HR Administration

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown On Weathering Disaster and Criticism

By Jeremy Smerd

Feb. 8, 2008

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown spends much of his time these days giving advice about disasters. As Brown recently explained to Workforce Management staff writer Jeremy Smerd, he’s distilled his wisdom into two talks. One reflects his role as chairman of the Cotton Cos., which focuses on how employers can prepare their workforces for disaster. The other reflects the management lessons learned as the man maligned by much of the country for the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Workforce Management: Let’s start off with what is probably the most common question you are asked.
Michael Brown: Sure (laughs).

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown

WM: I’m sure you’re ready for it. You were highly criticized during Hurricane Katrina for the government’s response. What did you learn from that?
Brown: Well, one, to be patient. If you go back now and you compare what I was saying inside the administration and what I was saying at the time about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, all of those things came true. The unfortunate thing was I happened to be in that very spot when what I predicted would come true came true. So you learn that if you believe—I think this is true for a midlevel manager, it’s true for every CEO—if you believe you are on the right path, you need to stick with it because you’ll be proven correct. You just need to learn to weather that criticism and do what you think is best.

WM: Taking your experience there. Those were some hard knocks, especially during Katrina.
Brown: Oh, it was brutal.

WM: How do you apply that to your work preparing workforces for disasters?
Brown: You must recognize that a disaster is just that: It’s a disaster. And everything that can go wrong will go wrong. What you have to focus on is that every single person in that chain of command, every person in your organization, has to be prepared. If I’m a mom-and-pop shop I need to make sure the four or five employees I have are ready, not just in that shop but at their home too. I’ll ask a CEO, “If disaster strikes, have you planned for employees working?” “Oh yeah,” they’ll say, “we have these contingency plans, we have a very loyal workforce they are going to show up for work.” And I just laugh at them.
Everyone will tell you: “I have a risk manager, a safety manager, we have contingency plans in place” for their business. What plans do they have in place for the workforce? Because if those people can’t get to work, those other plans don’t do them any good. One of the things that federal government does and state government does is they really try to drive home this concept of being prepared at home. I think businesses should do the same thing, regardless of the size. The better prepared employees are in the neighborhood they live in, the more likely they are to get back to work quicker, the more likely they are to be more loyal to you because you’ve helped them be more prepared in the neighborhood where they live.

WM: What does it mean to be prepared?
Brown: One, communication. If you have children, the first thing you do is worry about them. So what kind of communication plans exist in that neighborhood or that school system to get information out to the parents about what’s happening to the children? It’s these factors that keep an employee from worrying about their job. Their priority becomes loved ones. If businesses help employees develop communication plans, evacuation plans, preparedness plans—and by that, are they prepared in their home, apartment, condo or whatever to live without power for up to 72 hours? Do they know where to go to that’s an evacuation center in their neighborhood if, for some reason, they need to evacuate the neighborhood? If an employer does all of those kinds of planning for their employee, that takes the pressure off their employee, takes the worries off the employee and allows them to get back to work quicker.
If you don’t do that—and I’m telling you, I’ve seen it—if you don’t do that, those employees end up, because they’re more concerned about their families, their own homes, their relatives, etc., they tend to spend more time focusing on that and they can care less about getting back to work.

WM: What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen companies make? Any recent examples?
Brown: No. 1: They assume if they have a plan that it will work. I wouldn’t want to name names. But I can tell you people I’ve talked to say, “We’ve done X, Y and Z,” and the first thing I ask them is, “Have you exercised that plan?” “You know, we do fire drills occasionally.” That’s not what I’m asking. Have you exercised the plan? Have you put a group of employees … through the plan until they reach the breaking point? This is a problem we had in the government.
The government would do exercises and they do these kinds of shows, but the plans were never exercised to the breaking point. You can’t just sit back and say because we have a plan we’re in good shape.

WM: You bring up the point that government is not prepared. Since leaving FEMA, you’ve been a critic of the Bush administration. How would you evaluate the disaster preparedness of the federal government’s workforce?
Brown: Can I do one thing first and correct the premise of your question? The premise of your question is that since leaving, I’ve become a critic of the administration. I was a critic while I was in the administration, which, parenthetically, may have been part of my problem. I was extremely critical of what was going on inside the Department of Homeland Security.
For example, they decided to split preparedness from response. That’s like splitting your A team, if you’re a football coach—[splitting] the team that goes out and plays on the field, and never exercising or having them work with the defense or the guys who work out and train with you.
The Army has a saying: “You fight as you train, you train as you fight.” And when DHS split up those things, it broke up all the strategic relationships between state, local and federal government that enabled us to understand what the strengths and weaknesses were of all of our partners so we could effectively respond. So I was a critic long before I left. It’s I just tried to fight those battles internally rather than publicly like I have done since.

WM: OK. But given what you know now and what you knew then, how would you evaluate the preparedness of the federal government’s workforce?
Brown: Instead of doing the systemic changes that need to be made, they’ve decided to take a more political approach. I kind of joked with my friends at the state level. I said, “Now you watch: After Katrina, when there is the smallest disturbance, the federal government will come in with guns a-blazing with more than you’d ever need or want because they’re so scared of failing again.”
And I was giving a speech to the Florida Preparedness Association in Daytona Beach a couple years ago, right after I left. There were a couple of hurricanes and some flooding in the central counties in Florida. And I still laugh to this day because some of the people at the conference were saying “Oh yeah, they came in full force and we didn’t even ask for them.” So rather than make the operational, strategic and systemic changes they needed to make, they just decided to throw the book at everything. Internally, things still don’t work.

