How to develop a highly effective crisis management team

Published: Friday, 16 April 2021 07:55

Developing an excellent crisis management plan is only half the battle when it comes to successfully managing an incident. The crisis management team needs to have the have the knowledge, understanding, and confidence to apply it. Jonathan Hemus explains how this is achieved.


‘You can’t expect people to succeed without training: they must be confident of their own personal skillset and understand how they operate  as part of a team.’
Mark Wenham, former head of the Defence Media Operations Centre

A crisis breaks. The team assembles. The carefully created crisis management plan is about to be put to the test. It contains everything the team needs to guide their crisis response: principles, guidelines, checklists, resources and templated materials.

Why is it that, all too often, plans are given only a cursory glance at the beginning of an incident or, worse, remain unopened on the table?

In the best-case scenario, it is because team members are so well trained and drilled on the plan they have developed ‘muscle memory’ and the plan is already embedded in their consciousness. This is the mark of a truly effective CMT.

Sadly, there is another less positive reason why teams   fail to refer to their crisis management plan: they have  never been trained on it or, in some cases, even read it.

As Mark Wenham says: ‘If you immerse someone in an intense pressure situation without training, they are almost guaranteed to fail.’

Having invested time to prepare a crisis management  plan to support the business in its hour of need, you must ensure team members have the knowledge, understanding and confidence to apply it. That process begins with briefing and training, and concludes with  exercising.

How to brief your crisis management  team

Developing your crisis management plan is a critical first step in crisis management, but it is of limited value unless your people are familiar with it. A perfect plan is of no use unless it is embedded within the organisation.

Everyone, from your chief executive through to your call centre operators and the administrators logging actions and decisions, has an important role to play and they all need to know what is expected of them.

While circulating your plan to CMT members is a good start, it is insufficient to build the knowledge, understanding and confidence required to deploy it.

The process of building confidence in a plan truly begins with a structured team briefing workshop. During this session, team members should be walked  through the plan and given a first opportunity to practice applying key elements of it through interactive exercises and discussion.

In addition to a briefing on plan structure, content and principles, they should be introduced to key processes: the aim is not to test them, but to familiarise them with the plan.

By the end of the workshop your team members should understand:

At the end of the plan briefing (typically two to three hours in length) your team will have a much clearer understanding of what the crisis management plan contains and their role within it. Make sure there’s time for questions and check in with your colleagues a few days later to identify any issues arising.

A plan briefing is the critical first step in ensuring your crisis management plan will be executed effectively should the worst occur.

How to train your crisis management team

It’s optimistic at best to expect people to successfully fulfil any new role without experience and training. To imagine they can do so in a crisis, when the stakes are high and pressure is intense, is foolhardy in the extreme.

Even if members of your team are naturally skilled in decision-making, communication, information management or situational awareness, crisis management is a team game and they need to understand how their contribution fits into the overall team effort.

The bottom line is that you will only succeed in protecting your business and its reputation if everyone involved in crisis response understands their role and responsibilities.

Each of the roles within your CMT requires different skills and capabilities: one size does not fit all when  it comes to crisis management. Role-specific training is therefore the best way of giving CMT members the knowledge, skills and confidence to play their part in a successful response.

As Kim Green, a writer and pilot, observes:

‘If you’ve never handled a major emergency,   it’s hard to know how you’ll fare when your first one hits. That’s why pilots are trained in crisis management. We’re taught to think through a range of potential mishaps, memorise checklists, and plot courses of action in advance. Executives can do the same.’

In addition to an in-depth briefing on the specific tasks associated with a person’s likely role on the team, con- sider capability-building in the following areas.

Crisis management team leader

Crisis management coordinator

Spokesperson

Scenario planner

Administrator

In addition to members of your CMT, consider training other staff members likely to be involved in crisis response. Pay particular attention to people in the frontline who may be approached by stakeholders for information about the crisis. They can include receptionists, call centre operators, security guards, salespeople and switchboard operators.

For these people, schedule a training workshop covering:

Role-specific training for team members ensures every- one is ready to play their part in protecting your business in the event of a crisis. Make sure that deputies are included in the training to ensure strength in depth.

Finally, never think that your training programme is complete. As Lidl’s Aoife Clarke says:

‘Crisis management is not a project with a start and end date. It’s something the business is fully invested in for the long term and we keep it in our mind all the time. We understand it’s not enough to do one crisis simulation and think “that’s it, we’re trained”.’

Make sure that new starters are inducted into your CMT and keep skills fresh with refresher training,  for example by inviting a guest speaker to talk about their experiences of crisis management or running a ‘lunch and learn’ session to discuss a recent crisis from your sector.

Summary

Developing a crisis management plan is a critical first step in crisis management, but it means nothing unless people know that it exists and what it contains. Running a plan briefing gives your team members a foundation of understanding that underpins a successful crisis response.

Individuals expected to take on roles within your CMT must be briefed on what is expected of them, trained on their essential tasks and coached on the softer skills required in their role.

Providing this level of training significantly increases the likelihood of your plan being deployed effectively under pressure.

Questions

  1. Who needs to be briefed on your crisis  management plan?
  2. In addition to being briefed, what additional training would team members benefit from to help them play their role more effectively?
  3. Who are the ‘frontliners’ in your organisation?  What training do they require?

The author

Jonathan Hemus is founder of crisis management consultancy Insignia. He works with leaders of businesses around the world to ensure they have the capability and confidence to do and say the right things under the intense pressure of a crisis. 

He is chair of the Advisory Board at Aston University’s Crisis Centre where he lectures on its MSc in Crisis and Disaster Management.  Jonathan was named as one of the IoD’s directors of the year in its 2020 awards for his work in advising businesses on their COVID-19 response.

This article is an extract from Jonathan’s recently published book Crisis Proof: how to prepare for the worst day of your business life. This is an Amazon best seller and has been shortlisted for the 2021 British Business Book Awards.

Crisis Proof gives busy executives the knowledge, insights and framework to successfully lead a programme of crisis management planning, training and exercising that will ensure their business does the right thing when crisis strikes not only to protect business reputation, but also the lives and livelihoods of all those affected by an incident.

 Crisis Proof is available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones. More information about the book plus additional video content can be found on Insignia’s website.