These should include media, emergency responders, employees, vendors, customers, etc. In addition to obtaining information, decision-makers must take in the data and “project forward” the implications of the information they acquire and anticipate possible consequences of a fast-changing and still-moving incident, according to Phelps.
  2. Creativity and adaptability – Phelps points out that crisis management requires approaching new problems with new thinking. One key aspect is making sure that diverse viewpoints about the crisis are heard. This requires having a diverse crisis team with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
  3. Communication – Communication is a staple of crisis management. No one will ever complain for being communicated with too much during a crisis as long as communications are clear, concise and timely.

To learn about the additional four skills, watch the recorded webinar. You can also access the slides, or read along with the transcription below.

Webinar Transcript

Will Penfield:

Thank you for joining us today and my name is Will Penfield and on behalf of Everbridge I’m excited to present this webinar, Leadership During a Time of Crisis. During the event, you’ll hear from Regina Phelps who will discuss the three types of emergencies, seven essential skills for leaders during a crisis, and looking back at past events. We’ll also hear from Scott Clancy from Everbridge on [00:00:30] mobile crisis response and collaboration to minimize business disruption. After the presentation we will have a short Q&A session with our speakers. We encourage everyone to participate and ask questions during the webinar. You can submit your questions by typing in the questions widget and submitting it to all panelists. Also links to the slides and a recording of the webinar will be sent out to all registrants by the end of the week. You can also look for a link to recordings for all of our webinars on under [00:01:00] our resources section. Now I’d like to introduce you to our speakers.

First up we have Regina Phelps who is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and continuity planning. Since 1982 she has provided consultation and educational speaking services to clients in four continents. She is the founder of Emergency Management and Safety Solutions, a consulting company specializing in incident management, exercise design and continuity and pandemic planning. Clients include many Fortune 500 companies. [00:01:30] Ms. Phelps is a frequent top rated speaker at well known conferences such as the Disaster Recovery Journal, [CPNM 00:01:35], and the World Conference on Disaster Management. She is frequently sought out for her common sense approach and clear, clean delivery on complex topics.

After Regina you’ll hear from Scott Clancy, technical sales engineer here at Everbridge on Crisis Commander and how it helps organizations mobilize crisis response and collaboration. With that I’d like to turn it over to our first presenter. Regina, you may begin.

Regina Phelps:

[00:02:00] Great. Thanks very much Will for that kind introduction, and it’s a great pleasure to be with all of you today to talk about leadership at time of crisis. To be successful in any crisis first of all it takes preparation, and being prepared really requires two things from each and every one of us. First of all, we have to be in a constant state of readiness. Since we usually don’t know the precise nature of the crisis, meaning we don’t know the timing or the location or any of the specifics, [00:02:30] we always have to be in a state of constant readiness. Think of something like instant on. We must also have a wide range of contingencies at our disposal to be prepared for the many possibilities that can happen, and in some cases, despite our prior training and our plans and our experience and our exercises, everything we have in place, what we do, may not be enough. Let’s take a [00:03:00] quick look at my agenda.

What I want to talk about today is I want to talk about first of all the types of emergencies that we should be planning for, the routine crisis and emergent crises. I want to talk about the seven essential skills you need to manage these events. Then I want to look back at one particular event that we can learn from. Having said that, let’s peel back and take a look at the types of emergencies.

There are basically three types of emergencies. The routine emergency, the crisis emergency, and the emergent [00:03:30] crisis. These aren’t my definitions that I’ll be reviewing with you today. They’re actually from Harvard. I had the distinct pleasure of going to Harvard’s crisis management program about 10 years ago, and the professors there have a really good way of defining different types of emergencies and I think it’s one that our industry really should embrace because it’s really clear and helps us really be able to differentiate from this routine kind of event versus something that truly is a crisis.

