Remembering 9/11: Lessons in Crisis Leadership

Patriot Day

The world changed on September 11, 2001. And as a leader, I changed too.

I was seven years out of the Navy and leading my first manufacturing plant. My time in the military was over and I had started a new career running a factory which made products for the electric utility industry.  The world was relatively peaceful and, as a former Cold War submarine officer, I felt like I had done my small part to make it that way. My life was business and manufacturing now, military life was in the past.

On that fateful morning, my assistant came into my office and told me I needed to get to the cafeteria quickly. I wasn’t sure what was happening but I ran down to see. I had recently installed TVs in our break room so employees could watch the news during their down time. I arrived to see the first World Trade Center tower burning from an apparent plane crash. Like many, I watched in horror as the second plane hit the other tower on live TV.

I was trying to come to grips with what I was seeing when I was suddenly struck with the realization that none of my 160 employees even knew what was unfolding in New York City. Something bad was happening and I needed to let them know right away. Maybe my military training kicked in or maybe I just knew people needed to hear this terrible news directly from their boss.

I didn’t have a 1MC loudspeaker system like I had in the Navy to inform the crew of critical information, so I improvised. I had the supervisors gather all the employees to the front of the plant where we had some extra space. I climbed into a scissor lift and raised myself up so everyone could see me.

I proceeded to tell them everything that was happening and all the limited information I knew. I saw the shocked faces and the looks of disbelief. I was struck with emotion and I asked everyone to bow their heads. I said a small prayer for the people of New York. I then told everyone to go to the cafeteria to see for themselves. I went as well.

In the days and weeks following, I saw amazing examples of leadership and I learned the importance of crisis communications. I saw New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, everywhere. He held press conferences, met with reporters, and talked to people on the streets. Still covered in dust from the towers, he told the world what he knew and what the city was doing in response to the attack. When asked how many were feared dead, he responded emotionally, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”

A few days after the attack, I watched President Bush tour ground zero. I watched his emotion as he grabbed a bullhorn and climbed a pile of rubble. With an arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith, he probably gave the best speech of his life. “I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

I never thought much about crisis leadership before 9/11. The events of that day and the weeks that followed made me realize its importance. When everything goes wrong, people look to their leaders for answers, guidance, and reassurance. In an instant, the leader’s role changes when a crisis occurs. If you find yourself in this situation, remember these three simple principles:

Be present. The most important thing is to be there. Like Rudy Giuliani, people need to see us. We need to be where our people are. They need to talk to us. We need to answer their questions and let them know what to do. In a crisis, a leader’s role changes. Like President Bush, we need to get out of our offices and go to ground zero.

Be honest. In the middle of a crisis, when very little is known, people have a lot of questions. As leaders, we often don’t have the answers and that’s alright. The most important thing is to be honest and tell people what you know and what they need to do. In most cases, the information will change. So, like Giuliani, provide regular updates to let your team know what is going on.

Be real. Crisis communications needs to be authentic. When things are going bad, you need to have a real dialogue with your team. This is not a time for polished speeches. Let them know how you feel and don’t be afraid to show your emotions. The last thing people need to see in a crisis is an unemotional, uncaring leader.

Patriot Day is a National Day of Service and Remembrance where we remember and honor those who were lost on 9/11. We honor the heroes who ran into burning buildings, the passengers who stormed the cockpit, the men and women serving their country when the Pentagon was attacked, and all the innocent lives who were lost.

Like many, I was forever changed by the events that day. As America was pulled into a war against a new global enemy, I learned I was underprepared to handle a crisis as a civilian leader. I discovered how important crisis leadership is. I know now that, in an instant, a leader’s role can drastically change. I observed great examples of crisis leadership and I learned what to do when the next time a crisis hits.

What do you think? Do you know how you will react as a leader in the next crisis? Do you train for crisis management and communications? What other leadership lessons can we learn from the events of 9/11? Let me know in the comment section below.

