In 2017 Deloitte conducted a study with over 2,000 C-suite executives on the topic of crisis management. One of the questions was “In a crisis, who in your organization would lead the crisis response?”
The top answer, given by over 37% of the participants, was “CEO/ C-Suite”, followed by 29.8% “Don’t know.”
And how many replied with “A dedicated crisis manager”? Zero.
The results of this study mirror the realities of practical life. Every experienced crisis manager knows that senior management wrestles away control over the resolution process almost immediately once a crisis strikes. In fact, a big part of “the job” is to navigate the involvement of senior management – do they take over with the crisis manager’s support or are they to be regularly informed and consulted? There are valid reasons behind this. The C-Suite often has the best understanding of immediate business priorities and knows which questions need to be asked and answered first. The CEO is on the frontline with the board, the public, sometimes even the government. The world expects the CEO to be managing the crisis.
So the simplest answer to the question “How to conduct effective crisis management training in your organization?” is to start with the C-Suite. Having a dedicated crisis manager is great. Having an organization which knows how to approach a crisis in a unified way – from the CEO to the technicians – is invaluable. And it starts with the CEO.
Step One: The Map
Renato Bertani, CEO of Barra Energia, Brazil, shared in an interview on the topic of crisis management: “There are geological risks, uncertainties on well productivity, on the reservoir, on the cost, on the market, on the process, on the geopolitical situation. So we need to prepare to live with the uncertainties.”
Preparing for disasters and “the unexpected” is much like creating a map. Training people on all the answers is impossible. Training them where to find answers is what will prepare them for a crisis. Following this principle, here are the basic guidelines on conducting the theoretical component of a crisis management training.
- Map out the business
You cannot always know what will occur in the external world, but you can – and must – always know your business. In this initial stage, with the input from the C-Suite, you need to list out all of the business sectors and divisions (back office and front office) within the organization: Upstream, Downstream, IT, Sales and Marketing, HR, Accounting, etc.
Then start mapping out their priority, by taking into account their gravity in relation to the business, and how it changes during the various business cycles. A few examples: In an organization-wide technology crisis, the number one priority is to restore production/ operations/ service, i.e. to re-establish the delivery to the end-customers. The last priority usually is the Research and Development department. HR is usually among the areas with lower priority, unless the crisis hits in the narrow monthly window when they would be prevented to make payroll, in which case their priority shoots up very high in order to prevent massive reputational damage.
Having a clear understanding across all members of the C-Suite what are the business areas and how they align on the priority list during different times of the month, quarter and year is the first step in ensuring preparedness in the event of a crisis.
- Map out the escalation path
“Who is responsible for what” is important to know, but is also the type of knowledge which tends to expire quickly, especially during a crisis. First, people change roles, departments, or leave. Second, very often in a crisis the person “responsible” for a specific activity or division is not the one actually making decisions, or aiding the resolution.
This challenge is addressed by designing an escalation path tailored to the specific organization. Once the business environment has been mapped out, assign a “primary contact” or owner to each one, followed by a secondary contact (backup) and then note down any other contacts who have the role or proven experience/ knowledge which could aid the crisis resolution. Departments which are especially essential to the resolution process (such as IT), implement a central “hotline” number and a rota of people covering it 24/7.
Once this “horizontal” mapping has been completed, look at the organization “vertically”. Who is the first person who needs to be called during a crisis? Who is the second? For example, a crisis management line could always be open, and the person who answers it should know that their first call should be to the CEO. Or the CIO. Or a hotline for the C-Suite which is covered on a rota. Similarly, the escalation path should include a vertical map for all relevant teams. For example, if you call your Network team for a possible network issue, and they don’t pick up, you should know to call their Shift Lead, and if they don’t respond, call their Team Lead, and so on. An escalation path should always go up at least 3 levels, in order to ensure that the correct people are engaged.
The “horizontal” and “vertical” components of an escalation path are the cornerstones. The actual details within need to be tailored to each specific organization.
- Map out general scenarios
The final step in the theoretical phase of a crisis management training is a walk-through to common scenarios. Datacenter outage? Power blackout? Earthquake? Aim for several scenarios which altogether cover a wide range of possibilities. For example, an earthquake scenario should be representative of (and therefore applicable to) most natural disasters and will involve elements such as the evacuation of personnel, transferring service to a secondary team at a different location, etc.
The goal is to have clearly documented plans, which all C-level executives are familiar with and have signed off on.
Step Two: The Fire Drill
Jonathan Bernstein, CEO of Bernstein Communications, said in an interview “having a plan for which participants aren’t trained is akin to having fire evacuation plan with no fire drills. But worse, because a crisis management plan is a little more complex than just “head for the exits.”
Having all the theory down is essential, but oftentimes also useless in a crisis. Why? The “people element.” People panic, forget and make decisions driven out of fear and confusion. The only way to ensure that your crisis plan doesn’t crack to pieces when it meets reality is to conduct practical training as well. As Andrew Griffin says in his book “Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management”, “Perhaps the most important people intervention is the crisis exercise.”
Choose a scenario, and make it as real as possible. Avoid doing only a “role play” of a crisis. Find a backup server, and shut it down, making your server support team bring it online, go through the logs, and check what happened. Have some of your key contacts not answer their phones, so you can test your escalation path. Have all communications be sent in real-time to real people (who are, of course, warned in advance). Go as far as possible, and note down all obstacles and unforeseen mishaps which will occur. This exercise is what will make the difference between the organization reacting in panic, and reacting quickly with muscle-memory when a real crisis hits.
An effective crisis management training for an organization has two rules: Start with the C-Suite, because they set the tone and priorities for everyone else, they know the business, and they will be the ones leading the resolution. And, make it interactive. Ask about the business, ask about the people, and tailor your knowledge to their needs. This will ensure that the organization has the theoretical knowledge and practical agility to face a crisis.