Business Continuity - A Year of Reckoning

2020 is a year of reckoning. From re-evaluating who is an essential worker, to rethinking infrastructure investment categories, to rooting out and beginning to dismantle a long national history of inequities, to managing through pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires and hurricanes of unprecedented magnitude....Rethinking emergency plans is paramount.  I have no special claim to expertise in these areas.  Having known and worked with world class experts possessing enormous field experience I am all too aware my experience is limited. That said, having been in charge of maintaining a business continuity plan or two, I do know that a plan is not worth two cents if it cannot be accessed and put into action quickly. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:



1.  Distribute critical employees across multiple flights (trains, buses or cars).

Learn from history.  Growing up in Atlanta, I knew the story of the Air France 007 plane crash of 1962.  103 members of the Atlanta Art Association died, decimating Atlanta arts funding for decades. When most senior staff of my employer at the time were scheduled to be on the same flights to and from a Board event in Europe, I shared this story with senior management and the senior team flew on several different flights.  Not distributed enough, in my opinion, but nonetheless helpful on the next trip when they were all in the air returning to NY on September 11, 2001.  Thankfully not one them was on a hijacked flight. However, several key senior staff were on one of the 38 flights grounded in Gander, Newfoundland that became the subject of the Broadway musical Come From Away.

2. Document chain of command sensibly and take backup readiness seriously.

A fellow dancer had been cast as Clara in The Atlanta Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker and came down with the stomach flu.  In the days before cell phone understudies were instructed to be in earshot of their phones from 3 PM until curtain.  The understudy and her mom were out, so stomach flu or no, Clara went on with a bucket in the wings on either side of the stage for her nausea.  On September 11, 2001 the acting president was working from home and not reachable when cell service went out. We went to the succession list and identified the next two in line.  Shortly thereafter #2 and 3 were notified and took charge. 

3.  Know how you will reach your team out of office in an emergency.

Make sure you know how you would reach out to your team in an emergency without access to your office. Apps like Hearst-funded Live Safe now make it easier than ever to find and confirm the safety of your team, but everyone needs to know how to check in. During Hurricane Sandy my business flight home from Singapore was cancelled for several days.  Power was down in midtown Manhattan, but with home and work contact info. in hand I was able to confirm the safety of 80% of our NY Team from half way around the world (And I’ll never forget the view of the coastline coming into JFK).

4. Make sure the team has access to what they need to keep the work moving forward.

Make sure team computers and software are up to date, and that the team knows how to access their files and use communications tools effectively on a relatively self-sufficient basis. Have people check their equipment from home before an emergency to understand what limitations there may be. Take an inventory not only of equipment but also of service providers. 

5.  Be empathetic, flexible and agile.

Flex as needed.  When I worked for the Fulbright program a student was killed in South Africa under tragic circumstances.  While her grant term had ended, the US government made the empathetic decision to repatriate her remains to her family in the US.  After Hurricane Sandy some team members did not get electricity back at home for several months and checked in periodically when they were able to recharge their phones from a generator.  Others had electricity but no means of transport.  Those with both came into the office. In the COVID-19 lockdown leadership has made exceptions to some company policies on an individual basis.  Remember that being equitable doesn’t mean treating everyone exactly the same way.  Treating people fairly may require multiple approaches.

6. Take as much time as you can afford under the circumstances to confirm the facts before taking action, but then make your own decision, take decisive action and don’t second guess yourself later.

Early in my career, I had a concern with facts that were suggestive but not conclusive.  I took those concerns to my boss, whom I trusted.  The decision saved my job and uncovered a crime.  That same boss, when I received a call purporting to be from a relative concerned about a grantee overseas, told me to seek independent confirmation.  The caller turned out to be tabloid reporter pursuing a lead.  In the World Trade Center, many people adhered to conventional wisdom to stay on the evacuation floors.  Some people made the decision to evacuate and a few of those people made it out alive, though in the end it made a difference for tragically few people.  You cannot control the emergency.  You can only make your best effort under the circumstances. You may regret the outcome, but if you followed your own counsel, led with empathy, and good fortune allowed you to see another day, you’ll never have cause to regret your decision.

(Caveat: Because my expertise is limited this topic is not covered in Ops in a Box, Legal Edition, but I would love to partner with someone who is an expert to cover the topic in an add-on pack.  Referrals welcome).