To Bring Your Plans to Life, You Need a Dedicated Crew

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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roadell Hickman

“Officers and crew of the United States Gerald R. Ford, man our ship and bring her to life!” commanded Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Ford and sponsor of the newest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The command was answered by sailors in crisp, white uniforms peeling off formation and running to man the rails of the newest warship in the U.S. Navy. “Anchors Aweigh” played, horns blared, bells rang out, and the U.S. flag was raised to full mast. Within minutes, the captain was informed that “the ship is manned and ready and reports for duty to the fleet.”

As I watched this emotional ceremony play out this past weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the powerful message that was being delivered. The imagery, the speeches, and the commands all communicated one point, the crew brings the ship to life.

“A ship is only as good as the people who serve on it.” Donald Trump

As a business leader and former Naval Officer, I know this to be true but sometimes we forget. It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of our business plans, strategic initiatives, and stretch goals. Often we forget, it’s people that bring these plans to life.Without her crew, the $13 billion state-of-the-art nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is nothing but a hunk of cold steel sitting in the harbor. Without a dedicated crew, all our plans our dead as well.

So, how do you get a dedicated crew to bring your plans to life? Let me suggest four important things to consider.

Get people involved in the planning. When people are involved in creating the plans, they have more ownership. Annual off-site planning sessions are a great way to do this. If done right, these sessions can create energy, excitement, and bonding in the team. It also helps to focus the team on the key objectives for the year. To learn more about how to conduct a good annual planning session, see my article 10 Step Guide to Lead your Team into the New Year.

Communicate your plans in a straight-forward manner. I’ve worked for three global companies and one of the things that frustrated me is how they communicated plans. Global companies are complex and their plans are complicated but the communication process shouldn’t be. Using 100+ PowerPoint slides to communicate your vision is not effective. Focus your plans into a handful of important points and use stories to illustrate your message. Doing this will get more people on board.

Seek feedback and be willing to adjust your plans. Rolling out new plans in small groups is an effective way to let teams absorb the message and provide feedback. Listening to feedback is critical for two main reasons. It allows teams to internalize the plan and it allows you to learn things you hadn’t considered. Seeking feedback will help get even more people on board.

Corral the naysayers. Despite your best efforts, there will always be those on your team that don’t buy into the message. It’s important to identify those individuals and meet with them individually. If they have constructive feedback, hear them out. Everyone deals with change differently. If they are simply unwilling to get on board, it might be time to part ways. Naysayers can have a negative impact on morale and can hurt the overall team’s performance. It’s better to deal with the problem than ignore it.

A ship is nothing without her crew and a plan is nothing without people to implement it. If you spend a long time developing a plan, spend twice that amount of effort getting people on board. Without a dedicated crew, your plan is going nowhere. Take the advice from this article and get more people involved in the planning process. Work on a straight-forward communications plan and seek feedback. And most importantly, corral the naysayers. If you do these things, you will bring your plans to life.

What do you think? Have you used these principles in the past? What were the results? What other ideas have worked for getting your team on board? What are some examples of great planning and poor execution? What went wrong? Let me know in the comment section below.

Gathering of Six Active-Duty Marine Corps Four-Star Generals

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Photo Credit: Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans, U.S. Marine Corps

At one time in history, the Marine Corps had six active-duty four-star generals. On April 19, 2013, they gathered at the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps where this epic picture was taken.

“Old Breed, New Breed, there’s not a damn bit of difference so long as it’s the Marine Breed.” Chesty Puller

Dressed in their desert camouflage uniforms, the six Marine four-star generals share “coffee” and reminisced about the four decades of working on and off together.  “It was a bunch of friends who started out as second lieutenants,” said Gen. James Mattis. “We never thought we would end up as four stars. It is the surprise and twists and turns of life.”

From left to right, the generals are John F. Kelly, James N. Mattis, Joseph F. Dunford, James F. Amos, John R. Allen, and John M. Paxton Jr.