Let’s talk first [00:04:00] of all about a routine emergency, and there you’ve got one in front of you. That nice, beautiful, turning and twisting tornado. First of all, routine does not mean easy, but what it does mean is it actually means that it actually is something that we have some predictability, so that’s of a general nature but also it’s something that we can take advantage from our lessons learned from prior experience. If I was to look at your risk analysis for your company, I should see your routine emergencies [00:04:30] already identified, whether that might be things such as a tornado or an earthquake or a hurricane, flooding, all of those things. I would expect that when I looked at your plans, that first of all you’ve actually thought about these things, and I would expect that you have good plans for them, you probably have equipment for them, and you likely have done exercises and training.

Having said that, then what’s a crisis emergency? It’s different, and it’s different primarily because of one thing, [00:05:00] and that’s the term of novelty. Let me give you some examples to go with these actual statements. First of all, the crisis emergency you might be facing is a threat that has never been encountered before, so think of 9/11 as a great example. Two planes hit the Trade Center. If I would have said to any of my clients at that time that were in the World Trade Center that we’re going to have two planes hit a Trade Center during an exercise, they would have thought I’d lost my mind. No way I could’ve done that, but yet, of course [00:05:30] that happened and it was a crisis emergency.

You could have an event that occurs at unprecedented speed. Think of Hurricane Sandy which I’ll talk about in a little bit. Of course New York and that whole region was prepared for hurricanes, but they weren’t prepared for that incredible, fast moving storm with unprecedented speed. Another example is a confluence of forces which in combination becomes overwhelming, and think of Hurricane Katrina. They had of course expected a levee break as one of their possibilities, and of course [00:06:00] they were expecting something like a hurricane, but not together, and so that particular crisis was a significant issue.

Because of the novelties, the plans and the behaviors and everything that you planned for just don’t work. They’re inadequate or grossly even counterproductive, and this is a great example if you look at this slide bouncing back and forth between Irene and Sandy. Many of my clients in New York said, “Gosh, when we were expecting Irene we were all ready and, oh my gosh, nothing happened.” And so [00:06:30] when Sandy began to percolate, they all said to me, “But you remember Regina, we got ready for Irene and nothing happened so why should we get ready for Sandy?” And of course bad things did happen.

A crisis emergency requires that all of us in our field, and regardless of where you are on this crisis management team or in business continuity, you need to first of all sit back and really diagnose the situation that’s facing you. Does it have any elements of novelty? Is it different than the other hurricanes that you know? Is it different than the other fires or earthquakes [00:07:00] or floods that you know? Then what you have to do is if you discover there are things that are really different and novel, then very likely you’re going to have to improvise your response because what you’ve got in writing, what you’ve planned and what’s in your plans are not adequate, and so because of this necessity we have to do things that we haven’t done before.

This requires that we actually are creative and that we are adaptable, and I emphasize that because many of us are very uncomfortable when we have very distinct and clear plans and all of a [00:07:30] sudden they don’t work and our leadership looks to us and says, “What happened? I thought you prepared me, us, our company, for the worst case scenario.” And let me say, I hope all of you on this call remove that statement from your vernacular. None of us in the world in business continuity, emergency response, IT service continuity, none of us prepare for the worst case scenario. We prepare for a routine emergency. Those things that we are likely expected to [00:08:00] have happen. We don’t expect a crisis emergency, and we certainly don’t have the money, the time, or the energy to prepare for it.

The last one I want to mention is an emergent crisis, and when Will introduced me he did mention that I love diseases and my background’s in nursing, and so this is a great example of an emergent crisis would be a disease based illness, or something like a case of malware evolving in your system. These particular crises perform a particular kind of challenge to us [00:08:30] because we think it’s a routine emergency. For example, the flu when it first came to Toronto, or they thought was the flu and it turned out to be SARS, everybody thought, “Oh my gosh, this is a routine emergency. We have flu at the wrong time of the year,” but in reality of course, as it emerged and changed, we all learned that it was actually SARS. What happens is that we actually begin to treat it like a routine emergency. We think we know what we’re supposed to do. Then we often become wed to our solutions and we don’t [00:09:00] see it when it actually changes, and that’s certainly what happened in Toronto and it’s happened in many of our clients in cases of cyber attacks with malware.

