Crisis Management Plans: What Your Executive Management Team Really Wants

Let’s start this perspective with three recent quotes from senior business continuity managers in various companies that are speculating on what type of crisis management plan will be most effective in the hands of their executive management team (those executives serving as members of the organization’s crisis management team, or CMT).

“Our CMT is made up of our most senior executives.  They know the organization, they know how to manage through crises and they don’t need a plan.  They’ll figure it out.  If I documented a plan for our senior executives, they wouldn’t use it anyway – that’s been my experience.”

“No matter what’s documented, they will do what they think is best for the organization and its people – and in many cases, it may not match what we preplanned.”

“We have a detailed crisis management plan for our CMT.  Our CMT is made up of our day-to-day managers who will do the real work in responding to a crisis.  Our executives will support the CMT based on the crisis situation.  Yes, we’re concerned the executive team could interfere or disrupt the response effort because of a lack of knowledge about our plans, but that’s just the reality of our culture.”

So what belongs in an executive-level crisis management plan?  Related to this question, what’s the role of the executive management team during a crisis?  This perspective is written to address both questions at a high level.  Let’s start with the plan itself.

The Plan
Castellan has facilitated numerous exercises, many with members of the organization’s executive management team in attendance.  Every time, without fail, we witness executives attempt to “make it up” as they progress through the initial response effort.  Do they do a good job?  Most of the time.  Do they miss anything?  Always! One constant we’ve found is that the executive management team is always thankful when they’re directed toward the crisis management plan, even if it’s simply a framework describing roles and responsibilities.  Although executive managers are supremely confident in their ability to creatively make decisions that benefit their organization, they don’t tackle full-blown crises every day, and as a result crave boundaries and task reminders.

Interestingly enough, Castellan has also advised executive-level crisis management teams during actual crises affecting their organizations.  Many of these CMT members participated in recurring exercises, and unlike their behavior in the exercises, they were drawn to their plans, consulting them regularly to ensure they haven’t missed a critical task assigned to them.

These experiences – exercises and real-world crises – are mentioned because a number of business continuity program sponsors feel that plan documentation for executives involved in the crisis management effort is unnecessary, not needed and not wanted (as expressed in the quotes above).  Castellan would argue the contrary.  We would argue they want a plan, and they want the following to be included in their plans:

  • A framework to enable them to respond quickly and effectively
  • A description of roles, responsibilities and boundaries
  • Methods to assess the situation
  • Reminders regarding key issues they must tackle in the first 24 to 48 hours
  • Communication process descriptions

Simply put, they don’t want a book that includes governance information and 100 pages of business continuity theory and background.  They want a focused document that is easily understood and executable, and they want it in a format easily accessed – wallet card or blackberry, as examples.  If at all possible, they want a graphical depiction of the process, and supporting information included behind it.

If you’ve handed your executive management team a plan in the past that they didn’t understand or use, don’t mistake their pushback as not needing or wanting a plan.  They do need one – and they want one.  They just want one that meets their needs and supports the way they think.  They want a plan that doesn’t get in the way of their creativity and their day-to-day decision-making strengths.  Develop and document a plan then seek their feedback during exercises.  You’ll be surprised at their reaction if you deliver a clear, concise document free of unwanted background information.

The Executive Management Team’s Role
The role of the executive manager differs in every organization.  However, in a growing number of organizations, executive managers are included in (or are) the crisis management team.  Why is this?  Is it their knowledge and experience?  Yes.  Is it also the feeling that they will want to get involved when a crisis actually occurs?  Absolutely.  So why not get them involved and define their roles and responsibilities before the crisis in order to minimize ambiguity?

Consider defining roles and responsibilities – for all levels of the organization – based on event characteristics (severity levels), and think about defining management escalation criteria.  Related to this, define methods of communication between all levels of management to ensure the organization reacts as a single entity, without overlap and without gaps in terms of response and recovery.  Clearly, executive managers in the C-suite don’t have an intimate knowledge of all day-to-day processes, nor do they understand all response and recovery processes. Middle management (a.k.a. “in the weeds” management) needs to be involved, but engaging executive management as key decision-makers will ensure they are involved in – not in the way of – effective and timely response efforts.

Crisis management (and business continuity) is a topic often discussed in the boardroom.  C-level executives discuss the organization’s capabilities, and they also debate their role during a crisis.  Most argue for an active role, while some intend to delegate key responsibilities during a crisis.  Regardless, define roles and responsibilities then document an organizational response framework with key actions, tasks and reminders.  Provide the plan to everyone expected to be involved during the event.  After all, your executive management team thinks about crisis management far less than business continuity professionals, and they are looking for ways to develop confidence and feel prepared if something were to occur tomorrow.

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