Monday 10 December 2018

Gina London: Prepare for the unexpected and try to uncover a mentor

'Who do you admire in your business? Go and meet up with them. Ask their advice. Take notes.' (stock photo)
'Who do you admire in your business? Go and meet up with them. Ask their advice. Take notes.' (stock photo)

Gina London

While in Washington recently, where I was leading presentation trainings for a group of professionals, I also made time to catch up with a friend and fellow CNN alumna, Kathleen Koch.

We sat in backyard sunshine overlooking her swimming pool, while her dog, Cody, lazed in the shade. Sipping coffee and nibbling homemade blueberry muffins, it felt a lifetime away from our days covering wrenching news disasters like school shootings, tornadoes and hurricanes.

Of course, the memories remain with us and those times of crisis provide many lessons to learn about communications.

For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Kathleen not only reported on it, she was personally impacted. The Mississippi Gulf Coast town where she grew up was among the dozens of communities destroyed by that infamous storm.

It's an experience I share with Kathleen. Long before I worked for CNN, my own small town in Indiana was wrecked by nature when a deadly spring tornado decimated homes and flattened our local high school to its foundations.

"Cities with wise, optimistic leadership thrived, while those without it faltered," Kathleen observed.

Later, in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy hit, she realised the leaders of devastated towns on the Jersey Shore desperately needed the advice of the Gulf Coast mayors who were now hurricane experts. So, Kathleen started partnering them up - offering a "disaster mentor" to any elected official who wanted one.

"The partnerships made a real difference in the communities' recoveries," Kathleen recalled.

But, community leaders aren't the only ones who can benefit from shared experiences. Business leaders can too. So can you. Here's how.

1. Find a mentor. The participants in my Washington training sessions this week are emerging leaders.

They've been with the organisation several years and are targeted to become the next round of principals.

They also tell me they're frustrated by the firm's sink-or-swim culture. They have had to learn processes and practices on the fly. It's been tough.

They now see the same thing happening to new hires. When I asked if assigning a mentor would help, they say, "yes." But they also say they're all so busy, no one wants to take on the idea. It's like it's dead in the water before anyone gives it a try.

Don't let this happen to you.

Who do you admire in your business? Go and meet up with them. Ask their advice. Take notes.

Listen and learn. You don't have to officially ask them to "mentor" you. That may put them off as too formal or attached to expectations they don't think they can meet. You can let the mentorship be your little secret.

2. Formalise a mentoring culture. Kathleen made no secret of her mentoring idea. Instead, she formalised it by launching a non-profit named LeadersLink. Its mission is to harness and share elected officials' disaster lessons learned to help other communities better prevent, prepare for and recover from similar crises.

Likewise, could your HR or Internal Communications Department formally establish a mentoring or lessons learned program? I know plenty of places that have. But, like my group here in Washington, I also know plenty of places that haven't created them - yet.

Putting a structure around an idea like mentoring or organising regular lessons learned sharing sessions, doesn't have to be mind-boggling.

You can keep working and carve time to share experiences. Having support from your company is the obvious bonus-round to simply reaching out to enlist a mentor on your own.

As Kathleen emphasised: "A culture of preparedness is important because none of us live in a risk-free world. Disasters are becoming more frequent and severe and how you as an individual or business respond in a crisis can define you.

"It is infinitely easier to craft a disaster plan when things are calm than to devise it as your building collapses around you."

It doesn't have to be a disaster plan for collapsing buildings. Preparing for those emergency crises is certainly important and my firm of affiliation, Fuzion, and I consult around that. I'll write more specifically about crisis communications in another column.

In the meantime, consider how you can layer structured communications into every facet of your organisation, how you can create a culture of sharing and preparation - for everything.

Kathleen focuses on natural disasters, but the same rules apply to sharing all kinds of business experiences. As she writes: "There is no excuse for every leader to climb the same steep learning curve. Leading is like climbing Mount Everest.

"Any novice attempting it on their own will likely get lost once or twice along the way and may even slip into a deep crevasse. But what if they had a sherpa?

"Not someone to carry them to the summit, but to point the way ... to steer them toward a tried and true path and around the trickiest obstacles."

That is LeadersLink's mission. By finding a mentor, you can make it your mission in business too.

Are you teetering toward disaster in your career? Would you like some mentoring advice? Write to Gina in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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