How to handle the unexpected

03.28.14 thumb disasterBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

The next mysterious (or disastrous) event could be one that you or your team might suddenly need to respond to, probably under intense scrutiny.

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03.28.14 disasterBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

As the world watched the unfolding mystery of Flight 370, and the seemingly inept response by various officials and agencies, the wise manager or leader should feel worried. (The horrible mud-slide in Washington State is even closer to home, for those of us fortunate enough not to have had friends or relatives on Flight 370.)

Because any one of us could be next in the public hot seat. The next mysterious (or disastrous) event could be one that you or your team might suddenly need to respond to, probably under intense scrutiny.

Scrutiny, perhaps not by the world’s media — but by your boss, the CEO, the Board, or a regulatory body.

Turns out, a crisis is a terrible time to have to learn the improvisational skill of responding to the unexpected.

How can anyone “learn to handle the unexpected” — isn’t that a logical impossibility?

No.  It’s actually simple — it takes a bit of practice.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take today to make yourself and your team more resilient and flexible at handling any sort of unexpected, emergent threat or opportunity.

In a Crisis, You Must Lead

Followers and bystanders alike expect leaders to lead. That means in a crisis, you will be put on the spot, and you will be expected to act like you know what you are doing.

Whether you are the Prime Minister of Malaysia, or the owner of a local oil change franchise, you will bear the burden.

Do not succumb to the temptation of thinking that nobody trained you for this, so somehow expectations will be low. I promise you, nowhere in the handbook for being Prime Minister of Malaysia, is there a chapter on what to do when a plane mysteriously vanishes.

A lack of training, or the entirely true fact that nobody else foresaw this, will not protect you from harsh judgments.

And you should not simply be focused on protecting your reputation. In leadership, fast action can mean the difference between life and death.  New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin could have saved hundreds of lives by taking decisive action before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

(Nagin ignored instructions to evacuate early, and wasted 12 critical hours by not having the evacuation order written in advance, an obvious precaution. He failed to use available buses for the evacuation, and later ignored state and federal offers of help. Over 700 bodies were later recovered in the city. Dozens more have never been found.)

Today, it looks like no reaction would’ve made any difference for Flight 370, but when the next disaster comes, and it belongs to you, you have no way of knowing in advance what kind of stakes are playing for: your reputation, your career, or somebody’s life.

Here are the things you should do, whether you are a CEO or a team leader, to prepare yourself and your team for both the foreseeable and the unforeseeable:

  • Accept the burden of leadership and the necessity for preparation
  • Build preparation into your organization’s DNA
  • Make a game of it

Accept the Necessity

As a former GE strategic planner once put it, the most neglected aspect of senior management strategic thinking is in the area of risks. I would add, leaders neglect both risks and unexpected upsides.

As I was writing this, I realized I didn’t have what I advise — a one-page list of significant risks and opportunities. I brainstormed one in 20 minutes, starting with an Internet search (below) for risk categories to spur my imagination. The real trick is to keep it updated without going overboard — identify too many risks and you’ll feel overwhelmed and prepare for none of them.  Here’s my short list, with my mitigation plan for each:

Risk Categories

Natural, All


  • Supplier

  • Customer

  • Internal

  • Regulatory

  • Other

Top Risks for Tom on Leadership and Cox Business Consulting


  • Fire, Flood, Earthquake

  • Insurance


  • Customer – too much revenue from one source

  • Monitor quarterly

  • Diversify or hold cash savings

  • Customer – credit risk

  • Check credit on large accounts

  • Get deposit before doing work

  • Internal – key person sick/dies/leaves

  • Maintain my network

Next, create yours.

Preparedness DNA

You’re only prepared to the extent you actually do the work, not just read this list and tell yourself you should do it. Some techniques:

  1. Trap Yourself. Talk your Mastermind group or business colleagues into all doing this together. Since it was your idea, your ego will require you to do it.

  2. Assign It. When you’ve tasked someone else, it’s suddenly much easier to require it to be done.

  3. Hire it Out. Least useful because you don’t practice the plans.

  4. Tie It.  Combine your risk plan with some other annual have-to-do activity like closing the books, audits, or spring cleaning.

If you have an officer or senior team member who loves security or preparation or avoiding risk, this is a great task for them to own.

Make it a Game

Build mental flexibility by toying with the risks in a more-than-casual way, but nothing too serious.  Here’s one of my favorites:

  1. Announce in a regular meeting that you have a ten-minute exercise

  2. Hand out forms for people to write in the steps they’ll take in response to a specific external event

  3. Pick a scenario from a hat or have one selected

  4. Read the scenario, then each person writes what they or their department would do in the first 72 hours after the event

  5. Read each response aloud and give a small award (lunch, coffee, car wash) to the best, as decided by the group

Doing this for ten minutes per month or per quarter is not a lot of work — and it makes people think.

Then annually hold a ‘real’ table-top disaster response exercise for senior staff down to front line supervisors. Combine it with food and some other annual activities. A free resource is here and there are many more good planning resources online. Most good consultants will be able to assist with facilitating the exercise and with helping your people make good plans.

Tom Cox blogs on leadership for Oregon Business.

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