Leadership in the Aftermath of the Storm

People are what matter most, and ensuring that we care for one another especially when the chips are down is where your focus HAS to be

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On Sept 28th, 2003 Halifax Nova Scotia suffered a direct hit from a Category 2 Hurricane (Juan). There is a lot from that night and the subsequent days that have stuck with me over the past 14 years.

As the story goes….I was the engagement manager for the Morgan Stanley account with Keane and we were in the early days of our relationship. We had about 30 people on the team and we were supporting a lot of their critical financial applications with 24×7 support. I can clearly remember several of the Morgan Stanley managers reaching out to us the week before the storm and asking if we were ready. Would we be ok? Were we anticipating it to be as bad as the news was saying it was going to be? 

In all honesty, I brushed it all off saying that we got a lot of threats of hurricanes landing in Nova Scotia, Canada but they always downgraded to tropical storms by the time they got to us. Having said that – the safety elephant in me did kick in the day before the storm and I handed out pagers to my entire team (yes – I said pagers). I had a spreadsheet saved on the server with all of the pager assignments and I figured if the long shot happened then I would have a way to contact my team.

Fast forward to the height of the storm, it is the middle of the night with all hell breaking loose. Mature, large trees are swaying in the wind like they were twigs, torrential rain is pounding the pavement outside and the wind is blowing so hard that the power lines are colliding and arcing up and down right outside our house. My husband and I are caught between taking the kids to the basement (which is filling up fast with water), evacuating in case the arcing power lines started a fire, or to just stay put and hope that things would be ok. As it turned out, staying put was fine. We did not have a tree fall on the house and the power was down before we could be in danger of fire. The basement had about 3 feet of water in it – there wasn’t much we could do.

The work escalation calls started at about 5 am to invoke our business continuity plan and luckily my cell phone was fully charged. I was also fortunate that we had a converter that could continuously charge my phone from the car. The big immediate challenge was that even though I had an emergency list and people with pagers – I could not get to the server to view it. I had no idea if all my people had weathered the storm as well as we did and this was a cause of great concern for me. As their leader…they were my responsibility. Oh and…did any of them have power so we could continue to support the client from home?

I made a very difficult decision at 6am, and got in my car and started to drive into the office to get the list printed out. Reports from those inside the office was that we still had power even though the roof had blown off the building. I left my husband and the girls bailing out the basement in their bathing suits to make the drive downtown to the office. As I drove, I immediately realized that I was in over my head with all the roads flooded and water halfway up the door of my car – but I kept going – the people were my responsibility – the client was my responsibility. As it turned out…I made it to the office – grateful for getting there without incident. Now onto the next issue….with the roof off the building – the water was pouring down the elevator shaft and security was not allowing anyone up the stairs – they were considering evacuating the building. I pleaded my case, told them the lengths I had gone to get there – nope…not going to happen!

What did I do? I called until I got someone in the office upstairs to print out the list for me and they brought it down another stairwell where security was not monitoring it. List in hand…I started back home and spent the next four days running the Morgan Stanley command center out of the back of my Volkswagen Golf in the driveway. To keep the cell phone charged – my husband would leave in the middle of the night – drive about 45 min away to wait in line and get gas so we could keep my cell phone going. I stayed in constant contact with my people – they were all ok and they were all so grateful that we had a way to stay in touch…to know that we were all ok…and that my first concern was for them and their families. The whole experience – not only brought us together as a team – but also brought us closer to our client as we shared the load and concern for one another.

I realize now that the Hurricane experience may have been a big turning point for me in my life and my leadership journey. Here is what I learned:

  • People are what matter most, and ensuring that we care for one another especially when the chips are down is where your focus HAS to be
  • Always be prepared for the worst and hope for the best
  • The smallest acts of random kindness and caring are what people remember the most. You cannot tell them enough how much you appreciate them. This is particularly true when you are going through a crisis. People are trying so hard to cope with not only their personal struggles but also to care about the work that they do.
  • Even when you think you have nothing left to give – you have more to give.
  • Even when you think you cannot accept the reality of the situation – you find a way to keep going, hunker down into get er done mode, and take things one thing at a time
  • People want to help one another in times of crisis – don’t be afraid to ask for help
  • Have an appreciation every day for what you have – our infrastructure and lives are so fragile – 5 days without power reminds you of that.

The last thing I will share on this is what my kids remember from the whole experience. We have asked them what they remember from that time? Were they scared? Was it tough? Was it a time that was difficult for them? Do you know what they say? They say that it was a great memory for them. Why was that?

  • They got to play around in their bathing suits in their own swimming pool in the basement.
  • We played games every night by candle light – there was no TV or anything to distract us from spending time together as a family
  • Every night was a big gathering of people. With our family, with our friends as we bbq’d all the food in the freezer and had massive block parties to share what we had
  • The kids in the neighborhood all played outside together, and they got to watch videos out of the back of Mom’s car from the converter

I guess it goes to show – that with the right outlook and resilience – something that could be a tragedy was turned into a fond memory.

Leadership questions of the week for YOU:

  • What is the most significant crisis situation you have been through?
  • What did you learn from it and what have you carried with you?
  • How important is it for leaders to be mindful of doing thoughtful and caring things for their team in crisis (even though they may not think they have much left to give)?
  • What are the top 3 things you could do starting tomorrow to demonstrate that sense of appreciation and support for your teams that is present when there is a crisis?”

Thanks for reading – YOU make a difference!

Please continue the conversation by liking…commenting or sharing this article. You can also follow me on twitter @marciedwhite

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