Today what I want to talk about in managing leadership and crisis, what I want to talk about are what I call the seven essential skills. Let me talk about each one of these. You’ll see on the slide in front of you I have seven unique topics I’d like to talk about and I’d like to weave the story for you about how you look at [00:09:30] crises in these seven essential skills.

The first one is situational awareness, and let me say to you that this is a really critical skill, one that I find that many of our clients don’t have their arms truly wrapped around. One of the most important things that you can do in any crisis is understand what’s going on to the best of your ability, and that begins by gathering facts and assembling information, [00:10:00] and many times as you know in a crisis there’s tremendous confusion, incredible uncertainty. You have no idea what’s going on. You’re getting many conflicting pieces of information, but these are so important and we have to assess how we’re positioned to deal with this emergency based on the situational awareness.

What I want you to think about now is how do you in your business, in your command center if you stood that up, in your department if you’ve activated your business continuity plan, how do you know [00:10:30] what’s going on? How do you have an understanding about what’s happening? Where do you get your information? It might be from your employees. It might be from vendors. It might be from emergency responders or maybe the county office of emergency services, or maybe it’s the traditional media or maybe it’s social media. What are the sources, and then, how do you get that information, and then, how do you actually display it, validate it [00:11:00] so that people that are in the decision making roles understand what’s going on?

This is a great part of an exercise that you can design where you can give people lots of information and in some cases don’t give them things that are critical to see if they know where to look and how to display it. And I would ask you, do not forget social media because as we saw very recently this month, United Airlines was a great example of not paying attention to social media and certainly [00:11:30] not being aware of situational awareness when everybody else was clearly aware of what was going on.

When you look at situational awareness what you want to think about is are decision makers, and you can think about United Airlines in this case as well, but decision makers who need to make decisions in time of crisis, they need to be able to project forward the implications of the information that they’re receiving. They take in situational awareness, so for example like the United Airlines [00:12:00] imagery that we all saw. They should be immediately projecting forward the implications of what they’re seeing and doing. That’s why the situational awareness is so critical, because we are going to take that information and project forward what our decisions are likely to be, and then once we have solid situational awareness, we should be anticipating possible consequences of a fast moving incident. Again, the United Airlines example is a perfect one for that. [00:12:30] To be able to anticipate and understand what is happening, validating it, understanding it, and making decisions and then changing them as you need to in order to meet the fast moving consequences.

Because once you now understand what’s going on, you now can actually really generate different alternative courses of action. If you pull out your plans and it doesn’t match the situational awareness in what you’re seeing, now we have the opportunity to do something [00:13:00] different. We also then can really assess which of these possible courses of action has the best promise of dealing with the situation, and we can actually categorize them, and we’ll try this number one. We’ll try this number two. We’ll try this number three. Because we now clearly understand what’s going on to the best of our ability and we are now projecting forward. We have lots of different options and we’re going to start working those. What we’re really looking for is for a good understanding of the information once we’ve gathered it, and we want to be [00:13:30] projecting and looking forward.

And of course, what kind of situational awareness did United Airlines possess at that time? Obviously they weren’t really looking at social media because if they were they would’ve had a very different response, because they didn’t really respond at all as we know until the next day publicly. And I have to tell you, I’m not beating on United Airlines. I’m actually a 2.5 million miler on United. I fly them a lot. A couple hundred thousand miles every year, [00:14:00] and I have to tell you. I got today an email about what their new policies were, and you will not believe what was in the subject matter line of the email. I actually took a picture of it for you, and I want you just to look at what the actual subject matter line was. Actions speak louder than words, and you know, I think we all know that by what they did or didn’t do a few weeks ago. What they said in the email really didn’t matter so much [00:14:30] because what they said in the subject matter line said everything.

