Leadership Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

September 06, 2017

Port Arthur Texas
Members of the South Carolina's Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SC-HART) perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas, August 31, 2017.

Unless you’ve been living under a water-laden rock, you’re probably aware that Houston and surrounding areas experienced a record-breakingly horrific hurricane the last week of August. Right now, the statistics are still evolving as death tolls and property damage numbers roll in even as flood waters recede. Stories of tragedy and bravery give insight into those who have lost their lives in this event. Evacuees are returning home to discover the fates of their neighbors, their belongings and their pets.

If the beginning of this blog post feels a little heavy-handed, it’s because I want to make it clear that I am not in any way minimizing these events: Hurricane Harvey was a tragedy and the people of Southeast Texas and surrounding areas are suffering and will continue to do so over the coming months and years. I should know – that’s where I live.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Today, I want to talk about leadership and compassion in the face of emergencies.

We always hope that when tragedy strikes we’ll do the right thing, that we’ll be present and helpful. Throughout Hurricane Harvey and the aftermath, I’ve seen what that looks like in a true emergency situation and how real leaders respond to the needs of their employees that arise during a widespread natural disaster. Today, I want to focus on three specific behaviors that I saw company leaders engage in during this time.

1) They keep you connected.

Texting9972.jpg#asset:3342When it’s potentially you against Nature, it can be pretty isolating. Physically, you may be separated or stranded and there’s an instinct to kind of hunker down and just focus on what is immediately in front of you. The problem is that a breakdown in communication during this time can be not only inconvenient but actually fatal.

As Hurricane Harvey hit the area, communications chains from both the client I work with and Sparkhound sprang into action almost immediately. Focused email strings went out with instructions and expectations, asking everyone to respond with a status update. My phone started buzzing with text message notifications of group chats that relayed real time information about road conditions, personnel needs, exit strategies and open bedrooms for evacuees. These avenues provided critical information to those on the ground and allowed management to get a synopsis of their employees’ condition.

Of course, not everyone was able to stay connected to their email and if there was any question as to someone’s status, an even more direct, pro-active approach was taken by leadership: they picked up the phone and started making calls. Sparkhound’s Top Dog Shawn Usher took the time to call non-responsive Houston area employees directly, showing by example the importance of staying connected. Let me tell you, when the CEO of your company personally calls to check on you, you realize that communication is critical and you need to ensure you stay involved in the conversation. 

2) They communicate the RIGHT message.

During a disaster there are a lot of unknowns and consequently a lot of fear: What should I be doing right now? What’s going to happen to my family? My house? My job? Will I still be employed when this is all over? What is my responsibility to my work during this time?

True leaders tackle these (sometimes unstated) fears and questions in priority order, focusing on safety of all personnel and their family first, relaying information about resources and calming anxieties, and then work-related communications, as appropriate.

In situations like Hurricane Harvey where the event and the recovery take place over an extended time period, it’s not reasonable to assume that all project or campaign discussions can simply cease. Consulting companies like Sparkhound need to support our clients as best we can and sometimes the option to do work is really helpful – after all, it gives you something concrete to focus on and accomplish, rather than sitting and fretting over other unknowns. But real leadership makes sure that the messages that are going out are appropriate, sensitive and timely. 

3) They practice what they preach.

Even if all the right words are being said at the right time, there still needs to be the supporting actions buffering and reinforcing those messages. The Sparkhound Foundation has already been initiated for Sparkies affected by Harvey, collecting donations and providing resources, showing employees that their company and coworkers are there for them during this time. Responding to the physical needs of the situation is an obvious but imperative way to put words into action. 

Sometimes helpful actions don’t have to be demonstrative or mentioned; ensuring employees are still paid on time, being lenient on processes or administrative oversight during the times of stress, etc., are small ways to make life just a little bit easier. While simple, these types of allowances are noticed and appreciated. 

In Closing…

True leadership shines most during stressful times; Hurricane Harvey showcased the depths of human compassion, community outreach and, for me, corporate leadership.

What are other ways that managers and company leaders can support their employees? Are there other communication methods that have worked for your teams in the past?

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