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Winter Journal

Volume 32, Issue 4

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Friday, 03 August 2018 19:20

Veterans and Business Continuity, A Match Made for a Catastrophe

Written by  MICK WAGONER

During World War II, the United States was blessed with many superb leaders who were often quoted. Possibly the most heralded was U.S. Army General George S. Patton. “Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and unpredictable,” he said. “In preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

What was once the sole province of military planners and operators, planning for adversity and crisis has now become a regulated and graded process in the civilian business environment.

Within the wider world of business continuity (BC) and emergency management (EM) are well suited for former military personnel who participated in planning and operations during their careers. Both the civilian and military personnel tasked with planning for difficult circumstances have to struggle initially with scope and span of planning. The contingencies can range from absolute destruction and devastation requiring build up from ground zero to correcting a recurring problem that requires additional efforts beyond routine operations. Both need a mindset of participation, flexibility, and cooperation.

Just as there are many similar qualities and characteristics for successful personnel who work in fast-paced and dynamic environments, there are also clear differences that need to be understood by military personnel who would like to enter this growing and important field of BC. I will attempt to identify some of the most pressing differences while also noting similarities between military planning and execution of operations and those of the civilian centered BC.

To begin this process, look to the leadership of the respective organizations. The military model is generally regarded as top down, individually led with somewhat rigid communications between levels of leaders in the chain of command. The civilian leadership model is less strict. It may be led by an individual or even a group from the C-suite, but not the CEO or president. The decision making is usually more consensus driven.

(Like many points here and to follow, these are generalities about the respective groups. They are more likely than not what you will find in the respective communities. That said, there are very open and communicative military leaders who delegate freely to their lower levels and control with minimal guidance. Conversely there are civilian organizations, especially small- and medium-sized businesses that will have extremely hands-on management of every situation by the CEO, who often may be the founder of the company. For those leaders, the BC challenge may be a mortal threat to their company and they will take the helm no matter what. Between these extremes will lie the vast group of leaders that each organization and the planners within them need to recognize and adjust their plans accordingly.)

‘Dance with who brung ya’

The above saying goes for sports and politics and can be used in a BC setting as well. A corresponding maxim is, “You play like you practice.” What these really point to is the need to practice your plan and work within it during an event. Success will not simply happen because you have smart people working for you or you have plans on the shelf for every possible eventuality. Successful military and civilian teams who have executed their respective plans in war or following disasters practiced routinely. Both have subordinate-level leaders and subject matter experts who come together to execute a difficult plan in less than ideal circumstances.

If there is a critique to the military planning and execution, it can be problematic that the leaders and their staffs all come from similar backgrounds, training, and education which can make them vulnerable to group think. Wise commanders recognize this vulnerability and purposely assign individuals whose sole purpose is to observe and critique their planning and exercises to expose holes in their plans. The units are generally brought together ad hoc from throughout the respective military organization and have little previous experience working together. What makes up for this lack of personnel continuity is the time and resources exclusively dedicated to planning, training, and executing different operations until such time as they are certified by outside evaluators that they are prepared for their missions.

Civilian BC teams have a tendency to be brought together either as “voluntolds” (they have to be there) or motivated middle- and lower-level employees who have found their way onto the team for a multitude of reasons. Clearly, senior executives will, or should, be part of any exercise and definitely brought into a real world emergency. The problem with executives coming in at the last minute is that, without having practiced under stress, they will resort to long established habits that usually work in day-to-day working environs. Please don’t misunderstand this point, executives live with and work under stress most every day. What they don’t do is work with their employees under unremitting time constraints combined with working outside of their normal surroundings or support systems.

Unfortunately, in these crisis situations, the inflexible executive routines and poor staff habits can be at best burdensome or at worst counterproductive to emergency operations. These executives have an excuse for their lack of practice; they have important regular jobs that take up all the time they have. Many of them do not even have the time to do all the tasks asked of them in those regular jobs. The harsh reality, however, is that emergency situations do not care how legitimately busy or overbooked you are. They come anyway, oftentimes at the worst possible time and they do not just go away. In their worst they can take your company away with them if you are not prepared. And you only become prepared by practicing with the team you have.

