The crisis situation is underway, you’ve activated your crisis process and assembled your crisis team in your emergency operations center.
What do you see around the table?
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba discuss the need for diversity in education, experience, personalities, and backgrounds on your crisis team. In particular, we talk about how having a diverse crisis team helps your group make better decisions in the heat of the moment.
Bryan Strawser: The boom happens. You’ve had the event. You’ve activated your crisis process, and your crisis team’s assembling in your conference room or your EOC or whatever you have available to you. As they stream in you look around the table and what do you see?
Jen Otremba: Hopefully you see a bunch of different people going to work. They know what their role is, so they just start.
Bryan Strawser: So they all have degrees in the emergency management. They just dress differently.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. They look-
Bryan Strawser: They look different.
Jen Otremba: They look a little different.
Bryan Strawser: But that’s not what you mean by diversity.
Jen Otremba: No, not at all.
Bryan Strawser: It’s not about-
Jen Otremba: Maybe they don’t all have degrees in emergency management.
Bryan Strawser: I don’t have a degree in emergency management.
Jen Otremba: Exactly.
Bryan Strawser: Do you?
Jen Otremba: No, I don’t, but I have a lot of experience in it.
Bryan Strawser: We’re talking about the diversity of your crisis team. What we’re really meaning here is diversity of thought and background and experience and role, and probably a whole host of things I’m not thinking of, education, and training.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely.
Bryan Strawser: Why do you not want everyone to be the same? Why do you not want a professional emergency management … crisis management team where everybody spent a decade at FEMA and has all these emergency management certifications and that’s your whole crisis team? That’s what you want, right?
Jen Otremba: Well, I mean maybe some of that is helpful if you have one, two people that have that background.
Bryan Strawser: Some.
Jen Otremba: Some. But the problem with that is that it really limits your creativity and thought and your problem-solving capabilities. If you have everyone thinking the exact same thing, you got nobody thinking-
Bryan Strawser: The same background, same education.
Jen Otremba: … what’s happening over here. What about this? What about this? What about this?
Bryan Strawser: I came around to this idea of diversity of thought and experience and education in a … It was very difficult for me to come around to that.
Jen Otremba: Oh, really?
Bryan Strawser: It was because I thought that … Well, I was kind of personalizing the whole thing. Here I am, this was when I was in my early 20s, and thinking about these conversations around diversity in the workplace. What I was missing in all of that that I don’t think I was mature enough to understand is we’re really talking about you want a diverse team because of the creativity that it brings to the table, because of the problem solving that it brings to the table, because people are approaching these problems in different ways. It might be easier to be in a room full of people who think and act and dress and have the same background as you, but you will not get to the better answer.
Jen Otremba: No.
Bryan Strawser: You need to have that diversity of thought and experience and education.
Jen Otremba: I agree. And you won’t grow as a team. You’ll stay stagnant if you’re only ever thinking about the same things, you only look at things the same way.
Bryan Strawser: Look at it from the human side of a crisis. I’m just going to use my own experience here that I think I’m very emotional about the human impact of a crisis when the crisis is over. It’s not in my nature to think about the human impact of a crisis while it’s happening because I’m trying to deal with it. I’m the wrong person to be providing input on that particular aspect of crisis management. However, I would always bring people to the table who balance that because I understood that that difference and thought and experience and education got us to the better answer.
Jen Otremba: Yep, just as important. I think about that, too, in some of the experiences I’ve had and some of the teams that I’ve worked on in crisis and not in crisis, too, and that human factor of the … I just think of this experience I had at my recent training at NTC where everyone’s working really hard. It’s like 150 million degrees outside, and you’re working really hard. I was working, working, working. I’m kind of a worker bee, so I keep going, keep going, keep going. One of our enlisted came up to me. She looked at me in the eyes, and she said, “Are you okay ma’am?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine. We got to do …” She literally-
Jen Otremba: … one of the lowest enlisted we have. She put me basically in a corner, and she handed me the hose to my water and said, “Just sit there and drink for a few minutes,” just because she could recognize that I needed to stop, that I was showing signs of dehydration, that I was showing signs of delirium. I didn’t know it at the time because I was in the middle. We were getting stuff done. So I think about that nurture of someone-
Bryan Strawser: Absolutely.
Jen Otremba: … who is not in charge of this whole operation, but she was in charge of her own ability to look at the picture and see how people were doing. So that nurture.
Bryan Strawser: Just for those of you that maybe haven’t listened to previous episodes, Jen’s talking about, as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, being at the National Training Center for … It was three weeks?
