On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and companies across Iowa activated crisis management teams and reviewed business continuity plans. As part of CUNA Mutual Group’s business resiliency program, I know that crisis leadership is a continual learning process, and it requires a range of competencies.

Through the past 18 months, our crisis team learned an incredible amount and exercised what I believe are three crucial skills: decision-making, timely and clear communication, and the willingness to trust and delegate.

Before practicing these skills, define your company’s overall priorities. At CUNA Mutual group, our top priorities continue to be employee safety and well-being, the ability to maintain business operations to serve our customers and providing support to our communities. Business resiliency’s job is to protect the company and keep those priorities at the forefront.

Decision-making

Decision-making is at the heart of leadership. After the pandemic declaration, our crisis team decided to send almost 95% of the company’s workforce home within nine days. That decision required the crisis team to collect information, evaluate what they knew, what they did not know, and act.

We used the best available information we had and decided to implement the most comprehensive work from home strategy in the company’s history. Crucial to this quick decision making – the team had built relationships with executive leadership and each other having worked thru disruptive events previously.

Timely and clear communication

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined its principles of emergency communication, among them: be first, be right, and be credible. CUNA Mutual Group’s team employed all those concepts. Clear communication is vital during a crisis response. Without it, an organization cannot effectively apply mitigation strategies.

Timely communication is as essential. Drafting and editing can become a time-consuming cycle. The crisis leadership team included corporate communication in the first crisis meeting. This integral partnership ensured CUNA Mutual Group’s employees understood the remote work initiative, knew about the resources available during the pandemic.

Crisis leadership requires teams to process information rapidly, but that pace cannot impact an organization’s ability to connect. Creating a playbook with preplanned scripts that the communications team can modify is essential.

Willingness to trust and delegate

In the past two years, CUNA Mutual Group responded to events impacting remote employees, technical disruptions, and the Midwest polar vortex. Those incidents lasted from a few hours to two days, and the crisis team resolved these using existing resources.

COVID-19 posed a challenge previously unheard of at CUNA Mutual Group. Some people had laptops, but many team members had limited or no experience working from home. IT began transforming the architecture in 2018 and built a resilient network that allowed the crisis team to make decisions immediately following the pandemic declaration.

IT introduced tools that increased team members’ ability to work remotely and enhanced video meeting capabilities. The crisis team included an IT representative, who understood the task and quickly laid out a plan. The crisis team delegated the most crucial aspect of the recovery strategy to IT. The team leaders trusted IT to deploy the necessary technology to ensure the company would continue to service our customers, even during a global pandemic. Delegation is one of the most challenging leadership skills. Delegating is more than assigning work; it requires leaders to assess their people and understand the teams’ capacity and capabilities.

CUNA Mutual Group believes a brighter financial future should be accessible to everyone – even during this shared experience of COVID-19. Delivering that level of customer service during the pandemic required forethought, planning, and training.

We know we didn’t get everything right – none of us have ever experienced a crisis like this before. But by keeping an agile mindset and a pulse on our employees and customers we were able to learn and improve through every step.

The business continuity profession is a specific discipline that generally remains in the background; however, these past 18 months highlighted the need for a strong resiliency program. Don’t let a disruptive event stand in the way of accomplishing your organization’s goals – be ready, identify your team, and practice these three key skills.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Dow

Jeff Dow manages CUNA Mutual Group’s corporate safety and resilience program and is a Coast Guard veteran. He on the board of directors for the Iowa Contingency Planners, is a certified business continuity professional and holds master’s degrees in leadership studies and homeland security/emergency management.

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