- September 11 and Beyond After his New York-based firm, LanguageWorks, successfully navigated September 11, 2001, the blackout of 2003 and routine computer virus attacks, president Kevin Rees has learned what separates the “thrivers” from the survivors.”To succeed not only in a down market, but in a market that has shocks from terrorism, acts of God or man, you need more than a competitive product/service, good strategy, and strong execution,” says Rees.”Under emergency circumstances, you need people who are both accustomed to and motivated to make decisions that will lead to success,” he explains.”This means they need to be empowered to exercise independent judgment, and they need the right tools, systems, and experience to ensure they will do so successfully in their work.”For LanguageWorks, which offers translation services, the payoff came the following ways:
- When the company president and VP of operations were incommunicado, LanguageWorkers continued to meet clients’ needs, making spontaneous decisions regarding how to work around crisis situations;
- Employees showed up at the office ready to work, not knowing whether it would be open or closed;
- Production staff with home office connections were able to telecommute as soon as power to their neighborhood was restored; and,
- Employees arranged to complete assignments without direction or assistance from senior management.Being “organizationally prepared” meant that, when CBS News and CNN called for Arabic interpreters after the first plane hit the first World Trade Center tower, LanguageWorks went into action. They translated Al-Qaeda videos. Throughout the crisis, interpreters helped relief agencies as they assisted victims’ families from foreign countries.At the same time, major projects for clients that were relocated from the fallen World Trade Center restarted almost immediately. Cultivating a ‘Decision-Makers’ CultureHere’s how Rees’ company created a culture of seasoned decision-makers:
- Initial training designed to bring the corporate mission statement to life;
- On-the-job training that includes independent decision-making from the start;
- Providing systems, such as home office technology links and “know who” knowledge to support the “know how;”
- Maintaining an open business style.The ROI, says Rees, is that employees act as though they “own” projects and they own the company. These attitudes contributed to LanguageWorks’ achievement of increased profitability in each of the last three years, despite the economic difficulties and crises which have occurred during this time.Guide to ‘Judgment-Proofing’ a CompanyRees has identified steps most companies can take so that they can rely on their employees to be excellent decision makers.
- In-Depth, Mission-Based Training. “We start with our mission statement, and how our day-to-day activities relate to it. That makes it a ‘living’ mission statement,” says Rees, who meets with new employees to explain it.
Roundtable discussions are held so that new hires can learn how seasoned employees are solving client problems. Junior people go over what they’re working on and whether or not their tasks are consistent with the mission. Additional discussions include a competitive market overview, so new employees learn what makes LanguageWorks unique compared to its competitors.One-to-one meetings between new employees and their managers are also held to discuss how clients are cared for, the rationale behind business processes, and specific priorities that would enable each employee to improve his or her contribution.Taking a chance on full disclosure has paid off handsomely, Rees says. “People are more loyal and they really understand our business,” he explains.
- On-the-Job Training to Act Independently. As employees are given their first responsibilities, they are expected to think and act independently. “We give them a ‘level-appropriate’ task, expect them to make independent decisions, and monitor their progress,” says Rees.
“Rather than spoon-feeding them at every decision point, we practice independent decision-making from the start and manage them from a safe distance.””Manager mentors” are teamed up with junior employees for three to six months to help assimilation go smoothly.
- Systems Support Independence. “You can’t expect people to make good decisions on their own if they don’t have the information and tools for making good decisions,” says Rees.
Among the tools LanguageWorks provides are:
- Powerful computing capabilities
- Home office telecommunications
- Knowledge management databases
These robust systems provide “institutionalized knowledge” about projects, transactions and pricing data in a readily available database.”We also focus on ‘know who.’ We need a communal understanding of who to go to in a particular situation, and access to the person who has the answer,” says Rees. Combined with strategic information regarding the company, marketplace, and competition, employees have the information they need to succeed even in crisis situations.
- Manage and Live an ‘Open Book’ Communications Strategy. “I believe you need an ongoing open book discussion about where the business is, where it’s heading and what it recently experienced. That includes successes, issues, failures, problems, and financial information,” says Rees. “There is very little corporate information that should be kept from people.”
A cornerstone of the LanguageWorks communications strategy is a monthly company meeting.
Ironically, the company’s staff was gathering for that meeting, set for 9 a.m. September 11, 2001, when the first tower of the World Trade Center was struck.
“We were together, watching events unfold from our offices in the Flatiron district,” says Rees. “People could step out of the meeting, into the street, and see the World Trade Center.”
“Some of our employees had relatives there, and they started walking towards the site. As communication systems slowly broke down, others had to decide how to make their way home. The existence of a well-developed home office network was extremely useful to us,” says Rees.
“We were able to keep certain projects running in the next few days. Production staff who had been given access to our office network through their homes kept working. If you instill accountability for client projects, when you have a crisis, people will still take responsibility for their successful completion.”