WM: Workforce Management readers are generally interested in the issues around managing their workforce. That’s why I asked about the preparedness of the government’s workforce.
Brown: This may surprise you. Even prior to Katrina, post-9/11, the White House and FEMA took upon ourselves a complete revamp of our contingency [for] operations and our contingency [for] government plans. For example, FEMA/DHS is in charge of tracking the whereabouts of the successors to the presidency and making certain that the top Cabinet officials know where to go and communicate. We strengthened that process, but we also realized that using our current secret locations around the D.C. area is probably not the wisest thing to do. We recognized that there are other alternate locations where we can stand up government operations outside the beltway, outside the northeast corridor where we could continue to do operations. So I think quite truthfully we did a very good job of revamping and changing our policies and procedures.
But I can’t say it’s all great. And here’s my concern about it: In the DHS, the Department of Defense, probably the CIA to a certain extent, [and] the Social Security Administration, [they] have done pretty good jobs of making sure they have redundancy systems, remote separate locations and the plans to get key people there. I am not convinced that the other areas of government—the Post Office, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, Health and Human Services—have done that kind of planning like those other organizations have.
The lesson to be learned, I think, for the private sector is the same thing. People will say, “You know, we have offices all over the country.” Well, that’s great. But [what] if you don’t have in place the kinds of shifts in the change in command so that if your CEO is either unavailable or taken out, who’s in charge? All those people are located in midtown Manhattan and they cannot communicate. That means the guy out in Duluth, Minnesota, has to have, legally and procedurally, the authority to make decisions on behalf of the organization. And that’s the kind of planning that needs to be done that most corporations don’t really think about.
And it goes to the employees. The employees are getting a double whammy. The workforce gets blasted by a disaster either by the fact that they are directly affected by the disaster and therefore have those problems, or they get indirectly affected by the disaster because the person they work with in that satellite office is now unavailable and they can’t get the answers they need, and the CEO or chairman of the board is unavailable, so who’s speaking on behalf of the company, who’s making decisions, who’s my next in command, who do I go to to make decisions and exercise the authority that needs to be exercised on behalf of the company?
When you approach clients, do they ever have issues trusting what you have to say, given your experience with Katrina? Is there a credibility gap that becomes a challenge for you?
No. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of the American public understands that, one, I was the scapegoat. Two, they understand that, “Man, you went through some really tough crap.” And they’re curious about, “How did you handle that?” Because everyone knows that politics in D.C. is no different than politics in a corporation. And at any given moment, anybody can suddenly be a scapegoat for anything. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned by CEOs and managers about, one, how bad scapegoating is, and the detrimental impact it can have on an organization’s structure. And if you are the scapegoat victim, you need to understand how to deal with that.
Now having said all that, here’s what most people come to as a conclusion. There was a speech I gave in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The guy starts introducing me, and he describes me as someone who, you know, “You want to learn from someone who’s been at the top of the mountain, at the top of the heap and saw how things work in a perfect world. But you also want to learn from the guy that’s been at the bottom of the pile when things didn’t work at all and learned why things didn’t work. And how to avoid that. You want to learn from a guy who’s experienced both.”
He then goes on to describe what it would be like if you had the chance to interview the captain of the Titanic. Because the captain of the Titanic complained to the owners that the schedule was too rough, that the engineering was improper. He was concerned about the lifeboat situation. He had all these concerns, yet he went about and followed all the orders of the company and went ahead and set sail for New York and the rest is history.
Well, we have a lot to learn from the captain of the Titanic. … The people you hire assume that you … hire people for their analytical skills, their people skills, their ability to recognize problems and to solve problems. But then if you don’t listen to them, if you don’t pay attention to them, then you have Titanic disasters.

WM: So you could say your experience during Katrina was a personal disaster, like the Titanic, and one that you are learning from?
Brown: Absolutely. There are two kinds of presentations I give. One on the mechanics, the science of disaster preparedness.
But I also give a motivational talk about, you know, when you are publicly maligned as I was, the butt, the brunt of late-night comedians and, you know, the president of the United States turning his back on you, and basically being the front guy for everything going wrong, how do you personally handle that and how do you survive and come out from under that?
That speech, to me, is just as important as the other speeches about the technical aspects of how you deal with disasters.

WM: Are there lessons there about managing a workforce?
Brown: Oh, absolutely. [During Hurricane Katrina], I was flying back from Biloxi, Mississippi. I was meeting with Gov. [Haley] Barbour, and my field people about what’s working, what’s not working, what do you need, what can I do to make things happen. I was flying back from that meeting back to Baton Rouge when [Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff called me and said, “I’m tired of you flying around because I’m having a hard time getting hold of you. I want you to go to Baton Rouge and stay in that office and not leave.”
That severed my ability to communicate and deal with the people in the field who were doing the hands-on disaster work. It made me ineffective. A CEO has got to recognize that just like you need to pay attention to what your customers say, you have to pay attention to what your people and your managers and employees out in the field say.
Those people who interact with customers, who interact with your vendors, your supply chain, who interact with all the things corporations interact with—you’ve got to pay attention to what they hear, because they’re on the front lines. They’re the ones who know.

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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