Are You Ready?

Leaders Can Stay Calm under Pressure when Disaster Strikes by Establishing a Line of Command and Communication, Setting Priorities and Learning from the Past

by Carol Hildebrand


Human beings have dealt with risk since the beginning of time. But for project leaders in recent years, the need for solid risk management has become even more critical.

That might mean planning for manmade or natural disasters, finding innovative ways to deliver results when budgets are slashed or ensuring communication breakdowns do not occur. And all of this must be done while remaining calm, cool and collected, a skill only the best leaders possess.

But why the intensified emphasis on risk now? With the business world's unrelenting push to go global, project leaders' responsibilities encompass teams that work across time zones and countries. And that means greater exposure to a wider array of uncontrollable risk, from hurricanes to earthquakes to political unrest.

“If you're working with dispersed teams in today's modern world, any kind of disaster—natural or otherwise—could have an effect and must be taken into consideration,” says Ian Parker, principal of Parker-Joseph Consulting, a project crisis specialist in Newport, Gwent, Wales.

Managing in the global economy increasingly means project leaders must bring risk management expertise to every project.

“Each day, our world becomes flatter, smaller and more vulnerable to unexpected change by forces we can't always see or understand,” says Deborah Keller, director of port development at the Port of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. “Without leadership to manage through the crisis, there may be nothing to manage to when things settle down.”

Leaders can stay calm under pressure when disaster strikes by establishing a line of command and communication, setting priorities and learning from the past.

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE managing a project without e-mail. Now take away phones of any sort—landline or mobile. Also out the door is the knowledge of most team members' whereabouts. Add in devastating flooding and a state of civil unrest.

What would a project leader do?

If you're Deborah Keller, director of port development at the Port of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, you start with what you know, and take it one day at a time. Remaining composed and in control when disaster strikes—natural or manmade—is no easy task but is absolutely necessary to prevail.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Keller found herself in a friend's home, far from New Orleans, trying to round up her team to assess damage and start repairs on the bridges that span the Inner Harbor-Navigational Canal in eastern New Orleans. The port's e-mail server was down, area mobile phones didn't work, and she knew only a few personal e-mail addresses. So she started small, contacting those she knew and building a communication tree.

From there, they went to work. “Hurricane Katrina showed me how resourceful we can be as a team, from text messaging and wireless communications to finding internet access at cafes and libraries, e-mailing photos or having conference calls with 50 people from 50 different [government] agencies,” she says.

No matter the situation, project managers must be prepared to handle emergencies as they crop up. A crisis can be any number of things, Ms. Keller says, from an unforeseen development that affects a project's course to an unforeseen chaotic event that upsets the routine. “Managing under a crisis is a leadership skill,” she says.

Planning, Planning and More Planning

Preparing for the future and building risk and disaster mitigation plans remains one of the most effective tools a project manager can bring to a crisis. “The majority of projects that run into trouble do so because of poor planning,” says Ian Parker, principal of Parker-Joseph Consulting, a project crisis specialist based in Newport, Gwent, Wales. “At the very least, every company should go through a disaster recovery plan that should cover development as well as operational areas.”

Tony Chan, director of corporate programs for not-for-profit housing organization Habitat for Humanity International in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, brings disaster planning to every project. “It's about minimizing the risk you have, so that when the unexpected does happen, you're more prepared for it,” he says. His group has built standard operating procedures for construction projects that run into medical emergencies or inclement weather, and each team is made aware of those rules.

Project managers need to make sure their organizations have business continuity plans and be aware how they affect their projects, says Kristin Hoskin, associate director of Kestrel Group, a consulting practice specializing in risk and emergency management in Christchurch, New Zealand. “It is worth a project manager being aware of the business continuity plan at least in a general sense, and with critical projects, this should be an early port of call in assessing the risks that a project may be exposed to,” she says. “It may well be that the scenarios that would have greatest impact on your project are already addressed through the business continuity plan, providing ready workarounds and solutions.”

Renate Dias, vice president of the project office at Whitney National Bank in Harahan, Louisiana, USA, credits an effective company-wide business continuity plan for her team's ability to keep systems running throughout Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As part of the plan, the bank had contracted with a disaster-recovery specialist for mainframe backup in Chicago, Illinois, USA, and utilized a bank facility in Houston, Texas, USA, to house distributed systems and business units. “We cut our mainframe over to the disaster site in Chicago on Sunday [before Katrina made landfall on Monday], so the mainframe was up-and-running the whole time, although the infrastructure and network were not as stable,” she says.

The Communication Chain

With continuous change a watchword for managing in a crisis, communicating those changes is vital. “At every stage of the recovery, you need to get people together, and they all need to know what everybody else is doing,” Mr. Parker says. “You can't work in silos.”