I’m not sure how I originally missed this in the news but it’s pretty amazing.

Everyone Can Help Give Veterans a Fighting Chance

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Photo Credit: Chris Davies, U.S. Navy Veteran

I remember the feeling I had stepping off the USS Tennessee for the last time. It was 1994, I was 26 years old, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. For the five years I served on active duty, the Navy pretty much told me what to do. They also taught me everything I needed to know to be a successful line officer on a nuclear submarine. What they didn’t teach me was how to transition to a civilian job.

I recall going to civilian job interviews and being asked questions I had no idea how to answer. Business jargon was a mystery to me. It was like I had been living on another planet for the past five years and, after seven deployments, I guess I had been. Luckily for me, I was hired by a company that was recruiting former nuclear naval officers. They understood my background and didn’t care that I knew very little about the job they needed me to fill.

I was also lucky to connect with several Navy veterans at my new company who mentored me and helped me make a successful transition to civilian life. As I said, I was lucky. But veterans shouldn’t have to rely on luck to be successful. For most veterans, making the transition to the civilian world is significantly more difficult than my experience. The biggest challenge they face is just finding a job.

As stated in my article Six Reasons You Need to Hire a Veteran Today, many companies pass over military veterans when reading resumes. The reason is they have both a lack of understanding as well as misconceptions about veterans. They often overlook veterans for key job openings because they don’t understand the work history and military terminology on the resumes of veterans. They also have misinformed assumptions of what veterans are like based on popular culture.

As a result, more than 340,000 veterans are out of work as of May 2017. Even though the unemployment rate for veterans has improved, there are still 340,000 Americans who have served their country with honor who can’t find a civilian job. Something has to change!

This is where organizations like the Foundation for VETS (Veteran Employment Transition Support) are stepping in to make a difference. They are helping veterans, employers, and the economy by working to reduce and remove barriers to civilian employment. One of the ways they do this is through intensive research that provides practical solutions to both veterans and employers alike.

This month, the Foundation for VETS launched a series of new studies to examine, and subsequently inform, the veteran employment transition landscape. This new research will answer many valuable questions including finding out what specifically are the most challenging aspects of the employment transition experience for veterans.

The great news is that everyone can help. The Foundation for VETS is looking for civilians, veterans, active-duty military, and human resource professionals to participate in an anonymous, 10-minute, online survey. This survey is being authored by four PhDs who are all professionals in the employment research space. The outcome of the research will lead to actionable solutions, not just services, for transitioning veterans.

If you are looking for a way to honor veterans and help in their transition, take 10 minutes and fill out this survey. Your input will be extraordinarily valuable.

What do you think? Did you take the survey? What do you feel are the greatest barriers to civilian employment for veterans? Why are there so many misconceptions about veterans? What can organizations like the Foundation for VETS do to help? Let me know in the comment section below.

Patton on Micromanagement

Patton WordPress

“Keep on advancing… whether we go over, under, or through the enemy,” General Patton told his troops, and they did.

Under his leadership, the 3rd Army swept across France, crossed the Rhine and charged straight into the heart of Germany.  In 1945, his troops captured more than 10,000 square miles of enemy territory in one 10-day march. In the end, Patton and his Army achieved their mission of liberating Germany from the Nazi’s.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

Like other great leaders, Patton understood he didn’t need to micromanage his troops to get them to do extraordinary things. A leader’s role is to cast the vision, set the goals, establish the boundaries, and get out of the way.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Too often, leaders think they need to know everything, direct every activity, and be involved in every decision. When you do that, it comes across that you don’t trust your team. You don’t think they are capable.  In the end, you are limiting the success of your team. They will only be as good as you are. You will never be surprised with their results.

What do you think? Have you worked for a micro-manager? What was that experience like? Was the team’s success limited? Do you have experience working with a visionary leader? What was that like? Did it frustrate you when they didn’t get involved in the details? Let me know in the comment section below.