Dealing with leadership teams can be challenging when it comes to your business continuity program.
In this unprecedented COVID-19 climate, challenges are even more pronounced:
- More ad-hoc and urgent asks of business continuity professionals
- Program weaknesses are more likely to be exposed
- Higher stress levels
However, there are also opportunities to make the most of the increased visibility in business continuity programs, including leadership seeing direct results of planning efforts, which can be used to generate more program buy-in.
That said, how you approach your discussions with leadership is critical if you want to truly engage them and gain their trust.
In this article, I will share ways to engage executives during a crisis, including how to strike the right tone and avoid the challenges I encountered earlier in my career.
Executive Engagement Challenges
During my previous role as head of business continuity for a large FTSE100 organization, my time with executives was limited during business-as-usual with meetings often shortened or sometimes bumped altogether.
Along came the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009. At the time, the pandemic raised several concerns with executive leadership, similar to recent COVID-19 events.
Given my role in the organization, I quickly initiated and chaired a weekly leadership pandemic working group.
In the first meeting, members immediately quizzed me on my knowledge of pandemics and asked me to provide an opinion about if the World Health Organization (WHO) was exaggerating the risk. At this point, I realized these meetings were going to be challenging.
There were a few trends during the initial meetings:
- Executives, who hadn’t previously shown interest in the program and weren’t fully aware of some of the foundational program elements and capabilities, asked me a lot of questions.
- I had limited time to present information to executives.
- I was expected to provide expert information on the pandemic and oftentimes needed to translate these facts to meet ad-hoc information requests.
During these meetings, I was able to build confidence and trust with the team. I began to lead the conversation and drove the team forward, while proactively identifying and providing the information that leadership needed.
3 Ways to Effectively Engage Executives During a Crisis
The following sections provide a summary of some of the lessons I learned early on and principles I’ve applied recently during the COVID-19 response that have resulted in successfully engaging executives during the crisis.
1. Choose the Right Topics
In general, it can be difficult to gauge what executives care about and can feel a bit like trying to read minds.
During a crisis, when stakes are high and executives’ time is short, it’s even more important to present the right information and avoid spending time focusing on topics not of interest or relevant to your executive audience.
Through experience, I have found that leadership cares about the following topics during a crisis event:
- Effect on Product/Service Delivery – Have You Missed Obligations?
- The first thing leadership cares about is the bottom line: what are the impacts to customers and key stakeholders? If there have not been any impacts, what is the likelihood of impact due to the event?
- Through the business continuity program activities, particularly the Frame discussion, you should have a good understanding of leadership’s priorities and risk tolerance levels. If the current situation exceeds (or is likely to exceed) risk tolerance levels, this should be communicated to executives as the first topic.
- Response and Recovery Efforts – What’s Working and Are There Gaps?
- Leadership expects to be informed on the overall response and recovery effort. These updates should include high-level strategies that have been implemented and are enabling the continuity of operations as well as any gaps in recovery capabilities.
- Gaps in recovery capabilities should be accompanied by their impact and mitigation options. For mitigation options, be prepared with supporting information, such as cost, effort, and time of implementation, and the potential impact and timeline of impact if not mitigated.
- Upcoming Hurdles or Potential Impacts – What Should You Be Prepared For?
- As a business continuity professional, it is your job to anticipate upcoming hurdles and business impacts and mitigate these where possible. Proactively presenting this information to leadership will build confidence in your ability to properly prepare the organization for the upcoming potential disruptions.
- Leadership will feel more at ease knowing you are looking to the future and are proactively thinking through ways to continue operations and reduce risk. However, the proper tone when presenting this information is crucial to build credibility and avoid being seen as Chicken Little.
2. Present Topics the Right Way
Presenting to leadership can be intimidating during business-as-usual, let alone during a crisis where stakes are high, and all eyes are on you and your program.
The following tips and guiding principles can help you strike the right tone with leadership from the start to build leadership’s confidence and trust in your expertise and program.
