October 2, 2014

3 Steps to Developing an Emergency Chain of Command for Your Business

I was standing in front of a Tai Chi instructor, Coach Ab Sensei, who also had a solid background in Karate and Kung Fu. His goal in this free community class was to teach women simple ways to defend themselves without losing the best of themselves to fear or rage.

He ended the one-hour session by saying, “It’s always good to feel the fear and panic of leading.” And then he gave us a clear chain of command, so that we would know who was to teach the class in his absence. I thought of how the same principles could apply to business.

woman tai chi

The truth is, as human beings we cannot be everywhere at once. And sometimes because of tragedy, weather and other potential disasters we can’t even make it to the core places. But in those moments, what is your plan of action? Who is in charge in your absence? What is the chain of command if that person is missing as well? In other words, who is the emergency backup? The government has a disaster plan, and small businesses need one as well.

Here are three ways to establish a clear chain of command and prepare your team to implement it:

1. Define your emergencies.

The goal is to develop a plan for emergency moments, crisis moments or moments of heightened activity. We know we need a plan for natural disasters as well as fires. But that’s not all.  Is your business subject to surprise inspections?  If so, then you need a clear chain of command. Who will greet your inspectors and meet their needs? Do you have moments of high traffic? If yes, then you need an emergency plan if something happens to the key leader at those moments, because your customers’ needs still must be met.

2. Choose your leaders before the crisis.

Don’t wait until everything is falling apart to create an emergency team. Instead of assuming that your people already know who should be on the teem, choose to establish it and discuss it right now. Make it a monthly conversation in your staff meetings.

You can’t plan emergencies. But you can plan the training and preparation that empowers you to handle them.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

Your people will not automatically know what to do in each situation. Review potential crisis or emergency situations. Discuss the responsibilities involved with each type of event. And then practice it, focusing on a different type of crisis each month.

In emergency situations some people are not their best and they tend to slip into behavior they know—whether it’s effective or not. If your team consistently practices how to handle each type of emergency,  it increases the chances that your people will rise to the occasion no matter what the situation.

Small businesses often consist of very small teams, so hands-on training is important because in an emergency, staff may have to step outside of their natural skill set. And the only way to prepare for that is to cross train.

* * * * *

I think Coach Ab Sensei is right. “It’s always good to feel the fear and panic of leading” because it builds character. But not only character. I remember a former member of my team who was shy and used to experience extreme fear whenever we cross trained. She said that the practice and the opportunities to lead turned her fear into confidence (eventually). Maybe that’s why she often excelled during the actual crises or emergency moments.

Just remember: Practice is more than just telling them what to do. It’s walking them through the process and then letting them do it without your initial interference. Wait till the entire role-play process is over to give your feedback. This way they can feel the fear and rise to the occasion.

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Jamillah Warner


Jamillah Warner Jamillah Warner (Ms.J), a poet with a passion for business, is a Georgia-based writer and speaker and the Marketing Coordinator at Nobuko Solutions. She also provides marketing and communication quick tips in her getCLEAR! MicroNewsletter.

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