“How’s it looking now?” I asked in the calmest tone I could muster.
“I don’t know,” Kate said, “it’s still not responding.”
“Maybe you should do a force quit,” I suggested.
We were very late logging into Webex. And I knew from sending an IM to Nancy (who had logged on from Colorado) that our speaker — Jonathan Goldberg, VP of IS & CIO, St. Peter’s Health Partners — was already logged on. This was akin to inviting someone to a party and not being home when they showed up, so it had us severely stressed. Our team usually jumps on the line to produce a Webinar at 12:30, with the speaker joining at 12:45 in anticipation of a 1:01 go live, but we had missed our 12:30 mark and it was now 12:51. I’d emailed Jonathan and updated him on our “technical difficulty” assuring him that we’d be on in a minute, but I had no way of knowing if he’d actually seen the message.
Unfortunately, with Kate’s computer gummed up (I can think of no better way to express it), she couldn’t even shut down in order to restart. After another minute or so, she executed the force quit. The computer, almost in spite, took extra long to reboot, and even then decided to hold a grudge — it was sluggish and unresponsive, not a good technical home base for a webinar.
I had thought it was worth 10-15 minutes to get Kate’s computer working because she would be more comfortable using it. Like a good soldier, she’d taken the quarterly two-hour drive to my office to moderate a Webinar because I felt very strongly that another person on our team had to be able to step in for such duty if I got hit by a bus. But regarding the computer, think baseball — I didn’t want to have her use my mitt unless it was absolutely necessary.
I looked at the clock and tried to judge how much time we had to play with versus how long any particular strategy would take. At some point, we’d have to do something. As it became increasingly clear her computer was not an option, there seemed two left — have her use my computer, or have me use my computer. Even though the former would require her to use an unfamiliar mitt — and she was already operating under heightened stress with severely truncated prep time — I never really considered the latter. I mean, as I said, Kate had stepped up to accept this role AND driven two hours to make it happen. The last thing I wanted to do was snatch the reins and have her watch me moderate the event. I knew that would be a morale killer for both of us.
So at 12:54, with almost no prep time left once we got on the line, we decided to have Kate use my computer. I hooked it up to the extra monitor that her computer had been attached to, plugged it in and she immediately logged on. She calmly, but rapidly, moved through the last minute prep with Jonathan and took the event live at 1:01, right on time. Perhaps the most surprising and impressive thing to me was that, when she went live, her voice was calm and even, betraying nary a whit of the massively stressful half hour we’d just endured. Once Jonathan was off and running with his presentation, and Kate had gone on mute, we both let out a big “whew!” and laugh … but it didn’t have to turn out so well.
“Thanks for staying calm,” Kate said afterwards, “it helped me stay calm too.”
After she headed back down the NJ Turnpike, I thought about these kind words. Why had I stayed calm? The answer is informative — it was not because I’m genetically disposed for such behavior (a born leader, as they say) but because I knew I was supposed to. As those who read this column regularly know, I’m a student of leadership, and I’ve learned how I’m supposed act when trying to serve in that role. I know I’m not supposed to freak out, even if everything inside me is yearning for that self-indulgence. I’ve learned that freaking out in a crisis may (in a strange way) solve the crisis, but will decimate the team that has observed such a collapse of composure. If you disempower folks when the chips are down, can you blame them for declining the honor when next proffered? In short, through study and observation, I know what I’m supposed to do, and from there to success lies only the choice to execute.
One movie scene, in particular, is illustrative of how to act in a crisis. It’s from one of my favorites — Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”. In the scene, Gene Hackman (playing a tough sheriff) is trying to make a journalist understand why speed isn’t the telling factor in who’s going to win a gunfight.
“Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya. It ain’t so easy to shoot a man anyhow, especially if the son-of-a-bitch is shootin’ back at you.”
That’s a pretty good darn way to explain life’s crises “the son-of-a-bitch shootin’ back at you.” And when it does, why not be cool-headed, especially if you know that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.
[To read Kate Gamble’s perspective, click here.]