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When Crisis Strikes

Just imagine you’ve got a new job. You’ve been hired following a major business crisis.

Your responsibility: Make sure that a similar catastrophe never happens again. The recently selected CEO and her team need your advice and leadership. They will sign on to your plan. That’s the deal.

Maybe the crisis involved a terrible accident that cost lives or caused severe and lasting environmental damage. Or, several senior executives engaged in criminal or outrageous conduct.

Possibly, the organization released and kept selling a product even after leaders learned of dangerous side effects. Their actions tainted the company’s good name, triggered lawsuits that will last for years, drain attention, cost time, attention, and focus as well as millions while threatening the value of the brand built over many decades.

The best talent will look elsewhere or leave your employ when they can to find better places to work. In any case, the story is all over the news and appears at the top of every Google search linked to your new organization. It will for a long time to come.

As your first step, you look for the root cause of the problem. You examine policies and practices and how they were communicated. You check to see if there were complaint systems in place and channels for individuals to raise anonymous issues.

If this crisis is anything like the scores we’ve had in the past spanning misdeeds from code of conduct issues to criminal law violations, you find the systems in place, the policies well-written.

You quickly locate the documentation proving that the key violators had signed for receipt of policies and procedures and completed mandatory training covering the very topics involved in this disaster including your organization’s values of integrity, respect and compliance.

Then, you talk to current and former employees. If you’ve gained their trust, they tell you that the systems and processes, training and hot lines are a joke, taken less seriously than a Dilbert cartoon.

Most likely, you find out that the behaviors which caused the harm had been known by others for a long time. They had been ignored or tolerated even though their severity had long ago crossed from the troublesome and annoying into the realm of a disaster waiting to happen, which finally did.

You think to yourself, “If I had been here, I could have seen this coming a long time ago. I could have stopped this.” Why couldn’t the prior team have done the same, you wonder.

The answer is culture and leadership. Despite all that had been done, little more than lip service had been accomplished in areas of clear, devastating risk.

Values and systems had been seen as necessary evils, but in the end, evils rather than sources of direction, excellence, inspiration and commitment.

After several months of review and study, you meet with the new executive team and deliver your plan. Your advice: Leaders at all levels need to talk about values to their teams and explain how simple standards of behavior like raising concerns, reporting problems and telling the truth, are not just homilies but vital to the organization’s survival.

And you advise them, unless all of us are going to live by these standards, then this advice won’t help and another catastrophe, perhaps a mortal one, is sure to follow. You explain that this message can’t be delegated out to others and then ignored on a daily basis by those in charge.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the very core of compliance is to prevent, detect and correct problems. In too many organizations, we focus on urgently correcting problems after they’ve occurred when the damage has been done. I’ve seen the above scenarios acted out time after time when we’ve been asked to help repair unnecessary harm.

I’d suggest asking two key questions to prevent giving some other newly appointed successors and leadership team the opportunity to solve what could have been an avoidable disaster:

• Are we aware of potential disasters waiting to happen?

• Why not prevent them rather than face the huge harm and damage that ignoring them will likely cause, especially since the “fix” now will be much easier and less expensive than the heroic “salvage” later?

Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.