What a ridiculous title – “The Queen of Doom.” But that was my unofficial designation when I worked for the largest insurance broker in the world some 20 odd years ago. My peers and direct reports gave it to me. I realize it must have seemed that way to them at the time.
Then 9/11 occurred.
My former boss died in that disaster. Our company lost 300 employees that day.
I was teaching a business continuity class at our remote office in Detroit when a hysterical woman pulled me from the class to go to the breakroom television. The whole class followed. I watched one of the managers count down on the screen the number of floors to where the first plane landed. I heard him say, “That is our data center!” as he ran to his office to try to call co-workers in that tower.
One of the employees in the room asked me, “Do you think they died?”
I was absolutely certain the answer was yes. The enormous fireball on the outside of the building meant there was that much fire inside, as well. Still, I tried to soften it at that moment and just said, “probably.”
They were already crying, and I couldn’t bring myself to create further pain at that moment. The day went downhill from there.
Following 9/11, when I was finally able to return to the Midwest where I live, the coworkers who called me “The Queen of Doom,” came to me in tears. They admitted my “crazy” warnings of terrorism were warranted. They promised they would support my efforts to reduce our risk and work on their recovery plans. A few of them even kept their promises.
Last year, I was with Aureon’s director of network operations in a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security. It was a “black sky exercise,” which means we were simulating no power for 90 percent of all households and businesses within the affected area for more than 21 days. Many representatives from our state’s critical infrastructure providers, some of which I’ve known for decades, were attending. My coworker leaned over after about two hours and whispered half-jokingly, “This is terrifying. It’s like being in a room with a 100 of you!”
Yesterday, two things reminded me again of how differently I view the world. I was in a meeting with our executives. I was explaining the installation of window breakers and door locks to improve their safety in the event of an active shooter. The fight to get these measures approved was another uphill battle, but this one resulted in an agreement that they were needed. As I provided background – likely targets and how to use the new safety features – I saw the deer-in-headlights looks. One executive commented, “How sad we have to take these measures.”
Just a few hours later, I was on a call with a sales rep asking if their microwave network had spares stored inside EMP protection, for all their equipment end-to-end. I had to explain “electromagnetic pulse,” the potential causes and effects before he agreed to ask his engineers. That is when he commented, “You live in a very dark place. I’m glad I don’t have to go there.”
My boss tells me I think like a terrorist, to which I reply, “I have to if I’m going to prevent all the bad things that could happen to us.” There are others who say, “You’re paranoid.” I usually reply, “No, I’m realistic.”
History proves our community of practitioners true on this.
Thinking dark thoughts and looking hard at the what ifs are just a part of risk management. I don’t see any other way around it. After 30 years in the industry, it is so ingrained in me I do it automatically and occasionally forget others do not think like me.
Then it happens again … and I’m reminded with those looks and comments.
The purpose of this article is not to bemoan the fact no one else wants to think like us. It is to point out the silver linings and some things we can do to lighten up. I intend to point out a few of those. Here is my short list of things we can at least occasionally pause to consider during the daily battle.
♦ Because we dare to think about the worst case, our companies, co-workers, and loved ones are safer. They are better prepared to face the worst, and if we do our jobs well, they will have a much easier time if something bad does happen. We provide them with the stress inoculation they need through our programs for training, exercises, drills, and tests.
♦ Our companies are more profitable because we have minimized the potential for business disruptions. They are able to recover more quickly because of planning our programs have facilitated, along with the redundancies we’ve helped them create.
♦ By ensuring business resilience, we help preserve the family life of the employees who work for our companies. Their livelihoods are better protected. This means they can continue to financially support those who depend on them and thrive despite adverse conditions. We may even save a life along the way.
♦ As a community, we need to celebrate these small incremental gains we are making in protecting those who cannot bring themselves to consider the worst-case events. We are, as a community of practitioners, preventing bad things from happening or at least minimizing damages, whatever the cause. We are making gains on the cyber front. Just think how bad our cybersecurity would be if we were not attempting to train people to stop clicking!
♦ Laughing is healthy for us. By way of example, we recently held active shooter training for our emergency response team. During the session, I told the team I was going to make my boss go first to attack the active shooter (he was in the class). We all laughed, even my boss. While I could not ask them not to think about the seriousness of the training, I could try to add some levity to lighten the moment.
