March 27, 2020    3 min read
Lisa Miles-Heal was the IT Director at House of Travel when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck. As the world reeled at the sheer scale of destruction she was tasked with using all of the company’s systems to find passengers — and keep travel agents with clients in the region up to date. In 2010 she was Chief Operating Officer at software firm Blackbay when the first of the Christchurch earthquakes struck their offices in the city. The firm made the call to leave their damaged premises: within four months a second quake collapsed the building’s roof in what would undoubtedly have been a catastrophe for staff had they remained. Now as Unleashed Software’s COO, Lisa – or LMH as she’s known at the firm – is part of the core leadership team responding to the unprecedented challenges of the C-19 pandemic. She took a moment to share these six hard-won lessons for leaders faced with times of crisis.
 

Lesson 1: Stay calm even when those around you are stressing

Be fair, firm and unwavering. It’s not your job to be emotional: delegate that to someone else. Your team will only appreciate this later. Be un-distractible and un-influenceable by emotion. It sounds hard but it’s needed to ensure consistency.

Lesson 2: Identify key resources

In a crisis you need to identify the key people in your business that can take on important roles. Make it their priority, and clear their decks.

Lesson 3: ALWAYS use data in decision-making

You should always use data to drive decision-making – and you need to get there quick. For example, in the Boxing Day Tsunami we had a dataset of all travellers we had to locate and we worked single-mindedly to reduce that number to zero. Likewise in the Christchurch earthquakes, we agreed the engineer’s assessment would guide our decisions on staying or going. If we hadn’t been closely monitoring these reports about how many more aftershocks the building could take there would have been serious injuries – even fatalities. Using good data was key in locating tsunami survivors. Using good data, well, was key in locating tsunami survivors.  

Lesson 4: Create clear communication ceremonies and schedules…

…and stick to them. For example, right now our executive team stands up every morning at 9 am and there’s a staff update at 4 pm. If you need more time, communicate at 4 pm and say ‘it’s delayed, but here’s when you can expect it’. Create logos and branding for your comms, including consistent email subject lines to highlight the urgent stuff and the regular stuff. And use email. Slack and so on are temporary and hard to structure. You should also get all these emails onto an intranet or file store so people can refer back later.

Lesson 5: Keep a daily record of what you do and decide

In a crisis meeting agendas and minutes become crucial. When you make decisions, act as though they can and will be audited later. For example, if you agree to house a staff member whose home has been damaged by an earthquake, then document exactly how much you’ll pay and for how long, as you never know when you might need  

Finally, lesson 6: Keep your water topped up

Both in a practical sense but also metaphorically. You will need a roster with your colleagues to “tag out” for rest. And ensure you have (ideally) non-work people to support your emotional wellbeing. Remember, it’s a middle-distance race, not a sprint, and you will tire. Carry a big, transparent, water bottle with you at all times and ask a close colleague to ensure it’s always topped up if empty. Your pee will be the lightest its ever been.
 

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