Jen Otremba: Yeah, about three weeks.
Bryan Strawser: It felt like you were gone for forever.
Jen Otremba: It felt like it where I was there too.
Bryan Strawser: Jen had a three-week training evolution out in the California high desert-
Jen Otremba: Yep.
Bryan Strawser: … where there were lots of flying and lots of sitting around in tents.
Jen Otremba: So I got this idea of this concept around this podcast from actually, ironically Lindsey who was on our crisis team at our previous employer and she-
Bryan Strawser: And she now works with us at Bryghtpath.
Jen Otremba: She does work with us here. She said to me, she’s like, “Well, Jen, think about it like this. We need to have people who can communicate, for instance, who is the one person that is able to go to the boss and say what needs to be said and is not worried about what the reaction of the boss is going to be, but then at the same time is able to manage the reaction of the boss, to keep that away from the team, to keep business rolling and then handling,” I don’t want to say handling, “but kind of keeping the boss at bay and letting them know what the updates are and managing that reaction.” So the boss is now walking into the group of emergency managers and asking everyone, “What’s going on?” which we’ve had happen before.
Bryan Strawser: We have had happen. The default answer from an emergency manager might be, “Well, it was right here on our F100 Status form.
Jen Otremba: Yep. Well, that’s not very human if you think about it when you’ve got a boss who’s stressing about … Not only that but recognizing that that boss has a boss that they’re answering to.
Bryan Strawser: Or a board.
Jen Otremba: Exactly, or a board that they’re answering to. So making sure that everyone is communicated with appropriately in the way that they need to be communicated to because not everyone’s the same.
Bryan Strawser: It’s definitely a challenge, I think, to think about the roles that you really need on your team in a crisis to have that good mix of diversity that helps you get to the best possible answer but also helps you just deal with the issues that have come up in front of you along the way. I think when we talk about a crisis team, we talk about the makeup organizationally that we’re looking for.
Jen Otremba: Right. You need [crosstalk 00:07:27]. You need [crosstalk 00:07:29]. Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: You need-
Jen Otremba: The leader.
Bryan Strawser: … HR. You need legal. You need your lines of business. You need supply chain, facilities.
Jen Otremba: Travel.
Bryan Strawser: Communications. You’re bringing these folks to the table, but there’s also the makeup of what’s the right mix of people’s background and experience and education in addition to the organizational elements that you’re looking for in order to advance your strategy and deal with the crisis that you’re working through.
Jen Otremba: Everything down to … Again, when I was talking to Lindsey about this, she mentioned individuals that were her go-to for laughter that kept everything lighthearted. There’s always this person that could … The worst-case scenario could be going down and they somehow crack the funniest joke that brings the whole team back to reality and gets everyone back to working. You always have that person. Then you always have the person that’s like, “I’ll get the food!” We talk about food a lot.
Bryan Strawser: The food pusher. We like to eat here.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, we talk about food a lot when I think about it.
Bryan Strawser: Which I keep reminders of that around. Jen doesn’t.
Jen Otremba: And the coffee usually.
Bryan Strawser: And coffee. You got to have coffee-
Jen Otremba: Where’s the coffee?
Bryan Strawser: … and caffeine, Red Bull, whatever.
Jen Otremba: Never take away the coffee.
Bryan Strawser: I tried to remove the coffee maker out of the command center once and I think I was about to have a mutiny.
Jen Otremba: No.
Bryan Strawser: We know there was a Starbucks downstairs one floor away.
Jen Otremba: It’s too far.
Bryan Strawser: It’s too far.
Jen Otremba: It’s too far. Too far. Actually ironically back to the NTC conversation at the National Training Center, that was my leader, while I was talking about it and before we went and I told him, I was like, “Well, as long as there’s coffee. You just keep the coffee going, and we’ll get the job done.”
Bryan Strawser: “We’ll do anything you need, sir, as long as there’s coffee.”
Jen Otremba: Do not take the coffee away, exactly.
Bryan Strawser: I think you’re talking about … You were highlighting the need for laughter and humor and Lindsey talking about who she could go to. I think that’s great advice. Because it’s a weird sense of humor I think that develops on a crisis team because you get comfortable with each other and you’re working through these very difficult situations. It would look weird to the outside, but we always had theme songs for a crisis, for many of them.
Jen Otremba: That’s right. I forgot about the theme songs.
