Understanding the Life Cycle of a Crisis and How to Adopt Key Leadership Mindsets

Summer 2020

By Myra McGovern

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On a sunny Saturday in May 2016, a week before graduation, Mark McKee was hosting his first alumni weekend as head of Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California. As 100 guests were milling around the school, McKee looked up and saw a pillar of smoke coming from one corner of campus. In the other direction, he saw another column of smoke. Then he heard sirens. He knew what was happening and what to do next. The operations staff grabbed all available fire extinguishers to keep the growing blaze at bay until the fire department could take over.
 
In November 2018, a wildfire, the Woolsey Fire, engulfed the local community, scorching an area the size of Detroit. The Viewpoint campus was spared—barely—but the threat was very real. In the arid landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains, fires spread quickly, often stoked by strong Santa Ana winds, and McKee knew that the wind could change direction at any moment, deciding the fate of the campus. But he felt confident that the school was as prepared as possible to cope with the situation; Viewpoint’s emergency preparedness plans laid out likely fire scenarios, and the entire school had conducted drills for different emergencies.
 
In four of McKee’s five years as the head of Viewpoint, the school has had to close for periods of time because of fires or related issues, such as power outages or air-quality concerns. “During each of these events,” McKee says, “we get better. We learn more, and we’re better prepared for next time.”
 
Few school leaders will ever face the potential loss of their entire campus like McKee did, but crises need not be so dramatic to cause significant disruption. While there is no single roadmap to help a school survive a crisis, adopting key mindsets—being adaptable, empathic, and resilient—and using the school’s mission and core values to guide decision-making, caring for others and oneself, and building learning into the process, can help school leaders and the community weather any storm. Understanding the crisis life cycle can also help.

Leadership Mindsets and the Crisis Life Cycle

The first stage of the crisis life cycle—the pre-crisis stage—provides the opportunity to consider the worst-case scenarios and to build a more resilient organization. During this phase, schools focus on assessing risks, preventing crises, and preparing for potential emergencies. An openness to learning, growth, and improvement is fundamental. This stage may involve establishing policies, shifting behaviors to mitigate risks, training staff to identify problems and prevent crises, developing relationships with community partners such as law enforcement and the local fire department, forming crisis response teams and writing plans, and practicing how to address different emergencies. The school’s mission and values should guide this planning and prevention work.
 
Mission and core values are an essential part of crisis response as well. Most people will remember the school’s response to a crisis more than the crisis itself. Values-driven decision-making ensures an ethical response and can reinforce the positive elements that attracted families to the school in the first place. Crisis response may involve emergency management, impact assessment, communicating with constituents and providing pastoral care, and determining what the community needs to resume business operations. In this stage, empathy and adaptability should be guiding mindsets.
 
No organization is completely the same after a crisis, but everyone can learn from the experience. The final stage of the crisis life cycle, learning and growth, seeks to decipher important lessons from the situation and incorporate the learnings into the daily operations of the school. This stage may include a debrief of the event, including what went well and what could be improved; reviewing school policies and practices with the crisis in mind to identify areas of risk or potential improvement; and adjusting organizational strategy to account for new realities. These adjustments reduce future risks and make the institution stronger.
 
Throughout the crisis life cycle, school leaders are called to manage complex and ever-changing situations, to make tough decisions, and to care for their constituents. More than merely executing tasks, however, crises present opportunities for true leadership, and this can have a dramatic impact on the community. As crisis scholars Erika Hayes James and Lynn Perry Wooten describe in a January 2011 article in The European Financial Review, “Crisis leadership matters because leaders of organizations and nations can make a difference in the extent to which people are affected by a crisis. Crisis leadership matters because, in its absence, the stakeholders who are adversely affected by the crisis cannot truly recover from the damaging event. Crisis leadership matters because despite the damage that is caused by a crisis, effective leadership is the one factor that creates the potential for a company and its stakeholders to be better off following the crisis than it was before the crisis.”

Assessment, Preparedness, and Prevention

The Woolsey Fire in Southern California would end up burning more than 96,000 acres from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, causing a burn scar so large it was visible from space. The Viewpoint campus was spared, but some of the school’s families lost their homes. True to the school’s mission, students, faculty, and families came together to support one another and the broader Southern California community.
 
When Don Anderson began his job as director of campus safety and security at Viewpoint about a year after the fire, he needed to learn the culture of the school as well as its mission and philosophy. He wanted to help the school become more adaptable and resilient. He reviewed the crisis preparedness plan, began meeting with faculty and staff, and reached out to Los Angeles County to do an All-Hazards Risk Assessment, an approach to emergency preparedness planning that considers a broad range of possible emergencies that are likely to occur in the area. A career law enforcement officer, Anderson brought a great deal of knowledge to his new role at the K–12 day school, and he wanted to leverage the experience of the broader community to strengthen the school’s approach. “They come in with fresh eyes,” Anderson explains of the partnership with the county. “They go through every single threat they can think of and will conduct a risk and vulnerability assessment.”
 
