Jennifer L. Donahue, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of JL Donahue Engineering — a globally recognized seismic analysis and engineering firm. With her 25 years in the U.S. Navy, she is well qualified to offer advice for how engineers can use lessons learned from earthquake engineering design and military training to create resilient teams prepared to weather crises.
1. How does engineering for disasters relate to managing for disasters?
One of the things that we do as engineers is to design things that will last through any type of crisis. Whether it’s an earthquake, tornado, high winds, or something else, we try to make the foundations resilient to those types of forces. We design foundations for a crisis. Leadership is the same thing. We have to think about what kind of crisis might happen and plan for it. And just like you maintain a building, you have to maintain your leadership. Reading, learning, trying to improve all the time — these are going to help maintain that foundation of leadership.
2. After a crisis, what is the first step that leaders should take?
One of the things that everybody wants to do is rush forward to get back to normal. But we got into this current problem because we had flaws. We’re engineers; we’re really great at analyzing. We need to have a meeting, debrief, and determine what failed so that we can figure out what worked and what didn’t. If we do that, then we will be stronger for whatever the next crisis is.
3. What are the top management flaws that can be exposed by a crisis?
There are five key flaws. The first involves the act of communicating. A lot of people weren’t prepared to have their personnel communicating in a dispersed environment as they worked from home during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe their employees didn’t have a computer or the correct software, or maybe they didn’t even have a quiet space to work. That needs to be something leaders think about and budget for in the future, so that in case something like this happens again, they’re able to pivot quickly.
In addition, leaders should make a plan detailing how their team is going to communicate for work in a future crisis. We have all these different tools, such as (Cisco) Webex, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. Make sure that everybody has and understands the necessary software and equipment. Practice from time to time to make sure that your personnel are maintaining and updating their skills.
The second flaw involves whether you are communicating enough with your personnel. Especially at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, people were not communicating enough at all. They thought they could get away with the weekly or biweekly meetings they were used to, but then we all discovered that people were feeling despondent because they felt isolated.
The solution for this is for leaders to take the time to really know their people. There are some people who work well autonomously. So as a boss, you have to say, ‘I know I only need to touch base with them every three to four days.’ And you might have others who need more guidance or a more personal touch. This is going to evolve over time, so you need to continually evaluate and track it.
One of the things that everybody wants to do is rush forward to get back to normal. But we got into this current problem because we had flaws.
Third, people often aren’t set up to creatively adjust their business practices to operate in a crisis. For example, looking at the spectrum of engineering, there is some manufacturing where you have to be there in person. How can you keep your manufacturing going? On the other side, maybe you have engineers who don’t need to be in the office, but how do you adjust your business model to operate at the same pre-crisis performance level?
Solutions to this flaw are probably the hardest to implement. You need to have a flexible mind. Think about barbershops: How did they survive when they couldn’t have close contact between people in their shops? A lot of them just set up outside on the sidewalk. That’s being inventive. Civil engineers need to start thinking about how they are they going to do their business and be flexible at the same time. It’s great to have traditions in your company, but sometimes those need to change in order to survive.
The fourth common flaw is about failing to build resilience in your teams. How do we deal with the mental health and burnout of people who have been separated from one another for so long? That’s something that we’re all still working on, but there are a couple things we need to think about. One is maintaining positivity. As the leader, if you start to become bitter and jaded, that attitude is going to filter down to your team. Two, you have to have long-term goals and think about where you want to be positioned when the crisis is over. Three, you need to understand that the crisis is temporary and will not go on forever.
The fifth typical flaw is not preparing for multiple crises to hit at once. If you think about early 2020, we were looking at the crisis as having only one facet, and we weren’t expecting different crises — economic, social, political — to then pile on top of each other. The best way to remedy being in that situation again is to prepare. Create various combinations of crises as part of a brainstorming project. What if we have social unrest and a tornado? How do we respond to that?
4. How can leaders build loyal and high-performing teams before a crisis?
Leaders need to get their entire team together and practice their response. Make sure that everyone knows what their role is in a single crisis and in multiple crises that hit simultaneously. You have to practice, practice, practice, so that when a crisis does hit, your team knows exactly what to do, and they feel invested in the organization because they are ready to go as part of the team.
5. How can you maintain your team’s loyalty and high performance during a crisis?
Listen to your team’s feedback and incorporate necessary changes. I look at it as a cycle. When you find something that doesn’t work, you adjust it, try it, and keep going. And, especially in a recovery period as you’re starting to ramp down from the crisis, you still have to keep analyzing what you’re doing. Maybe you just have to scale down or scale up, for example. But you can’t have a static plan.
6. How can leaders maintain focus on their projects during a crisis and its recovery while managing everything else?
I think that’s just part of what being a leader means. We have to be able to manage all these different facets; both our projects and our people are so important. And the best way to stay focused depends on who you are and how you operate. I’m one of those people who makes a list every day. And I divide my day into projects, people, and other functions. But it’s up to the individual to figure out the best method.
7. What is the most common personal pitfall that leaders need to avoid in a crisis?
It really goes back to maintaining focus on your mission and making sure that even if you start focusing on a tangent, you know you still have to come back to the core mission. It’s affirming daily, ‘This is what needs to be done today.’ Tiny little distractions will take your attention off your mission, so make time for the distractions if you need to, but maintain your focus. And remember: Keep taking care of your people, keep taking care of your projects, and you will get through this.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “How to Lead Your Team through a Crisis.”