Crisis comes in many forms and is often unpredictable. There are, however, several things leaders can do to be prepared to manage whatever crisis may arise. One crazy day for me meant leading my team through an Afghan prison and managing the Taliban.
I was tasked with taking a media team to conduct interviews in an Afghan prison. It was 2019, and we were to interview Taliban prisoners about an upcoming prisoner release during the Afghan/US peace talks. As the risk management consultant, it was my job to know what could go wrong and prepare a plan.
A crisis management plan starts with defining success, which on this day meant our team returning safely home from the assignment. The team consisted of a young female Afghan journalist (one of the bravest young professionals I have ever met), a female British journalist, Brit male cameraman and a local male Afghan translator. They were all accomplished professionals with years of combined experience. The problem was that we were a project team and that had only met a week prior.
On a good day, it was dangerous for foreigners just to make the hour drive to the prison. Our plan was to go in the cells. Our preparations required several meetings with Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders. We gathered as much information as possible about the prison and identified those prisoners we wanted to interview.
Additionally, I was responsible for an emergency action plan; basically what we would do when something went wrong. There have been few interviews granted in the prison and everyone—including me—was nervous.
In Afghanistan that day, we used three major steps to develop our crisis response. These steps can be used to develop a crisis management plan in any field:
Understand the Environment and What You Can Control.
By understanding the environment, my team and I were able to make informed decisions concerning our movement and what would be required if a crisis developed. In our case, the Taliban ran the inside of the prison. They provided the leadership, cooked for themselves and maintained the facilities. Inside the prison, there were on average 4,000 prisoners at any given time, and the Taliban were free to move about without restraint.
Afghan Army guards only entered the cell blocks when absolutely necessary. To be honest, most of them seemed terrified. I knew that our safe area would be outside the actual prison walls in the administrative buildings. If our situation deteriorated, my goal was to quickly return our team to that safe zone.
Translated to the business world: Leaders must understand political climates, global environmental influences and the laws governing your marketplace. Acknowledge your organization’s capabilities and develop plans that are realistic and actionable. You may not be able to control external influences, but you can control your response to them. Doing so will minimize the negative impact on your organization and your community.
Identify and speak with Stakeholders
For us, this meant understanding and communicating with everyone, from the Prison Commanding General to the Taliban Elders. It was very important that we understood the guidance from each, the requirements and the expected behavioral norms. We constructed our plan to reasonably accommodate their wishes when possible.
We were to be accompanied by six guards wearing riot gear. As a former soldier, though, I knew that if a prison with 4,000 inmates decided to keep us as long term guests, our team of journalists and guards didn’t stand a chance. I also knew that if something went wrong, it would be an international incident.
That is why getting the Taliban Leadership’s promise of protection was so important to our safety. This experience is like speaking with your industry competitors during a global crisis. Competition and cooperation are not always mutually exclusive. By working with your competitors, you can mitigate risk and ensure industry viability during global crisis. Seek mutually beneficial ground. Build relationships that lead to common goals. Non-traditional collective leadership can be very agile during an emergency.
Plan Your Work (and Work that Plan)
We agreed with all the stakeholders that we would spend no more than three hours inside the prison. Before opening the gate into the first cellblock, the Afghan guard commander stopped us. He looked at me and said in perfect, British-accented English, “Get your people ready. And you be prepared, this is real and full of danger.”
It was surreal evidence he was quite scared.
The guard commander gave a command in Dari, and in we went. I had prepared our team by rehearsing our plan. We call this a “brief back”. Each team member described to me emergency triggers, their actions and the actions of their colleagues.
In everyday life, there are a number of influences that can affect how your organization conducts operations. While often out of your control, these influences can be discussed or even anticipated. Contingency plan, contingency plan, contingency plan.
Identify your employees with special skills, assign them additional duties and allow them time to plan for crisis. Make certain the people in your organization who are best equipped to deal with crises have the appropriate authority to act. Allow time to rehearse and back brief, then test your plan. During a crisis, it is important that the CEO/ President continues to lead the company while the Crisis Manager navigates the obstacles.
As my team entered the prison, we were quickly surrounded by hundreds of prisoners. It was elbow-to-elbow as we moved to the first cell to conduct an interview. The prisoners were cordial at first, but openly hostile about speaking to female journalists. Being questioned by women was not their cultural norm. While we didn’t agree, we were beholden to their bias. They would only answer questions from the male translator.
Initially, this worked. As time passed, however, the interviewees became more confident and displayed more aggressive behaviors. The Taliban leadership directly admonished this behavior, even giving a couple quick backhands to the more aggressive prisoners. Our guards became clearly shaken. Experience and intuition told me it was time to get out.
About 45 minutes into the interviews, I asked the pre-arranged question that signaled our team we were leaving. NOW. In a controlled and pleasant manner, we disengaged from our conversations and moved through the crowded cellblock to the exit. The Taliban leadership escorted us; a bit surprised as we had said we would be there for three hours. Our guards were visibly relieved as we crossed the portal of the main gate.
Potential crisis averted…. We didn’t become prisoners ourselves. Plus, the assignment was considered a huge success. Our team was safe and had answers to most of our planned questions. As part of our preparation, the team had agreed to front load all the pertinent information requirements and understood the emergency trigger.
Leaders cannot avert all crises, but they can prepare a plan for conceivable events and execute it. As business, community, and family leaders, people will look to us for guidance in bad times as well as good. It is our responsibility, then, to build a strong team and plan for conceivable events.
Efrvsnt has the tools to teach you lead your organization in uncertain times. Let us help you build your crisis management team and prepare your business for whatever lies ahead.
Additional Crisis Management Considerations:
— Business Continuity
— Employee Welfare
— Industry and Community Impact
— Crisis Communication
— Ethical and Moral Considerations
About the Author — Mike Millett
Mike is a former member of the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and a Distinguished Honor Graduate of the US Army’s Ranger School. Mike currently works as a Risk Management Consultant specializing in leading teams (multiple industries) in austere or difficult environments around the world. Mike is a business owner, corporate leadership coach and adventure travel enthusiast.