Given the school’s location, Anderson was particularly interested in the county’s expertise in fire prevention, mitigation, and response. And, he says, he also hopes the county will use the school’s facilities to train for active shooter scenarios. Building relationships like this with local agencies helps local authorities learn more about the campus and can help the school strengthen its own practices.
 
Training and drilling are fundamental components of Anderson’s approach to improving safety at Viewpoint. He likens his desire to build a culture of safety among the school’s 1,205 students to the campaign to increase seat belt use. “In the 1970s, people thought you were being paranoid if you wore a seat belt,” Anderson says. There was plenty of research that showed that seat belts could significantly reduce traffic fatalities, but social norms about seat belts had to change before the country saw a large-scale drop in serious injuries from car accidents.
 
In the 1980s, researcher Icek Ajzen proposed the psychological theory of planned behavior to explain the link between beliefs and behaviors. A critical component of the social change needed for seat belt use, according to this theory, was making seat belt use second nature. Now, fewer Americans forget to buckle up because it’s simply part of the driving process. “We need to do the same thing with school safety,” Anderson says. “You want to create a reflex response based on stimuli.”
 
The first step in normalizing a safety culture, he says, is to train people on different protocols within the preparedness drills so they feel confident in their response. He offers the parallel of an athlete “practicing perfect.” Elite baseball players, for instance, learn the ideal stance, timing, and actions for each stage of their swing. They then try to practice the ideal swing over and over. Anderson notes that the stress and chaos of a crisis situation can impede performance, so practicing the ideal response helps create muscle memory.
 
Training and building confidence also help with another component of improving safety behaviors: a sense of self-efficacy. People need to have confidence that they’ll know what to do in different crisis situations and that they’ll be able to execute the plan successfully for the behavior to take hold. Anderson encourages crisis managers to help faculty understand the nature of different emergencies first. Then they can teach them the components of different responses. This helps people absorb the knowledge more deeply and encourages greater resilience and adaptability. Crisis situations unfold quickly and dynamically; being able to switch course when needed can help save lives. 
 
Viewpoint conducts at least one drill every month with its entire faculty, staff, and student body. They alternate between fire, earthquake, and lockdown drills. After each drill, Anderson and his team evaluate what went well and what needs more work. “Testing the system is part of the assessment process. We’re going through the worst-case scenarios here so that our response to a real crisis will be better.” 

Response

A worst-case scenario happened to Jason Patera, head of school at The Chicago Academy for the Arts (IL). Patera was meeting with the school’s development director when he heard a student pounding on his office door. “Ms. Caraway collapsed!” the student yelled. Patera rushed out of his office, told another staff member to call 911, and administered CPR with someone else until the paramedics arrived.
 
People often look to the most senior person in the room for guidance in the midst of crisis. When the student first alerted him about Ms. Caraway, Patera knew he had to give clear instructions. The senior administrative team also sprang into action, calling 911 and closing off the hallway that led to the office, among other details. The school leader can set the tone in a crisis, keeping everyone calm and focused and working to address the crisis. The leadership team’s training, experience, and practice working collaboratively are also critical components for success.  
 
“Her official title was receptionist, but she was so much more,” Patera says. The school, which provides preprofessional arts instruction and a college prep curriculum, is small—about 140 students and 40 faculty members—and incredibly close-knit. “Everybody knows everybody,” Patera says. To the students, Ms. Caraway was an “unofficial counselor, inspirational mentor, and surrogate grandmother.”
 
Patera was with her family in the hospital waiting room when the doctors came out to tell them she had died. “She was like my adopted mother,” Patera says. “I had just lost one of the most important people in my life.”
 
Patera knew that dealing with Mary Caraway’s death would test his own strength and leadership. From the hospital, he called the senior administrative team and asked them to gather in about 20 minutes. He also asked the faculty to gather in a separate room. It was nearly the end of the school day, and they needed to quickly figure out the next steps. “We tend to be quite collaborative,” Patera says. “We asked faculty, ‘How can we take care of our kids and ourselves in meaningful ways?’”
 
The faculty and staff felt strongly that students and faculty should gather together to discuss and process the news as a community. But they also wanted students to receive the news and learn about what happened when they were at home with their families. So they decided to share the news about Ms. Caraway’s death in an email and announce that school would remain open the next day, but no classes would be held.
 
When students and faculty convened in the morning, Patera addressed the group. “I had prepared my remarks carefully. I told them what happened. I told them some funny stories about Mary that everyone knew.” Then he told them that they could do what they wanted that day, whether it was talking with faculty, making art, eating breakfast together, or something else. “We just sat there as a community for a few minutes. Then people started to disband,” Patera says. “It was the single hardest moment in my entire career.”
 
And then, he continues, “one of the worst days of my career became one of the most important and moving days of my career. All over the school, pockets of faculty and students gathered and just ... cared for each other. We had brought in counselors, but people just wanted to be with one another.” This focus on a core value of the school—supporting one another in community—was crucial. Not only did it feel like the right approach in the moment, it reinforced a characteristic of the school that people highly value. “We are a community of human relationships first,” Patera says.
 
