Homeland Terrorism: Is Your Business Prepared?

Last Updated May 13, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

Last week's mercifully unexploded bomb in Times Square was a timely wake-up call. We've all become circumspect about flying (and our fellow passengers) but we're complacent when it comes to risks on home ground. As business leaders, what can we do to be prepared for a risk so nebulous yet pervasive? I lived and worked in London throughout the IRA bombing campaigns in the 70s, 80s and 90s: Chelsea Barracks, Oxford Street, Parliament, the Tower of London, Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Harrods, the London Stock Exchange, the City of London, Canary Wharf were all sites of deadly terrorist bombs. One of my school friends lost her mother in the bombing of the law courts. Looking back, it looks incredible that London remained peaceful, calm and productive during that period. How did that happen? And what lessons can we take from that for our businesses today?
  1. The national spirit appreciated that, when you let terrorism disrupt life, terrorists win. Call this the Blitz spirit. The British had been attacked on their own soil before - and won. They were determined that this could and would happen again. It's important to create a culture of stoical pride, where getting back to work after each outrage is seen as a moral victory. Flinching and bathos aren't options. The perpetuation of ordinary life shows courage; there's much to be said for a stiff upper lip.
  2. Conduct fire drills. Just like the military, major targets and organizations need to do scenario planning, walking through exactly what would happen in the event of a bomb. If there's an incident, where does everyone go and how does work continue? Unlike those tedious Tuesday morning fire drills that everyone ignores, these have to be serious and everyone needs to take part. They should not be so frequent that they become trivialized.
  3. Redundancy is everything. Both data back up and communication systems all need more back up than most companies have. In these straitened economic times, it's tempting to cut back on Plan B and Plan C may already have been eliminated. Think again. In most businesses, data and communications are the life blood of commerce. Don't risk cutting them off.
  4. Hoard cash. Cash gives business the capacity to absorb pain and turbulence. Cash means you can give traumatized staff extra time off and counseling. Cash means you can rebuild fast. Cash buys you time. There are times when cash isn't so critical but right now it is.
  5. Expect babies. Nine months after 9/11, I knew a lot of companies decimated by male and female executives all taking time out for their first child. Disaster reminds us that we are mortal - and it's a human instinct to respond to with our only means of immortality: reproduction. Make sure you have succession plans in place for key executives and some redundancy built into to your staffing plans for the rest of the organization.
You may prefer to turn away, persuade yourselves that the odds are so small that you don't really need to think about this. But such willful blindness would be a mistake. None of this preparedness imposes a high cost but it promises a high degree of real security: not guarantees against danger, but the resources required to overcome it. Not for the first time, chance favors the prepared mind.
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.