The Mission vs. The People

It often sounds cliché when both communities say their people are their most valuable asset, but like most clichés, it is based in truth. How they act upon those claims and how their people act will often be the difference between success and failure. The starkest difference between the military and civilian planning and operations is the mission of your organization and the lengths you require your people to go to complete it.

The Department of Defense and each of the military branches have a statutorily defined mission. It generally revolves around protecting the nation against all enemies and threats against the same. Service members themselves swear to uphold and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and need to be prepared to give up their lives for the good of the country.

No one wants to do that, but it is a job requirement. Much like first responders, service members put others and their mission above all else. The implied contract for the armed forces is that the cause or mission they may sacrifice for must be of manifest importance to the nation. Leaders are also charged in the military to take care of their people. No leader can or should stay in command if they do not know their service members and look out for their welfare. Knowing that, leaders still send their service members into harm’s way every day because their designated missions require it.

There is no civilian business anywhere that can ask any employee for that level of loyalty and sacrifice. There is also not that sense of importance of mission. That doesn’t mean there aren’t very important businesses in this country. Health care, utilities, energy, and infrastructure are all vital needs in our society. However, if the peril is too great, we don’t send employees out. We do without until we can send them out with some semblance of safety. The cause of a normal business crisis is even less dire. That may be news to some shareholders or business executives, but there is never a need for Bob from Accounting or Carol from HR to endanger themselves for a quarterly report or file to be completed. To do so would engender public and legal wrath and rightly so.

In the end, business is about products, services, and profits, none of which is more important than a human life. So when the CEO or HR representative says, “Life safety is the primary concern,” they mean it. That is not a bad thing at all, but it is also a mindset in the back of the mind that a military veteran who wants to become a civilian planner needs to remind themselves.

Part II

Who is the enemy here?

“The enemy” is usually a much easier concept to describe in the military than the civilian world. For the former, it is generally a nation state or group that presents a danger to the United States, its people, and its allies. Much has been written recently about the difficulty in fighting a concept like “terrorism.” It is difficult to fight a verb.

With civilian operations such as BC, it is difficult to target “the enemy.” (Some can fairly question if we should even use the term.) There is no question, however, that every company faces a BC situation. It may be several problems, but one adversary is to call out is time. Time is the enemy for many BC planners and executors. Time is ruthless. You cannot get it back when it is lost and it usually compounds all of your problems. When you miss a day of shipping, you can’t get that day back and now you need to ship twice as much the next day or you’ll continue to fall behind.

Time and the “tyranny of distance” are two major issues military leaders face in military operations but they have the enemy to focus on as the end game. Civilian leaders and planners need to assess their specific business issues individually but it is likely that time will come out as a critical adversary.

Since both military and civilian leaders and planners see time as a major issue, both have come up with tools to help assist their respective organizations deal more effectively with it. Both should create templates ahead of planned (or unplanned) operations. Another area that both the business world and military appear to be improving on is automation and digitalization. The military has programs for logistics, operations, personnel manifests, you name it, to help track world-wide operations.

The civilian world has business continuity management tools to help aggregate company data, procedures and policies in order to provide an operational picture to management teams that allows for improved and timely decision making. One big advantage that the military planners have over the civilian business counterparts is that their job is to train (practice) with their tools and personnel for any assortment of likely scenarios. The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.

Most BC planners can only wish to have the resources, time, and executive attention allotted to train their organizations for the most likely or more dangerous events that could affect their businesses. The consequences of failure for the military are certainly stark but that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of purpose that lost businesses have on people and local communities.

Intelligence is another area of critical importance. In the military there is a maxim that intelligence drives operations. This makes sense in the light of the principle that you should “fight the enemy as they are and not as you wish them to be.” There is an intelligence gathering process and all operations are thoroughly intertwined with intelligence. The military spends billions of dollars each year to provide the most accurate, clear, and responsive intelligence it can to its forces. Even with those dedicated resources, there is never a perfectly clear picture of what is happening and how those actions will play out.

