Hurricanes Irma & Harvey: Leading Your Business In the Aftermath Of Disaster
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[Editor's Note: This story originally ran in 2017, but with Hurricane Laura and other storms on the horizon amid this latest hurricane season, we felt it might help reinforce how business leaders can help each other and their communities in the face of natural disasters.]
My logistics company, Jetco Delivery, is based in Houston. Not long ago, we would never have imagined enduring Hurricane Harvey, one of the most tragic national disasters in recorded history. Now, those who have been affected by Hurricane Irma, face the same devastation that we are experiencing in Texas. Leading my company through this crisis, I learned an important leadership lesson about devastation, and not just the physical devastation that we associate with these record breaking storms. I’m talking about something less visible -- mental devastation.
To lead through a catastrophe, ensure business continuity and a return to normal as soon as practical, we must have a plan in place to focus first and foremost on the human side of the crisis. The lessons I learned in the aftermath of Harvey transcend natural disasters and apply to any form of crises that breeds anxiety and insecurity. Here are a few words of advice for managing the mental devastation that results from catastrophe.
Understand that communities are in shock.
Before you can adjust your leadership style to a catastrophic time, you need to accept this truth. An employee may have escaped the catastrophe unscathed, with his or her family safe and home intact. The employee was lucky. However, they may be worried sick about family and friends who were not as lucky.
Moreover, the community is in a collective state of shock, which is impossible to escape. Our employees, our customers and our neighbors have been in “fight or flight” mode for several weeks. Everyone is exhausted and anxious, and that includes us. Until we understand that “no one is OK,” it will be impossible to adjust your leadership style and organize your priorities to manage through the catastrophe.
Your employees need to see you, plain and simple. After Harvey hit, our leadership team cleared our calendars. No task or meeting was that important. Instead, we spent unstructured time in the office. We simply listened to what employees had to say. Team members needed to talk, ask questions, laugh and cry.
Being there for your employees in this capacity is your primary function coming out of a catastrophe. Your task list is on overdrive. There are so many critical items that need to be addressed post-event, and I am not suggesting that you ignore these items. However, as you set your priorities, put your employees first and everything else will follow. If you cannot successfully create the proper environment for your employees, your chances of a smooth recovery are low.
Address financial hardship.
Understand that many employees will miss work and therefore be unpaid during the catastrophe. It’s easy to say that employees should use paid time off (PTO) to bridge the gap. It’s easy to say that employees need to save on their own for a rainy day. That’s all fine, but in the real world many employees have insufficient PTO and have been unable to establish a rainy-day fund.
Also in the real world, many companies cannot carry their employees if the company is not generating revenue. In our company, we offered emergency advances and other limited, appropriate financial measures. We stopped making employee loans years ago and instead engaged an outside company that is in the business of making low interest payroll advances. Have a solution in place for employees to immediately access funds for an emergency.
Create your own relief program.
Coming out of a crisis, employees are looking for answers. Become a resource. Point employees in the direction of where they can go for public or charitable aid.
That said, charity begins at home. Reach out to your employees individually, one-to-one, to be sure they are safe. People need to know that you genuinely care. Then, raise funds and supplies for impacted employees. You can move faster than any agency to provide relief. Actions that we've taken included buying clothes, food and cleaning supplies, grocery store gift cards and paying for hotel rooms for people who lost their homes.
This can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. The key is to genuinely show you care through your words and your actions. One of my employees commented, “With so much help pouring in, we had less time to drown in sorrow and disbelief. I just want everyone here at Jetco to know that I am proud and honored to be a part of this family. Witnessing the passion and willpower to help others in need is a blessing.”
Create a shared mission.
When a community is suffering, engage your team in the rebuilding effort. Ensure everyone has a stake in the process. I am in the trucking and logistics business. We volunteered trucks for many critical efforts, including delivery of life-boats, food and supplies for first responders. We volunteered because it was the right thing to do. In the process, we tied our team into the massive relief effort. This created a sense of pride among those who contributed. Stepping out into the community in a time of need and doing something was much more therapeutic than sitting home and watching the horrors unfold on the news.
Celebrate the heroes.
We took time to recognize the leadership provided by those heroes who are helping the community rebuild. This brought the whole team into the mission. It let our employees and their families know that we answered the call when we were needed the most. This showed strength, continuity and commitment.
The actions of our heroes created a safe environment for everyone to return to work. Everyone knew that the company was strong and everyone was uplifted because we were in the eye of the storm helping those in need. These actions speak volumes to your team about your values. Help the community however you can in a time of great need.
Make it safe to return to work.
Employees may be reluctant to return to work after the crisis passes. As our businesses return to normal, we need our employees at work. For some time after the crisis, you must strike a balance. If you bark out an order that everyone must return to work, you may have your team members physically on the job but not mentally. It’s important to communicate clear messages to your employees and their families. Allow extra breaks for team members to check in at home. Create a little more flexibility in hours. Be lenient with employees who may have been truly devastated by the catastrophe.
By creating a work environment that simultaneously is empathetic and recognizes our need to restart the business, you will bring back engaged employees. Recognize that they are human beings first and employees thereafter. Taking a one size fits all approach is sure to backfire and possibly harm long term employee morale and loyalty.