Prepping for Hurricane Sandy and storm spotting from boardrooms

It’s been a crazy few days here in south central Pennsylvania as we prepared for and then weathered Hurricane Sandy. Unlike our neighbors to the east, this corner of the Mid-Atlantic region came through the storm with limited damage – an outcome you’d expect to elicit a unanimous chorus of praise.

However, when the worst is merely bad, some folks just can’t bring themselves to celebrate their good fortune. Instead, they grouse about time wasted in needless preparation. They mock the media for catastrophizing the situation. And they lash out at government officials for a too early responses to too little danger.

Never mind that life has been up-ended for millions of people or that economic losses are at $80 billion and climbing. If the storm didn’t touch them, it had to be much ado about nothing.

While the grateful ones rush to lend a hand, the gloomy pusses pout in a corner, crying over spilt time. No teachable moment for them – which has me thinking about board members I’ve met over the years.

(The soundtrack for the remainder of this article is provided by the Wailin’ Jennys.)

Storm spotting from the boardroom

In my work with faith-based nonprofits, I regularly advise board members to watch the horizon for clouds that might become full-blown storms for the organizations they serve. And not just to watch, but to begin preparing for what could be. When the storm hits, organizational leaders, including the board, must be willing, ready, and able to stay put. No running for cover.

Paraphrasing Jim Collins from How the Mighty Fall, I encourage boards to ask three questions to which exemplary board members should want answers.

  1. What’s the upside of advance prep if the cloud doesn’t morph into a storm – even if events turn out well?
  2. What’s the downside of failing to prepare if the cloud becomes a major weather event – if events go very badly?
  3. Can the organization survive the downside? Truly?

Not surprisingly, when faced with the possibility of stormy weather, the responses of board members pretty much mirror what we see among the general public. There’s no checking personalities at the boardroom door.

Most understand that forewarned is forearmed. That a stitch in time saves nine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the best offense is a good defense. What will be, will be, they say, but storm spotting from the boardroom can help make a bad situation less bad and a good situation better.

However,  there are also board members (hopefully the minority) who equate environmental scans with reading tea leaves. They lump scenario planning in with borrowing trouble from the future. Better, they say, to let tomorrow worry about tomorrow. What will be, will be, and storm spotting from the boardroom won’t change a thing.

It takes a strong board chair and committed CEO to counter the cynics, but counter we must. There are storm clouds aplenty in the nonprofit skies, and reluctance to explore options, risks, and issues early on sets an organization (and its board) on the road to trouble later. Returning to Collins:

The right leaders feel a sense of urgency in good times and bad, whether facing threat or opportunity, no matter what. They’re obsessed, afflicted with a creative compulsion and inner drive for progress – burning hot coals in the stomach – that remain constant whether facing threat or not.

If tomorrow’s storm passes you by, celebrate. But keep your eyes on the horizon even as you party. Chances are, the next big one is already on the way.

What's your take on this topic?

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