- Establish and Maintain Credibility: During a crisis, it is important to establish and maintain credibility with leadership to build trust that will allow you to be seen as the expert and effectively manage the situation. To establish and maintain credibility, separate facts from assumptions and avoid scaremongering. It may be tempting to focus on worst-case scenarios and paint the bleakest picture but doing so with the leadership team may diminish your credibility. Instead, ensure your advice is fact-based and balanced, presenting reasonable best- and worst-case scenarios with which to generate response strategies.
- Keep Meetings Short and Allow Discussions: During business-as-usual, leadership has limited time to be briefed; during a crisis, this time is even more limited. Present facts in a succinct manner, leveraging as few words as possible to deliver crystal-clear messaging. Focus on the conclusions of the analysis versus the analysis itself, but be prepared to answer questions. Build-in opportunities for discussion and input. You want to ensure leadership has the time to speak during meetings so you can ensure alignment with expectations.
- Demonstrate Strategic Alignment: When discussing with executives, it is important to present information at the strategic level versus the tactical level. Translate program data and facts into strategic impact and risk. In doing so, you will demonstrate to leadership the alignment of your program to the organization’s strategic objectives, building executive confidence in your program.
- Drive the Conversation: Lastly, don’t be afraid to take the front seat during executive conversations, particularly if the conversations are not focusing on the right topics or if key risks and considerations are overlooked. As an expert on business continuity and crisis management, it is your job to be the expert in these situations. Build leadership’s confidence and trust in your expertise upfront and then guide leadership through the event.
3. Keep the Momentum Going
From what we have seen across in the industry and with our clients, executive leadership is more engaged than ever in business continuity. As business continuity professionals and program managers, it’s important to capitalize on this excitement, use it to drive program objectives, and ensure it continues following the conclusion of the event.
To keep the momentum going, present findings of the after-action review to leadership and ask for their input on strengths and improvement opportunities. If they are like most of our clients, they will likely have a lot to say (both positive and constructive)! It is important to address this feedback to show that you value their input and strive to meet their expectations.
In addition to presenting the after-action review, revisit the established business continuity priorities and risks with executive leadership shortly following the conclusion of the event. In doing so, leadership can use the recent events to reassess risk tolerance levels and established priorities.
Further, continue to drive the conversation: inform leadership of key risks that need to be addressed to avoid significant impacts. Consider asking leadership to revisit previously accepted risks in light of recent events and present mitigation options for consideration.
Again, it is important this conversation focuses on what is most important to executive leadership. Make sure the risks presented take into account leadership’s risk appetite level and the organization’s strategic priorities. By asking leadership to focus efforts on lower-tier risks, you can damage the credibility with leadership you built during the response and recovery effort.
Finally, ask for input from leadership on what they care about seeing from the program. Develop or update metrics to align with leadership’s interests and expectations. Establish recurring touchpoints with leadership to review metrics and ensure ongoing interest and support of the program.
Unfortunately, recent events have not led to executive excitement and interest in business continuity for all organizations. Some executives fall into a false sense of security due to a successful response to COVID-19, which has led to a feeling that there isn’t a need for business continuity (a dangerous mentality!).
As business continuity professionals, we understand that a successful COVID-19 response does not equate to a successful response to any business disruption. There were several factors that led to a successful response to this event, such as it being a with-notice event.
As a business continuity professional, it is your job to generate interest and excitement in business continuity. Fortunately, the guidance in this article can still be used to engage with executives that are under a false sense of security to drive program support.
When engaging with executives during a crisis, present the right topics with the right tone and fight to keep your seat at the table for the long-term. Demonstrate alignment to strategic objectives and leadership priorities and risk tolerance levels. And most importantly, don’t be shy! Business continuity is on the center stage during a crisis event. As a business continuity professional, you should drive the conversation versus being a passenger in your area of expertise. It is important to build credibility and trust with executives so they will see you as a strategic partner both during a crisis and for the long term.