Asking the Right Questions

February 6, 2014
by Joanie B. Connell

There’s been a lot of discussion in my household about what happened in the South after it snowed a couple of inches this week.  My husband, from Birmingham, Alabama, keeps sending me articles about how defenseless the poor residents were against this unusual act of nature.  At first, I was stymied.  I grew up in Boston and a couple of inches is a mere dusting where I’m from.  After my husband drilled it into my head that Southerners aren’t accustomed to snowfall, I mustered up more compassion, but I was still curious for different reasons. 

First, let’s be clear that I’ve heard on many occasions from my Southern in-laws that “it never snows in Birmingham.”  In fact, I hear this every time it snows.  Yes, it’s rare, but it happens, and it has happened several times in the 20 years I’ve known them.  To be fair, my husband and I did have a good chuckle imagining the mayhem that would arise in San Diego if it snowed here.  The rest of the country would be LOL at us for a change.

But, alas, let’s think about this example from a business perspective and use it to teach some leadership lessons.  In all angles of approaching the snow storm, from a city leader to an individual getting behind the wheel, it comes down to risk mitigation.  The city leaders are responsible for the citizens and need to do what they can to make the roads safe and reduce accidents.  An individual driver wants to avoid getting hurt in an auto accident, or even smashing up his car.

If this were a business issue of risk mitigation, we would be asking ourselves many questions.  First, as good business leaders, we would be regularly monitoring the market and world news to see how our company may be impacted by current trends and events.  When much of the rest of the country is being deluged in snow and arctic temperatures, we might start to wonder what we would do, should this happen to us.  What are the potential liabilities that we could incur?  How could we avoid them?  What, if anything, should we do to be prepared in such a rare event?  I would suggest that, even before the arctic temperatures arrived, we would have someone on board in the organization who would have already asked and answered these questions and put a plan in place. 

The main reason cited for lack of preparedness in Birmingham is that it’s not worth the money to have a fleet of snowplows for when it snows every 5 years.  That may well be the case.  Every business has to make that call.  Surely, having a fleet of snowplows and drivers on hand is an expensive solution.  But there are other solutions to consider.  This is why creativity is so important in business.  How do we prepare for and solve unusual problems?  If it’s too expensive to have plows, what about salt or sand?  What about suggesting to drivers that they carry snow chains in their cars during the winter months or installing all-weather tires on their cars—just in case?  We, in San Diego, are told to have water, canned food, and flashlights on hand in case of an earthquake, as rare as it may be.  Is there some way to encourage individuals in Birmingham to be prepared to take some of the responsibility off of the city when it snows?  I don’t have the right solution, but a creative group of informed people could generate some good ones.

Even more important to planning is how we react to unforeseen circumstances in the moment.  Can we stay poised, rational, and creative?  Can we lead others through crisis situations?  Resilience is another extremely important characteristic of leaders in organizations.  In Birmingham, another reason for the chaos that occurred is that the snow fell during the daytime, when school was in session and people were at work.  Okay, so that adds complexity to the problem.  Do we panic and drive as fast as we can to pick up our kids and end up rolling the car?  Do we stop and think to ask if they can go home with someone else who lives within walking distance?  Is the situation bad enough that the school needs to set up an emergency shelter for the night?  Or can the school help to facilitate nearby parents taking care of kids who live further away or whose parents can’t get home?

I’m not trying to be an “armchair quarterback” for the snowed-in US residents.  I’m only using this example to raise the questions that we should be asking ourselves and our organizations to mitigate risk and creatively solve problems in the course of normal business practices.  What are the situations that we need to be prepared for?  Do we have the expertise on hand to solve the problems that may arise?  Is our company flexible and nimble enough to react to unforeseen circumstances?  Are we protecting our assets?  Do we have leaders who can stay strong in crisis situations? 

In business, I like to think that it all starts with hiring, developing, and retaining effective leaders, and building a team of people who have the knowledge and skills to collectively handle anything that comes their way.  That’s probably because I am in the business of assessing and developing leaders, but it’s a good idea nonetheless.  One of the places I work with leaders is at the Center for Leadership Assessment at the Rady School of Management.  I don’t assess business acumen, such as risk management, finance, and marketing; I leave that up to my business colleagues at the Center.  I assess the leadership competencies, such as resiliency, adaptability, communication, influencing, creativity, innovation, and team building.  All of these competencies, and others, are critical to organizational success.  They may not all come from the same person, but that is why we build teams and continue to develop ourselves. 

So, what leadership lessons can we learn in response to the recent snow fall in Birmingham?  Good leaders ask the right questions.

Dr. Joanie B. Connell is an organizational consultant and leadership coach who specializes in maximizing leadership potential.  She is the president of Flexible Work Solutions and teaches at various universities in San Diego, including at the Rady School of Management at UCSD.  Joanie earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a B.A. in Engineering from Harvard University.