Engaging your CEO in pandemic preparedness: How to build a strategy to overcome indifference

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Some pandemic influenza preparedness planners start out with an advantage. Their company culture supports disaster preparedness and senior executives have educated themselves on the threat—or the CEO "has a certain degree of paranoia" as Boyd George, CEO of the Hickory, NC–based grocery supplier Alex Lee, puts it. He had read a book about the 1918 influenza pandemic that alarmed him.

But for most CEOs, an influenza pandemic is a remote possibility that just can't compete with other concerns for resources.

According to a recent report on executive awareness of and involvement in corporate pandemic preparedness by Michael Evangelides, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, most top executives and boards of directors are not engaged in the influenza pandemic planning process and won't give it equal billing to other potential disruptions until at least one of the following occurs:

  • Media attention to pandemic influenza increases.
  • Legislation or regulation emerges, requiring a high level of preparedness.
  • Shareholders and investors demand a high level of preparedness.
  • The financial impact of a pandemic on the corporation becomes evident.

Obviously, planners can do little to nudge along the first three prerequisites. But, fortunately, the fourth is in their sphere of influence. And it is worth pursuing, says Penny Turnbull, senior director of crisis management and business continuity planning at Washington, DC–based Marriott International, Inc. "It certainly helps focus the minds of our senior executives to know that this is something that's important for our chairman and CEO, because obviously that drives a lot of the momentum," she says. "If it's important for him, it means it's an important issue for our senior executives, which means it's important to our general manager, and it trickles down from there."

Weekly Briefing asked five successful pandemic preparedness planners for advice on getting CEOs to pay attention to the threat. Here's what they had to say.

Call on key contacts. If you don't have easy access to the CEO, find someone who does and who understands the importance of addressing pandemic influenza, suggests Karen Dye, global crisis planning manager, Sun Microsystems, Santa Clara, CA. Have this person paint a clear picture for the CEO of the implications of a pandemic on business, the economy, and people. When planners made a presentation to the president, "he immediately saw the implications to his family," Dye says. "It was personal."

Demonstrate planning efficiencies. Put pandemic preparedness into a larger context, recommends an executive at a multinational, multi-industry manufacturing company who asked to remain anonymous. (We'll refer to him as Company A planner.) "There's always a risk when you try to get a CEO's attention on just a single issue," he says. "Explain that everything you do to deal with this particular risk is applicable to a wide array of risk-management situations. Use this as an example or pilot program for developing a more robust risk-management program for the company."

Zero in on key information. Pandemic preparedness planners need to frame their information within the context of their particular company, says Sol Sax, MD, global chief medical officer of DuPont Company, based in Wilmington, DE. "A CEO needs concise and credible information on the potential impact of a pandemic, particularly with regard to issues such as absenteeism and potential interruptions to IT, power, and transportation services," he says.

Present the return on investment. "Look around your company and see what resources, procedures, and processes you could allocate or adapt," says Company A planner. "The return on investment is you keep you and your employees operating or available to operate later."

Push buttons. For each executive, identify a critical company relationship and how a pandemic would affect it, Dye says. "Figure out which kind of button to push. From a manufacturing perspective, we may have borders closed, we may not be able to get parts. For our customer service, [the CEO's button was the question] 'how are we going to take care of our customers?'"The issues should be clearly germane to your company's sector. Know how to "personalize it." she says.

Illustrate what happens if you ignore planning. CEOs may consider planning for something that may or may not happen a waste of time. So use strong words to convey the consequences of not planning, Dye says. Example: "The consequences are so dire, so extreme, that we cannot ignore this."

Call in reinforcements. Business continuity planners may get tuned out by senior management because their job is to talk about crises, says Mariott's Turnbull. Her CEO, Bill Marriott, had been engaged, but it was still helpful to bring in outside expertise. "I'm the company's Chicken Little, so it doesn't do any good for me to say 'the sky is falling,'" she says. Bring in a credible expert to bolster your position.

Point out what the competition is doing. Benchmarking data that show leadership how your firm compares with similar companies can spark an urge to catch up, Turnbull says: "If you can put it in front of your CEO's nose and say 'look, 75% of companies in our sector are at least thinking about this, and we're not,' that [will] help focus their efforts."

Add the larger context. Show the CEO that the public sector is also worried, suggests George of Alex Lee. "If you point out that the federal government is concerned about it, that's a start."

Emphasize low costs. Like many companies, Alex Lee doesn't have a dedicated pandemic planning staff. The company leverages existing resources, George says. "The amount of money we spent isn't really that significant," he says. "We bought some N-95 [respirator] masks, but that's a product that can be sold if we don't need them."

Dye's team accomplished its planning with no additional funding. "[Our effort] was people-based. We had travel expenses, but part of our strategy was not to use antivirals and not to use personal protective equipment, so therefore we didn't need funding for that."

Share customer questions. When customers ask about your company's pandemic preparedness, share their questions and comments with the CEO, Turnbull says. Keep the issue on the radar and let leadership know that customers expect you to have a plan.

Customers know they can depend on you if you have a plan. Asks Turnbull: "If you had a choice between two suppliers and one was planning and one wasn't, who would you give your business to?"

Dye agrees. "With our ability to say 'this is our strategy and this has been approved by our senior management,' we have something that is validated that we can share with our customers. It's a very clear statement to our customers that this is how we are going to treat you, so there is no ambiguity."

Explain how pandemic preparedness differs. Executives may not understand what sets apart pandemic preparedness from other business continuity issues, Dye says. Explain that other types of disasters are local rather than global. "We've also never had the absentee rate that we're going to have with this on a global basis. This is a catastrophe unlike any other we've experienced, and we can't ignore it."

Urge them to read a graphic account of the 1918 pandemic. Hand your CEO a copy of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Barry, George says. "If you can get a CEO to read that book and maybe some current literature on it, I think you'd get their attention," he says

Get everyone on the same page. Engaging the CEO is important, but getting an audience with the entire senior leadership team is even better, Turnbull says. For example, the chief financial officer needs to understand the financial aspects of planning: the risks, the rewards, and the costs.

Keep your goals realistic. "There's always going to be a bell curve," says Company A planner. "You're never going to get everyone at the same level. If a company's engaged, but maybe the CEO isn't—maybe he's delegated [the task]—it's still good."

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