Leading in Crisis: How to Prepare, How to Execute, How to Thrive

This is the first article in a five-part series focused on crisis leadership. In Part 1, we consider key actions for leaders to take when initially confronted with a crisis. Subsequent articles will delve deeper into additional actions to take throughout the crisis, what to do after the crisis has passed, and preparatory actions to take before the next crisis.

While some crises begin as a dim light down the track that you can see getting brighter over time, others arise suddenly in the middle of the night when you haven’t been expecting them at all. Regardless of how and when they arrive, crises happen all the time and can take many different forms, including environmental (such as a hurricane), technological (for example, a data breach), physical (like a fire within a building) or reputational (such as public scandal). When a leader finds themselves amid a crisis, no matter what type it is, several steps should be taken to assess the situation and limit its negative impact. This article focuses on the importance of assembling a qualified response team as early as possible in the crisis cycle.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York on October 29, 2012, many organizations realized for the first time that they did not have an appropriate response team in place to deal with this type of crisis. As the storm began to develop into a hurricane and then first hit Jamaica, with its final path yet unknown, entities in cities across the East Coast (including within the New York City metropolitan area) such as public transit systems, utility companies, and healthcare systems, realized the need to quickly mobilize, assess, plan and take action.

Due to the swiftness required, it became imperative for crisis response teams to be immediately deployed or formed (if not already existent) and assess the situation, prepare for the “what if” scenarios, and take action once the hurricane ultimately brought its strong winds and pounding rains.

At Bellevue Hospital, located on Manhattan’s East Side, the power to the building ceased within 30 minutes of water beginning to flood the basement. While the emergency power activated, enabling critical equipment to continue operating, the hospital’s fuel pumps failed shortly, leaving enough fuel for the hospital’s generator to operate one hour before the hospital would go dark. While it is understandable that the organization was not fully prepared for this series of unfortunate events or immediate need, Bellevue was forced to adapt. They quickly convened a team to brainstorm any possible solution, and it was a facility engineer who noted a store of buckets in the basement that could hold the fuel and be passed up the stairwell, in a de facto human chain, to the 13th floor where the generators stood. The hospital took action and this process continued for hours, ultimately allowing two elevators to be restored. Despite having been open continuously since 1736, Bellevue was forced to close temporarily in the immediate wake of the storm, but only after ensuring every patient was evacuated safely. This would not have been possible without the buckets in the basement or the quick-thinking of the engineer.

The critical lessons from experiences such as Bellevue’s during Superstorm Sandy include placing importance on any preparation you can complete before a crisis hits (maximizing the minutes, days, or months of lead time you may have) and acting quickly. An engaged response team is essential to both actions.Within any industry, a crisis response team must be two things: dedicated and diverse. That is, the team must be comprised of people who can remain committed to their role without getting pulled into other tasks as the crisis continues. Therefore, seasoned leaders who know how to delegate are typically added to response teams. First, seasoned leaders can focus on the larger, enterprise-wide goals while ensuring other capable individuals complete smaller tasks. Second, the response team must be heterogeneous in their skills, backgrounds, and roles.Extensive research, including articles published in the American Sociological Review and The Journal of Product Innovation Management, shows that cross-sectional teams create the best operating results, and there are no higher stakes for exceptional performance than during a crisis. Just as the facilities engineer at Bellevue was actively engaged in finding a possible solution, so should all members of the workforce, from the front-line caregivers to the support staff, be considered and represented during a crisis.Within a healthcare environment, crisis response teams should have at least six people, including:

  1. A seasoned, executive leader (like a competent C-suite executive),
  2. Clinical leads from both the physician and nursing functions,
  3. A solution-minded member of the finance team who can report on the economic impacts of the crisis in real-time as well as help with the projections of certain actions,
  4. A member of the communication team, and
  5. An advocate for the staff, such as a member of the Human Resources department.

A team with this composition will be well-positioned to provide insights and ideas from across the organization as well as help plan the communication strategy. There is a saying that “all of us are smarter than any of us,” and this is precisely the intended impact from developing a dedicated and diverse crisis response team: together, the team will make better decisions than any individual could make alone. In summary, it is important to have this team in place from the outset of a crisis, so if you have not identified potential crisis response team members and engaged them, now is the time to start taking action!

Contact us today to speak with Aimee Greeter, MPH, FACHE, and share your experiences and insights regarding effective leadership, creating diverse teams, and functional crisis assessments.

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