Leading a Prepared Organization

We live in the Pacific Northwest that, like most regions of the world, has natural disasters to worry about. Every region of the world has some calamity on its potential horizon. Be it hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, droughts, even plagues of locusts, it seems clear that no place is without something to worry about.

Here we live in a place of splendid beauty that carries the risks right with the beauty. We have majestic mountains that are active volcanoes. We have a seashores that threaten tsunamis. We have a landscape littered with earthquake faults. And, as the “Evergreen State” we have a whole lot of trees. All of this is beautiful, and dangerous. This week, we got bitten by the beauty of the trees.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week we got a little warm-up storm with winds in the 30+ mph range with gusts to 60. Some trees were knocked over, a parking lot of my children’s school saw one totally flatten four cars and damage several others. But that was apparently just the semi-finals.

On Thursday night late, we got a whopper of a storm. Winds at the coast were over 100 — category 1 hurricane force; we saw winds in the 60+ range, with gusts that had to be 80+ mph. The storm hit overnight (as they always seem to do) and plunged virtually the whole region from Oregon to British Columbia into darkness. We’ve been dealing with the carnage ever since.

We live out of town a fair bit, and we seem to lose power at the drop of a hat. We always go dark before everyone, and get the lights back long after everyone else. This time was no different, we lost power at 5pm on Thursday, as the storm just began. And we have no power yet, three days later. Given everything they tell us, it will be at least Wednesday or Thursday (a week!) before we see power again. Traveling about yesterday it seemed like a war zone, with every other power pole broken or with a tree dangling over it. The wires are draped like spaghetti, with insulators and transformers scattered asunder. It appears as though Puget Sound Energy will have to rebuild the lines completely from scratch. So while we see power coming on around the region, our wait is sure to be a long one.

But hey, you say, wait a minute. How are you writing this blog entry? Are you at an internet cafe, or a friend’s house that has regained power? Nope. We lost power for only 30 seconds, and never lost TV or internet connectivity. We are warm, dry, and only moderately inconvenienced. You see, we were prepared. We have an automatic natural gas fired generator that powers much of the house. We have also have a gas stove, heat, hot water, even clothes dryer. The oven and A/C don’t work (not that we need A/C), and the outside Christmas lights are off. But we can watch TV (satellite) and all the other things.

Today, I’m feeling pretty darn smug.

I was ridiculed for the generator when we first installed it years ago. Neighbors thought their gas powered portable units were just fine. When I upgraded it two months ago, it was seen by many (including my loving wife) as a needless expense. Today, I’m feeling pretty darn smug. My neighbors are standing in gasoline lines and filling tanks every couple of hours to get enough power to heat, refrigerate, and light a room or two. We’re running the dishwasher and doing the laundry. They’re reading by flashlight waiting for the cable TV and internet to return. We’re watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and surfing the internet on the T1 line.

So what does this have to do with you and your leadership? The point is that preparations like this are wildly unpopular when they are done. They cost a lot of money. They take a lot of time. They take thinking about things that aren’t in the line of daily business, and are, frankly, pretty darn unpleasant to think about. People charged with making the preparations will complain, the accountants will wince, and the bottom line will take some kind of a hit. They all want to play the odds, and they all think it’s overkill. It takes a very deep kind of strength and will power to make it happen. And that is leadership.

Then something happens, and you get a chance to feel awfully smart. It may be that the organization survives when it might not have. It may be that it simply gets back on line faster than others. Or it may be simply that you handle something with relative ease that others need superhuman effort to survive. Whatever it is, it makes it all worthwhile.

What is your calamity, and are you even remotely prepared?

So I ask you: what is your calamity, and are you even remotely prepared? Is it a natural disaster like earthquake, fire, flood, or wind? Is it a business calamity like a major data loss? Is it something more personal, like the death or departure of key players? Whatever it is, have you really planned? Have you spent the time and energy necessary to make it really survivable at a level that is not only tolerable, but a real competitive advantage? Do you have the will and strength of leadership to make it a priority? It’s never a bad time to think this all out.

Oh, and before you ask, yes I back up everything on all my computers. Every night. And store a backup off site. I’ve had a disaster and never would suffer that again. Yep, I’m feeling pretty smug about that too.