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Blog: Quote
  • Writer's pictureTara Rethore

When Lightning Strikes

A seasoned traveler, I have experienced myriad events and circumstances that disrupted my journeys. This one was new for me.

Closing the ramp (to access a plane) in stormy weather with nearby lightning strikes is typical. This time, the pilot also directed us to gather our under-seat belongings and prepare to deplane quickly as our rows were called. Further, we should leave all carryon items in the overhead bins. I became suspicious.

Minutes after we deplaned, O’Hare International Airport shut down – and evacuated. Decidedly not typical.

I often liken strategy development and execution to a journey. In fact, the journey metaphor is central to my book, Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy and Operations. Your business journey is the path you will take to reach your objectives. Navigating twists along the strategic journey is a recurring theme among the executives I advise – and likely also for your team. (Read related articles here and here.)

My experience at O’Hare reminded me of two critical actions leaders take to manage the unexpected:

1) Be ready to execute your backup plan.

O’Hare ranks high among the busiest airports world-wide (4th in passengers; 2nd in aircraft movements.) Yet, when a funnel cloud was spotted nearby on a path toward the airport, things proceeded like clockwork. All staff knew precisely what to do. Pilots initiated action for those onboard. Staff immediately greeted deplaning passengers. TSA agents and workers at shops and eateries in the concourse immediately started securing their sites, preparing to move.

They clearly had a plan. Most importantly, every single staff member knew their role in dealing with the crisis. Each person had been equipped to respond methodically and quickly – and did. Simply having a “Plan B” is insufficient. You’ve got to be ready to execute your backup plan.

2) Engender trust with clear, specific communication.

At each step during this severe weather event, people received factual and relevant information. Gate staff reminded deplaning passengers of what to do in anticipation of a tornado. Broadcasted instructions were accompanied by security personnel urgently directing people to shelter in place. Shop staff consulted calmly with managers to confirm procedures. Sheltering in an underground tunnel between terminals, we noted the actions and reactions of airline and security personnel sheltering alongside us.

While the space hummed with countless voices, people waited to receive further instructions or the “all clear” message. Armed with knowledge of what was happening and what we should do made it easier to be patient. Engender trust with clear, specific communication.

Evacuating and sheltering in place at one of the world's busiest airports was a new experience for me – and many of my fellow travelers. Fortunately, the airport’s senior leaders had thought ahead. They ensured that all staff knew precisely what to do and how to convey clear, factual, and specific information to help the rest of us navigate the challenge.

Few strategy journeys go entirely as planned. Successful leaders equip their teams with facts, processes, information, and tools that they can access when lightning – or a tornado – strikes.


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