Ms. Dias' group held daily meetings up and down the chain of command, and senior management was very involved in setting priorities and making decisions on the fly. “You [manage a crisis] with constant communication,” she says.

That said, it's imperative to establish a chain of command that can make quick decisions and respond to changing priorities. “A crisis situation has two elements that make it different from other work: Time is critical, and external changes are happening very fast,” Ms. Keller says. “There is no time to ponder needlessly, and there is no time to wallow through unnecessary layers of approval once a course of action is clear.”

For example, Ms. Dias went on site in Houston and took responsibility for task prioritization based on daily feedback from senior management. “We did a really quick one-hour daily planning session and executed the plan, deciding where to reallocate resources as needed,” she says. “We bypassed several layers of the normal approval process to move things forward in an expedited manner.”

If an emergency arises, Mr. Chan's teams meets before construction starts that day to assess risks and make modifications as needed. “They decide whether to go with the original plan or whether to change it, and if so, decide what we need to do to execute that plan and communicate that with stakeholders,” he says.

Records of communication also should be kept, Ms. Hoskin says. “Leading up to, during and after a disaster, priorities change rapidly and information flow increases exponentially,” she says. “The most useful tool during this time is pen and paper because they are not infrastructure-dependent. Record everything: phone calls, meetings, conversations.”

She also suggests printing out e-mails and filing them chronologically for all team members to reference. “This provides a record for audit later, as well as a centralized reference to keep track of actions and information that can be accessed even if the power goes out,” Ms. Hoskin says.

There is no time to ponder needlessly, and there is no time to wallow through unnecessary layers of approval once a course of action is clear.

—Deborah Keller, Port of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA


During crises, you realize that even with all the planning you do, the priorities may not be what you expect.

—Renate Dias, Whitney National Bank, Harahan, Louisiana, USA

Focus on the Now

Some disasters are so huge that the extent of the damage or work seems overwhelming. In those situations, it's up to a leader to know where to start and how to keep the team on task. One critical success factor is being able to stay in the moment and react quickly. “Crisis leaders have to come out of process mode and be interactive, doing things [quickly],” Mr. Parker says. “What it comes down to is breaking work down into small manageable chunks and allocating the skills you have to address them.”

In the wake of Katrina, Ms. Keller concentrated on what could be fixed immediately. She spent the first week after the hurricane assessing the damage sustained by the port. “We found out that our facilities uptown had minor wind damage, while eastern New Orleans facilities were completely devastated,” she says. “There was nothing we could do with total annihilation at the time, but the uptown facilities on the Mississippi River were salvageable. So we concentrated on re-establishing commerce on the Mississippi, to get diesel fuel and goods coming into the city. We got that working fairly quickly.”

Although establishing a clear chain of command is critical, leadership in the midst of a crisis cannot be overly rigid and wedded to one process. “During crises, you realize that even with all the planning you do, the priorities may not be what you expect,” Ms. Dias says. “You have to be nimble and adjust constantly.”

In fact, project leaders need to just let go of the notion of maintaining complete control. “It is more important to be honest and to stay composed and compassionate,” Ms. Hoskin says. “One of the most useful lines to have at your fingertips is, ‘That's a good question. I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that right now, but I will have someone find out and get back to you.’ It takes practice, but being able to say those two sentences and to follow up are key to leading your team during a time of uncertainty.”

Making adjustments quickly helped bring in a nine-house project on schedule in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, for Habitat for Humanity. An unexpected, unprecedented heat wave decimated the ranks of volunteers, so the project group shifted the volunteer schedule and rounded up additional volunteers and subcontractors. The team identified items that were not as important, such as landscaping, and scaled back the task list so it met basic requirements.

“The key thing is to understand the important milestones, break them down, and understand resources and constraints,” Mr. Chan says. “Then you can address changes on the fly.”

History Lessons

Leaders who have managed during crises know that mitigating future disasters depends on how much they learn from the past. Whitney Bank has since moved its primary data centers inland to Dallas, Texas, USA, and Atlanta. The centers are operated remotely, with all IT staff remaining in the greater New Orleans area. The Port of New Orleans has also established a satellite office in northern Louisiana in case of future evacuation.

“Now at the start of hurricane season, we compile a list of alternate e-mails and phone numbers of staffers' friends and relatives, and have pre-arranged hotel and office accommodations in northern Louisiana for key senior staff to relocate in the event of a crisis,” Ms. Keller says. “We aren't going to be scattered to the four winds and not know where our managers are again.” img

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

Leadership 2008 /
Leadership 2008



Related Content