Being ridiculously silly might be okay. My son bought me a Keroppi toy years ago for my desk (Google it). When he gave it to me, he said, “Mom, his name is Gilbert, and you need him to cheer you up at work.” This wise child was 10 at the time.
I took Gilbert to work, and my team adopted him as our mascot. We took paper clips and hot tamale candies to make a stick with hotdogs on it and got a little candle and had Gilbert and his buddy roast hot dogs over their campfire. We laughed and thought of another adventure for them to take. Gilbert celebrated all the holidays, took vacations, rappelled off cubicle walls, sailed a ship, and had many more adventures. We laughed until we cried and our sides ached.
It was good for us to stop thinking of all the terrible things we had to deal with day in and day out, to take a quick break from the very long hours we often worked, and to be silly for just a moment. My son would smile broadly when I would tell him of Gilbert’s adventures, and that made me happy. Looking back, these were team-bonding activities and happy moments with my son. They became treasured memories.
♦ I understand why those in our industry may on occasion follow a response or recovery event with a round of drinks for the team. That in and of itself is a way of celebrating getting through an incident, by acknowledging we successfully navigated another one. It may allow survivors a chance to remember those who are gone. Lingering here has proven to be very unhealthy in the long run, so use this one in moderation.
♦ Taking time to tell your stories is another way to lighten up. We can acknowledge the bad. Then, while focusing on the lessons learned, we remind ourselves we are better prepared. For our community of practitioners, those are good thoughts to have.
I regularly speak at events, and sometimes people want to ask about events where I have helped respond. Passing these stories along with some level of detail offers others a chance to see the “why” a control, mitigation, plan, or process is important to include in their own program and recovery plans. I allow them to glean from my successes and my mistakes. It is just one more positive outcome to remember.
More importantly for me is that it allows me to have a fresh perspective on those events and see something I may not have fully processed previously.
♦ We need to take intentional breaks from thinking about death and mayhem. We need to get ourselves away from the daily grind of managing risk. For me, this looks like a walk through nature or traveling to Montana to see my grandkids (who make me laugh). Perhaps it is reading a just-for-fun book or watching a light movie with my husband. Focusing on less morbid things is always a big plus for me.
It was refreshing last week to take two afternoons off to stain my deck. I know that sounds weird, but winter was on its way. The leaves were turning, and even though it was work, it was not mentally taxing. That, in and of itself, was a break that refreshed me.
♦ Avoiding the hero syndrome is possible through understanding our limits. From experience, I have learned I cannot force anyone to follow me to a safer place. Likewise, none of us can mitigate everything. It is not fiscally responsible or even practical. Neither can we prevent adrenaline from causing amnesia when it comes to emergency response actions we have trained everyone on 100 times. There is only so much any of us individually can do. Recognizing this fact will help those of us with an overactive sense of responsibility.
♦ Take time to be quiet. Kick the doom and gloom scenarios out of your thoughts. Turn off all the news that continually screams “impending disaster is upon you.” People often ask me, “How do you sleep at night, knowing what you know?” I tell them I pray and then go to sleep. That is true. For me, faith puts a different perspective on all these things. It helps me make sense of potential chaos.
♦ You can trust in the fact that our small, persistent efforts make a big difference. While there are more and more threats because of cultural changes – the Internet of Things – everything we do helps minimize the impact and moves us closer and closer to resilience.
Each of us, in this community of practitioners, has our own list of what is refreshing, inspiring, or rejuvenating to us as an individual. These are as different as our DNA. Taking time to be very intentional with ourselves to relax, re-center, and refocus, will help us each stay engaged when it comes to working through catastrophic planning and mitigating our exposures. Whether you pick a vacation, levity, finding that quiet place in your head and considering all the good you are bringing, it is going to help you to stay engaged. You will be able to continue to create and promote resilience where you work for decades to come, hopefully leaving a risk-aware culture and embedded resilience behind. Through our ongoing efforts as business continuity practitioners and risk managers, it’s my great hope that together we will someday abolish ridiculous titles such as “The Queen of Doom.”
Vicky McKim, AFBCI, MBCP, CRMP, is director of risk management and business resilience at Aureon. She has 30 years of experience in the field of risk management, business continuity, and disaster recovery.