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

USS TEXAS (SSN 775) COMMISSIONING

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.

Why is Starbucks Hiring 10,000 Veterans?

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If you are looking for boots-on-the-ground, look no further than your local Starbucks. Last week, Starbucks announced plans to hire more than 10,000 veterans in the next five years. Starbucks has joined the ranks of many other high-profile companies like Amazon, General Electric, Uber, General Motors, Toyota, Dow, Merck, and Wal-Mart who see the unique value in hiring military veterans.

What these companies are recognizing is they are gaining higher quality employees by seeking out candidates with military experience. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz explained, “This is just good business. This is not charity. This is not pity. This is the right thing to do for them and for us.” Amazon, who hired 1,900 veterans in 2013, says that veterans bring much needed “leadership skills and problem-solving abilities” to their fulfillment centers. They found hiring veterans is a “great match.”

These companies are validating exactly what I have observed over the past 20 years as a business leader. Hiring veterans is simply good for business. In my experience, military veterans make outstanding employees. They possess numerous traits like loyalty, dependability, resiliency, adaptability, integrity and discipline that are needed in the workplace. Their extensive training, leadership experiences, mission-focus and team orientation allow them to add immediate value to any organization.

So why aren’t more companies seeking out veterans? The biggest challenge hiring managers face is figuring out how military experience translates to needed skills in the civilian workforce. Many employers, looking for candidates with specific work experience, overlook military veterans. Corporate recruiters often don’t understand the unusual work history and military terminology on veteran’s resumes. Unfortunately, they are missing out on landing top-notch talent because of it.

Based on my experience, here are 5 reasons why veterans make outstanding employees:

Veterans know how to lead and how to follow – Whether serving as a platoon leader, squad leader, junior officer, team leader, tank commander, or hundreds of other military leadership roles, veterans have deep experience leading people, often in tough conditions. They also know how to follow orders. The military is a mission-focused, team-oriented, hierarchical organization that requires precision. Following orders is critical to accomplish the mission.

Veterans are high performers and are results-focused – Kirkland Murray, CEO of Anne Arundel Workforce Development says, “Veterans have a great work ethic; they take on challenges with a singular focus and can be counted on to show-up on time ready to work. Veterans aren’t wasteful; they have honed skills which give them the ability to work with limited available options.”

Veterans are good under pressure – The military provides unique, high stress experiences where soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen must perform at a high level. Whether repairing a vehicle under fire, landing a damaged aircraft, or bringing a submarine to periscope depth in rough seas, veterans are trained to excel in tough situations.

Veterans know how to work as a team – From boot camp to combat, veterans have been trained to work as a team to complete the mission. Military veterans know each member of the team must do their job to perfection for the team to succeed. In the case of combat or dangerous exercises, failure to perform as a team can lead to serious consequences.

Veterans understand self-sacrifice – Many new-hires are focused only on themselves, their careers, and what they can get from a company. Veterans know what it means to put their country, their mission, and their team ahead of themselves and their families. They are willing to fight for a cause that is greater than themselves.

As a leader, your job is to build a strong team, with the best people, who can accomplish big things. Military veterans bring unique attributes, skills, and experiences that can enhance any organization. They are loyal, dependable, hard-working employees who know how to lead, how to follow, and can get things done in tough circumstances. Companies like Starbucks have recognized this and are seeking out veterans in large numbers. If your recruiting strategy does not include adding veterans to your team, you may be missing out on some of the best talent available.

[Photo credit – Public Affairs Office Fort Wainwright]