Bryan Strawser: Because it was both a stress relief but the … I mean singing is something that you’re getting in your groove to music. That’s something that motivates me. I don’t really sing, but I need music to do certain work. It’s just the way I’m wired. I think we always had great conversations about what’s the song for the situation we find ourselves in with this hurricane or fire or whatever it was that we were dealing with. But from the outside I think people would just think that’s weird. To us, that was just normal.
Jen Otremba: Which is sort of funny that you mentioned that because then we also had definitely the people that were not having the theme song conversation. They were not into the theme song, but when you needed the projector fixed because inevitably it’s not going-
Bryan Strawser: It’s going to be broke.
Jen Otremba: … to work, they’re the ones that are like, “I got it!” and can fix something on a dime.
Bryan Strawser: I was involved in a 97-day crisis situation at our previous employer where I got pulled out of my normal job. I wasn’t yet in the full-time crisis role. I was leading a different team. I got pulled out of that along with about 14 other people who began reporting to me that day to work on a proxy contest that our employer was involved in. We were in one big conference room for 97 days together. It was the most eclectic group of people put together. We did that a little bit intentionally, but it was definitely a situation where we’re looking for a set of individual talents and personalities and we got that.
We had one person who was one of the more senior people in that team who when the team just … We all had to work in this room because it super confidential stuff. Her approach was when I needed her to participate in a team meeting she did and then would put on noise canceling headphones with no music so it was just total silence. She would just sit there amongst the conversation that we were having and work. Now, some people might find that off putting or might find it to be overly introverted, but she got everything done that we needed.
Jen Otremba: That was her way to get it done.
Bryan Strawser: Like, “Hey, I need a 30-page profile of this individual, and I’m going to need it by tomorrow morning, and I need a one-page executive that a CEO would read, or a one-page executive summary that the CEO would read. “Okay.”
Jen Otremba: That’s the thing with the crisis team, I think, or any very well functioning team, is there’s a time to work and there’s a time to play. You can flip that switch really quickly, I think, in those teams, which I’ve always loved being part of them for that reason because of that way to do it. So you’ve got the leader, the one that’s able to delegate who’s going to point to X, Y, and Z, the one that always knows what needs to be done. You got the followers, the worker bees, which could be interchangeable. One day the leader could be this person, and the next day you could be a follower.
Bryan Strawser: We had seven or eight people that were authorized to be the leader of a crisis, an approach we encouraged because of having backups and such.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely.
Bryan Strawser: So it could be different. They all had different styles, and the team had to adapt as they worked through them.
Jen Otremba: Right, the importance of knowing when to lead and when to follow. And when you’re following, you may be the one that’s keeping things lighthearted. You may be the one that’s getting the coffee. None of those jobs are above anyone at that point. It’s just how do we get this done?
Bryan Strawser: I think it’s important throughout the crisis to realize that as you’re working amongst your team that you’ve picked and put together and you have all different personalities and diverse experience and background, like we’ve talked about, that you’re dealing with impacted locations, most of the time, that are not where you’re at, and they need to understand the experiences that all of you have had as they work through the situation that they’re in. Their team may not have been as deliberately put together. They’ve got to deal with the hand that was dealt, and you may have people that are all very similar.
Jen Otremba: They were hired just for a role.
Bryan Strawser: They were hired for that role. I mean we saw this in our last role with logistics, sorry, distribution folks because their job is to move stuff in huge quantities, and they know how to do that.
Jen Otremba: Yep, there’s a specific skill set.
Bryan Strawser: A specific skill set and it is a science.
Jen Otremba: It’s very effective.
Bryan Strawser: There’s a specific leadership type that I think we were looking for in those roles, and there were things that they were missing. That team was not real diverse in terms of background. They all came from a similar world. We often had to remind them, “Hey, so we were dealing with this situation and you’ve had victims, employees that are victims. There’s going to be emotional impact, and here’s what that’s going to look like over the next seven to 10 days.
Jen Otremba: Or longer for that matter.
Bryan Strawser: It’s going to feel okay for about three days. Then it’s not, and you’re going to have to help your team work through this. But it was our understanding of … Because we had this more diverse group, the things that they were going to go through and you’re able to share and operationalize that experience for them.
Jen Otremba: I think we had seen so many things at that point that we knew. We had had it down to a science at some point. We knew after a certain amount of time, like you said, this is going to happen. After a certain amount of time, this is going to happen. So we knew how to communicate that out and to train those field leaders on how to manage that. But you’re right. They didn’t always have that skill set.
Bryan Strawser: In certain parts of the organization.
Jen Otremba: Exactly, yeah.
Bryan Strawser: So if you assemble your crisis team and they all look the same and you all have the same background, you have some challenges to work out.