Our second skill that we want to look at is the issue of how to improvise, because now that we’ve actually gotten good situational awareness we now have to make some decisions on whether our plans work. In a true crisis emergency, plan A, the one you’ve got written and have practiced, probably isn’t going to work and you’re going to have to go to plan B and for most of us, that probably doesn’t even exist. [00:15:00] What that means is that using our newfound awareness, we actually are trying to match that up with our plans and our checklists and we want to see if they match. In a crisis emergency, they’re not going to match, and then we have to determine what kind of customization we need to do.

This is where this presence of novelty really comes into question, because when you line everything up you’ll find that the routine plans aren’t going to work if there’s a lot of novelty. This means that we have to now actually [00:15:30] respond with things we’ve never tried before, so they’re unplanned. They’re not practiced. We haven’t done an exercise about them. But that’s what we’re going to have to do in order to manage the situation, and that can be challenging for many leaders because they’re thinking, “My gosh, our plans don’t work. How do we know what to do next?” And for some people they can find themselves feeling pretty flat footed.

This means that in a real crisis, our leadership often [00:16:00] under real extreme pressure with tremendous stakes and very little time, are going to have to formulate an entire new approach to this situation, so it has the feeling of assembling a plane while you’re flying it because you’re going to have to execute a response or a combination of things and then you’re going to have to modify on the fly. What this means is that our leaders are going to have to improvise, [00:16:30] and again, this is another example of where they’re going to look to you. So if you’re not the leader of your crisis management team, they very likely are going to be looking to you in business continuity or in emergency response or in IT service continuity to say, “What do you suggest? What do you think?” So we all are going to have to step up when the call to improvise occurs.

That means we’re going to have to be very creative and very adaptable. [00:17:00] This at times is hard when you’re under severe pressure and a lot of crisis and everybody’s looking at you. Leaders are going to have to find completely new ways of adapting to these novel situations that are present in this crisis, and there are some things that you can think about when you think about fostering creativity. First of all, you need people to focus on the novelties and really ask, what’s different? What’s new about this situation? That’s really important because sometimes [00:17:30] we think, “Okay, great. I know what an earthquake looks like. I know what a flood looks like.” And we think that we understand it and we don’t look and see what’s different.

Think of Sandy. That happened consistently with Sandy. People were not thinking about what they were seeing. They were thinking about what was familiar, what they knew, so the question to ask is, what’s different? And that could be a key thing that you would be doing in the case of the crisis at your company. [00:18:00] It’s also critically important that we’re listening to many diverse viewpoints and having a mixed group of individuals who have different vantage points and different experiences, because they might come up with the best solution and in some cases the most crazy idea is actually going to be the best one. But sometimes when that comes up, people look at the person who said that and say, “That sounds completely stupid. That would never work.” So when you start hearing things like [00:18:30] that, you better think twice because you want to think that you’ve looked at all of the possibilities, and again, diverse views are really important.

We also want to really systematically look at things and really think about them to the best of our ability, and there’s a way that you can do that and this requires actually very brave leadership. It’s called a team B approach. If you use the Incident Command System, your planning group can also do a piece in part of this, and let [00:19:00] me give you the example of this team B approach.

In the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, when we had our last global influenza pandemic, which was in April of 2009, and as we all know it came out of Mexico. If any of you have been a pandemic planner like me for a long time, all of us were thinking it was going to come from Asia and that we would have some advance notice, but I still remember to this day on April 29th, 2009 that all of a sudden I was on a phone call [00:19:30] that morning, very early, 6am in California talking to one of my clients in New Jersey, and he said to me on the phone, “What the heck is going on in Mexico? Everybody’s got a mask on.” And I thought, “Oh my god. No, really?” As we know, all of a sudden we were drawn into some disease. Thank goodness it turned out to be a very mild pandemic, however, it was sudden and swift. A true crisis emergency.

