by Steve Adubato, PhD

No matter what business you are in, Hurricane Sandy continues to impact your life. Meetings canceled, clients changing travel plans, events and seminars postponed, and e-mails and texts not working. Communication challenges abound and there are so many questions with so few answers.

Last week’s column examined the immediate communication and leadership lessons from Sandy. This week we take a look at some additional lessons that are no less significant.

--Be firm, but flexible. Obviously, New York Mayor Michal Bloomberg made a poor leadership decision when he decided that the New York City Marathon must go on—with its starting point in Staten Island where Sandy’s devastation was particularly bad. However, good leaders should listen to feedback and be flexible enough to undo a decision when they hit a raw nerve. The negative response to Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to hold the marathon was swift and severe. Fortunately, the usually steadfast Bloomberg changed his mind. Yes, leaders must be firm in a crisis, but they must always be flexible enough to listen to the feedback around them.

--Training at every level. Utility companies and others we depend upon in a disaster are under the gun. Finding solutions to complicated power-related and communication problems has not been easy. However, it is essential for utilities in particular to not simply communicate at the big picture level. For example, it is great that utilities put out announcements about how many homes had been restored. However, it is even more important that workers on the front line know how to communicate with empathy, compassion and patience with customers and clients who are frustrated, confused and in some cases, very angry. Yes, Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented storm, but customers looking for answers is not unprecedented. This disaster reminds us that exceptional customer service must be delivered by every employee, from the CEO to the front line and everyone in between.

--Focus on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do. During the storm, it was common to hear customer service reps tell you what they couldn’t do, which was a long list indeed. Too often, we focus on policy, rules, procedures and obstacles that stand in the way of getting things done. But creative, “can do” professionals quickly figure out what they CAN do and work to communicate this to clients and customers. Those on the receiving end are very appreciative and remember it in the future when things get back to “normal”.

--People and family first. Great leaders understand team member’s individual circumstances. Organizational policies and procedures are fine, however, in a disaster like this where people’s lives are turned upside down, safety comes first. People must take care of themselves and their family members. I know of employees who went to work with a gas tank on empty in the hopes of finding gas (because coming to the office was required) and wound up stranded on the highway. When this happens, who benefits? Not the employee and not the organization. But why was the employee required to come to the office under these conditions? Everyone’s situation is different and smart leaders take each employee’s situation into account during a disaster like Sandy. While policies matter, your employees and their family circumstances matter a heck of a lot more.