In the civilian world it is the rare business that can afford and utilize a separate intelligence function. Instead most leaders and planners rely on publically available news and Internet sources to gather information and disseminate it forward. To accommodate for this lack of formal intelligence, business leaders rely on experience. A notable difference, and advantage for civilian leaders, is the level of time and experience most leaders have in their respective specialties compared to relatively young military members. It is not hard to find junior executives with more than 10 years of specific experience in their fields and more senior leaders with more than two decades. In the military, you would be hard pressed to find a mid-level leader or planner who had the same job for three years, and they definitely won’t be in the same unit with the same people during that time. Senior military leaders will have a decade or two of experience in the organization and their job specialties. They may or may not have any real world experience with the situations they are dealt, hence the training to ensure the event is not a complete surprise to leadership.

We never talk anymore

The ability to communicate can be the difference between mission success and failure in both military and civilian environments. The criticality of those communications is highlighted by looking at two key audiences. In the military, the key is to be able to effectively communicate at all times internally, to units above and below you. One positive leadership tenet is that the commander’s intent of operations for their unit needs to be disseminated and understood two levels or command up and two levels of command down from them. This ensures that even in the fog of war, subordinates know what their leadership generally wants them to do and superiors know what the organization plans to do even if it cannot communicate to them. It is the basis for what is known as “trust tactics.” The leaders trust their subordinates to do the right thing because they have earned their trust by working and training together in the past. It also frees up the operations from the muck of micromanagement that can slow or paralyze operations due to lack of trust and communication.

Externally there are two separate audiences of communication. The military is usually rather guarded and secretive about their intentions because they don’t want their adversaries to be able to counter those actions. Ironically, in today’s connected world – where secrecy is much harder – the military will want its operations to be seen favorably in the media, what can be known as the “CNN effect.” This effect is directed toward both the domestic audience being asked to support the efforts as well as the foreign civilian populace that can decide how they feel about those operations.

Civilian business communications are likely to be directed to outside consumers as well. Especially in the light of a BC situation, a company will want to project confidence and competence to the community, shareholders, and the board of directors. Internal communications to a company’s employees tend to be more subdued but no less urgent. The primary message is to convey that all is well and to remain calm, the situation is well in hand. This can be even more important if a company workforce has never been through anything similar before and has the additional fear of the unknown gnawing at them.

Rumor and speculation are bad in both civilian and military worlds, but especially during a highly fluid and emotional event. The military has the advantage of practicing more for it and the additional crutch of military discipline to rely on to keep control of volatile situations. The civilian business world does not have those options and has to rely on positive leadership to maintain calm in unforeseen situations. Assuming these positive leadership skills will magically appear during a crisis is a dangerous presumption.

Crisis communications challenges continue to present themselves following an event and during recovery operations. In the civilian world, saying nothing is a tried but ineffective answer. A poor narrative or a rival competitor – both bad for your company’s bottom line – will fill in if your company does not communicate before, during, and after an incident. Who is speaking and how much they communicate the company’s response is for management to strategize before an incident, not during the event.


The U.S. has spent substantial time and treasure to train military personnel for almost any emergency our nation could face. These veterans have skills that can and should be used in the civilian community. The military has grown and cultivated an entire group of planners and operators who are well adapted to rapid change in a chaotic environment and not only survive, they succeed at their given missions. Business continuity and its associated emergency management planning provide a fertile ground for military personnel to transfer hard-earned skills to the business world that would gain greatly from increased resiliency and positive crisis management.

Wagoner MickMick Wagoner works in the financial services industry in Omaha, Neb., where he focuses on BCDR and safety planning. In a previous life he was a career Marine Corps officer who deployed to numerous locations including Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. His final years found him working with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief planning as well as operations in Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011. The views in this article are his alone.