What CDC did is they were very smart. They actually [00:20:00] developed what was called a team B. Team B was a group of really smart individuals with a diverse group of backgrounds that actually clustered together and they were observing and evaluating all of the decisions and plans that were made by the CDC in real time, and they were actually feeding back to them what they thought was again a good idea or actually challenging those things that they thought were not necessarily as well thought out as possible. It takes a strong leader to be able to tolerate somebody looking over their shoulder and second [00:20:30] guessing them if you will, but in the case of the CDC it actually changed some of their approaches right away and it actually turned out to be a really good crisis management tool, so that’s something you might want to think about if you have a group … Again, set aside. Often in the planning group if you’re using ICS and they would be looking at this idea of plan B.

Then it’s critically important that when you’re looking at being again creative and adaptable that we have really clear operational expectations, and if you’re using something like [00:21:00] ICS, the Incident Command System, hopefully then you’re using and developing an incident action plan which clearly states what are the strategic operational objectives and when you’re going to come back and discuss them and see how you’re doing, and that’s literally what we’re talking about. Clear operational expectations, i.e., strategic objectives, and then tracking those against results so that we make sure that our approaches are actually helping.

When you look at creativity, [00:21:30] what you need to be as part of that is you need to be highly flexible, and so our leader, our team, has to be able to adapt quickly. By the very nature of a crisis it changes rapidly and the first response we start with is not going to be our last. What I find very traditionally in the corporate world is that people don’t like to make decisions with incomplete information, and when we do exercises we make people make decisions of course with incomplete information, [00:22:00] and I tell them, “Look, you have to make a decision. This is a fast moving event.” The worst thing that can happen is you make a decision and it’s wrong. You make another one. Because by the nature of a crisis it’s constantly changing and we have to constantly adapt, and that’s what you want to be looking and that’s what you want to be exercising.

In a crisis situation, our leader can’t fall in love with what they’ve come up with. They have to constantly take in new information. They have to listen carefully. They have to consult with others. Then they have to then [00:22:30] make some decisions as part of that. They have to make those quick moving thoughts as you will as we’re going along, because then we get to the next skill which is where the rubber hits the road. At this point we have situational awareness and we also then have of course, we’ve crafted a response because we’ve improvised. Then of course we’ve been creative and we’ve been adaptable, but now we have to make a decision, and that’s a critical aspect [00:23:00] of these essential skills. We have to make a decision.

Now, of course you’re saying to me, “But of course, Regina. We all know that.” But you’ve all been in groups where the leader doesn’t make the decision. You know how painful that is. Once we have done the first three things, we now are the point of calling the question, and we have to keep moving forward and we have to make that decision. We can make a wrong one. Make another one.

[00:23:30] This is where we’re truly looking for leadership. When things are happening quickly and we’re not really in control of the situation, the one thing the leader can do is assume control. You can’t control the disaster but you can control the response, and this requires the mantle of leadership, and I ask, I beg the people that we’re working with in our client population when this happens, you have to lead. Many times what people will say to me is when you’re thinking about this decisive skill, “Who makes a really good leader [00:24:00] for a crisis management team?” And what I tell people historically is that you only need four things.

First of all, you need strong leadership skills. Secondly, I want somebody who is decisive, that’s willing to make a decision and if it’s wrong, make another one. Third, they have to have a good overall understanding of the business. They don’t have to be a subject matter expert in anything, just a good understanding of the business. And last, and critically important, [00:24:30] is that senior leadership must respect this individual, whomever it is. The last thing you want to happen is that during the crisis your executives come into the space and say, “Who is that person?” Who’s actually leading the effort and they don’t know them, they don’t trust them, they pushed them aside, and all of a sudden we have chaos. So it’s critically important that they have those four skills. Leadership, decisiveness, broad understanding of the business, and respected by senior leadership, because what we’re looking for [00:25:00] in one of our essential skills is decisiveness.

