National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C. Vol. 31, No. 18 * September 27, 1999
In the Eye of the Storm
This column is being written from an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in a county facing a visit by Hurricane Floyd. There is a strange mix of anxiety and long periods of boredom as the hurricane approaches. However, there is also great coordination and a sense of purpose, as well as a clear understanding, through regular briefings, of whats going on and what needs to be done.
The HR Doctor once arranged a management training session aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of Americas largest and newest nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The carrier has a crew of 5,000 people, with an average age of 19. People were coming and going as their assignments changed. Work was being done 24 hours a day and was inherently dangerous.
The county managers, in contrast, also presided over an organization with thousands of employees, but with a much more mature work force with far greater assignment stability. Most employees worked only during the business day. Their work was not inherently dangerous, although public safety services, of course, were 24-hour operations.
Given these differences, why was it that the aircraft carriers safety record and ability to perform as a team was considerably better than that of the county? Why was there more organizational in-fighting and unhealthy competition in the county organization than on the carrier? Exploring that issue was the purpose of the training.
The answer was very simple. On the aircraft carrier, everyone had a full and clear understanding of the mission to be performed, their individual part in the mission and what the definition of the missions success would be. The view staff receives regular updates or briefings on what was going on and the managers take the time to thank and recognize successful contributors.
Counties, on the other hand, often lack a clear and cohesive mission. Agencies are often viewed as directly competing with one another. For example, in some counties, the public defender and the prosecutor are part of the same organization. The same is true of the sheriff and probation.
Managers either do not realize or do not take seriously enough the importance of communication with employees throughout the agency. Instructions may not be clearly understood. There may be no feedback provided on how the agency is doing and whether it is performing its work in an effective manner from the standpoint of its customers.
There may be no measurable indicators of success or failure. Employees arrive at work in the brightness of the morning, but are essentially working in the dark all the time.
However, in the face of an oncoming threat, such as Hurricane Floyd, the organizations method and approach changes to be much more like the aircraft carrier. There is a visible presence of the top leadership and a clear sense of mission. The briefings and feedback help everyone in the center understand what is going on and what their role is in the response. The chain of command is clear and everyone knows it.
The lessons from the Emergency Operations Center and the aircraft carrier are clear. Managers and agencies that are the most successful are the ones that help people understand where they stand. They communicate often, have staff briefings and training, identify milestones and best practices to emulate and celebrate success.
The irony is that we often wait for an emergency to take place, before we put into practice the very techniques which can make us successful as managers all the time.
As the HR Doctor points out in conducting workplace violence training, 60 percent of the agencies that establish policies, do so after a problem arises. The HR Doctor urges colleagues throughout the country to learn from these scenarios and communicate by telling the truth, telling it quickly and telling it often.
Check out the HR Doctors web site for a library of past articles, links to other HR information sites and more. The address is www.hrdr.net. Best wishes and let me know if I can help.
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,