In a crisis, true leaders rise to the forefront. Featured

9:14am EDT October 29, 2001

I've read a lot about heroes and leaders over the past month and a half.

One story that particularly impressed me was that of Patrick Tierney, CEO of Thomson Financial, a company that had 200 employees in the World Trade Center and another 1,800 workers spread across downtown Manhattan.

Tierney was in London for a board meeting at the firm's parent company when the planes hit the buildings, and was suddenly thrust into a crisis management situation an ocean away from home.

He set aside all business concerns and focused on determining which people were safe and which were lost. Through a mad scramble of phone calls and e-mails, he and his top managers accounted for all but 11 employees.

More important, Tierney recognized the need to be visible and stay in constant contact with his employees and their families. He called in a favor and got onto a flight to Toronto. Then he drove 10 hours to Manhattan to be with his staff and begin the recovery process.

Crisis management isn't readily taught in business schools, at least not this type. Instead, it is something people either have or don't have in their mental make-up. Only during a crisis of this magnitude do those skills rise to the surface.

Recently, I stumbled across a letter from Chicago-based management consultant Gregory P. Smith, who sent a list of action items he's developed for managing, motivating and leading employees during a crisis. Here are a few of his suggestions that I found particularly appropriate.

Keep communication open. There is nothing more powerful than information. People use it as an energy source.

Tierney kept up a steady flow of e-mail and communications over the days following the attacks that allowed his employees to feel connected with efforts to recover and rebuild.

Educate managers and supervisors. If you equip key management with information, resources and the authority to assist employees, you've expanded your leadership umbrella by enlisting others who can duplicate your efforts.

Tierney put his top people in charge of various aspects of the recovery process and empowered them to make crucial decisions without first securing traditional approval. This helped move recovery along quicker and get Thomson back up and running within days.

Target fears and anxiety. Few things inspire loyalty more than a manager or supervisor who listens. In a crisis, people are most concerned about their safety and the safety of their families.

Employers who provide a supportive workplace typically boast some of the highest retention and loyalty rates.

Accept the fact that performance and productivity will drop. It's a hard truth, but one that must be recognized. Expect to see employees who have difficulty concentrating and are forgetful. Also expect increased absenteeism.

Being a leader is more than making the crucial day-to-day business decisions that affect cash flow. It requires compassion and understanding.

If you are able to recognize the human side of your business, you'll find that in a time of crisis, your employees band together and your company could actually emerge stronger than before. Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.