Once we’ve made the decision now it’s time to act, and at this point what we’re doing is the rubber is hitting the road. We’ve made the decision based on the three other factors, and now what we’re doing is that we’re literally enacting our plans that many times were written right that moment and we’re standing back as we’re implementing them and we’re constantly looking at the response. We want to make sure, and this is critically important, that you have really good feedback [00:25:30] loops to actually assess that you’re actually meeting the plan, and again what I would say to you is if you do not currently develop an incident action plans, I would highly encourage you to do that. I’ll be talking about that next month in a webinar for Everbridge.

An incident action plan is really a driver for this because it helps you with this whole concept of action, but simply think of it as being three things. Clear documentation of your current status. Clearly written strategic objectives with assignments [00:26:00] for each one of them. Then lastly what’s called the operational period, which is how soon you come back to connect with each other. That should be a hallmark of your whole aspect of action.

One of the things that can come up at this point when we’re actually enacting our plans is something that’s called cognitive bias. I want to talk briefly about that because in our field it can be rampant at time of crisis. Let me talk a little bit about what that is.

Cognitive bias is … Literally [00:26:30] it’s a deviation from what was called rational thinking or good judgment, and it really can appear in crisis situations. I’ve seen it in myself, embarrassingly so. I’ve seen it in every command center I’ve ever been in. Let me give you some examples, and what I would ask you to do is that when you hear these, I want you to think about your own experience, events that you’ve been in, command centers that you’ve been in, and see what you might have seen before in your own history. The last thing that you want to have is somebody there that thinks they know [00:27:00] it all, and that’s the deadly sin of been there and done that. I saw that a lot in Hurricane Sandy with my clients because they all thought they knew what a hurricane looked like. They all had gotten ready for Irene. They all thought it was crazy, and they were taking their experience and they thought just too much of it. They thought they knew it all.

I’ve been in practice for 35 years and I’ll tell you, I have to really reign that in on some occasions when I’m dealing with a particular event because if I start thinking that way [00:27:30] I am dead in the water, and I would say that for all of us. Sometimes people give you the illusion of experience. They act like they have a lot of experience but they actually don’t have any or they have little, and therefore we might actually be wrapped up in a situation with somebody that we think is more experienced than they are. Sometimes people are really overconfident, and it’s almost like they think they can foretell the future or that they’re able to manage the event single handed. [00:28:00] Overconfidence and being a hyperinflated ego is not what you want in a crisis. I want a solid, grounded person.

One of my favorites is the failure to observe or actually believe disconfirming evidence. This actually happened many, many times in Hurricane Katrina, and one of the classic ones is when the emergency operations center in the city of New Orleans, all were observing their televisions and when the levees began to fail, no one believed it. [00:28:30] Now, that’s hard to imagine. It’s television and the levees are failing and water is flooding into the Ninth Ward. The command center just didn’t believe it. That can’t be happening. They couldn’t actually even believe their own eyes. They failed to observe what was clearly in front of them. Again, because they were just too wrapped up in their plans.

Sometimes there’s an escalation of commitment. When people realize what they’re doing doesn’t work, sometimes instead of actually rethinking it or maybe doing something different, they double [00:29:00] down. Then all of a sudden now we’re committing more resources to something that’s not working. Another version of that can be the bandwagon effect where everybody thinks, “Oh my gosh, yeah. Regina knows what she’s doing. Jane knows what she’s doing.” And we all jump on and we don’t question. That’s almost a little bit like the idea of the Bay of Pigs when we had the group think experience where everybody began to believe the same thing without really critically evaluating [00:29:30] it.

Another example is a migration of objectives where all of a sudden the objectives begin to shift and we begin to take everything personally and we’re not actually being objective in our actual response. Cognitive bias can be present anywhere in a crisis. Very commonly present in a emergency operations center, and each and every one of us have the possibility of actually having that ourself.

How do you respond to some of this cognitive bias? Well, they’re constantly there, so just know that [00:30:00] right off the top of your head. How do you deal with them when they’re in play? Sometimes I’ve had people actually rotate teams or move folks around when they actually are too prone to cognitive bias. It’s very helpful to provide training and guidance about what it is, and sometimes there can be some procedures and rules that you can do to help manage that. For ex