Although leaders must focus outwardly on caring for others, self-care is also critical. The long hours and emotional strain of a crisis take their toll. Leaders need to plan how they will get the support they need to continue to lead through the crisis. Patera credits his school community with helping him. “I leaned heavily into the community,” he says. “I made no effort to conceal my emotions. … I was willing to accept the love and care from the community.”

Learning, Growth, and Transformation

Many heads feel like the caregiver-in-chief during a crisis, a responsibility that can weigh heavily. But heads are also leading learning institutions, and fostering organizational learning and growth is as important in a crisis situation as it is in day-to-day life.
 
Gretchen Kane, now president of Ursuline Academy of Dallas (TX), was in her second year as head of Ursuline Academy (LA) when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005. Adaptability was a key mindset that helped both Kane as a leader and the entire school community. “There really is no rulebook for crisis,” she says. “You can prepare for tons of things, have the best plans, but then the crisis happens, and you have to make things up as you go.”  
 
Like many independent schools in New Orleans, Ursuline is located in the city, in an area that was flooded when the levees broke during Katrina. Many of the school’s families lived in the suburbs, which were less damaged by the storm. Some independent schools in the area set up satellite campuses in other cities, such as Houston and Baton Rouge, where many Katrina evacuees settled temporarily. But Ursuline united with other Catholic schools in the area to offer a school experience in suburban New Orleans. All of the partner schools lent teachers and administrators, and they developed a schedule to accommodate different groups of students on one campus.  
 
Resilience is a mindset that helps leaders navigate crises, but fostering it in others can help the entire community. One teacher at Ursuline, for instance, asked all her students to write about the positive things that came from the hurricane when they returned to the school’s main campus in January 2006. The results were often surprising; some things the adults viewed as unpleasant hassles—such as living in FEMA trailers—were things some of the kids viewed as fun. 
 
Crisis also provides opportunities to reinforce the mission of the school and to make strategic shifts that help it grow. Kane says some faculty members left New Orleans after Katrina, which allowed her to hire differently, through the lens of a school that was in a new stage and a new state of becoming. Similarly, many of the school’s families left New Orleans, and an influx of people came to help rebuild the city. Many of these new arrivals had young children, so the school focused on creating marketing and admission strategies to attract younger students, with the goal of creating “lifers.”
 
The flood damage also provided opportunities to rethink the way the school used its facilities, a luxury for a nearly 300-year-old school with a well-established physical plant. Ursuline’s elementary school was housed in a 100-year-old building. The need to fix the damaged structure provided the opportunity to consider an ideal space for the curriculum. And although it was difficult to balance the input and wishes of the flood mitigationists, the historic preservationists, and the school’s faculty and staff, the school decided to redesign the space to align with the elementary school’s Reggio Emilia approach. This decision also supported the strategic focus on enrolling younger students.
 
While crises like Katrina stretch the capacity of even the most resilient leader, being hopeful can help the entire community persevere and innovate. Kane notes that Ursuline’s pre-Katrina enrollment was 740 students. In January, six months after the storm, enrollment fell to 660 students. But the school started 2006–2007 with 742 students, 150 of whom had not attended previously.
 
The key learnings that emerge from a crisis can also inform future decisions. Ten years after Katrina, Kane was leading a new school community. In thinking about various potential crises, her team at her new school wondered, “What happens if we have to be out of school for a while?” and focused on ideas that would avoid adding days to the end of the year. They developed a system called the E-Day Protocol (short for “Electronic Day”) whereby teachers post work on Blackboard or One Note each day for students to complete if the school must be closed for any period of time. The protocol was tested earlier this year when an F4 tornado tore through North Dallas. While the Ursuline campus was spared, other schools two blocks away were not so lucky. Across the area, electricity was out for several days. E-Days kept students engaged while the staff and parents helped the broader community.
 
Kane is quick to highlight the power of the independent school community too. Despite the diversity of school missions and the different context for each, she says, sharing ideas and supporting one another is so vital. Not only does it help us solve the immediate challenge, she says, it also helps us remember that “things do go on.”    
 
 

Risk Business

By Megan Mann

Independent schools tend to function like small towns: People, programs, and properties all need to be cared for and nurtured. School leaders, as mayors of the town, need to protect the community and facilitate its development.
 
Just as in a town, there is no way to completely eliminate all risks in a school. Schools can, however, undertake a systematic process to better understand the risks—and take steps to manage them—to better protect all involved. Risk management is an essential tool to help assess danger and prevent crises.
 
The process to monitor and mitigate risk may seem confusing or daunting. Identifying and assessing risks may yield a task list that feels untenable. A sound risk management process, however, can help leaders decide which topics and tasks to tackle first. 

What Is Risk Management?

When we think of risk in schools, we generally consider the risk of loss. This loss could affect the school’s people, physical plant, finances, reputation, or legal standing. One incident might impact everything at once. Risk management (RM) is a chameleon concept, and it should change to match a school’s needs, culture, resources, and mission. Essentially, RM is a school’s process or program to assess risk—or exposure to danger or loss—and then to make decisions about how to manage the risks.
 
While RM may have the benefit of limiting liability for the institution, its core purpose should be improvement and preservation of the school and its resources, optimizing quality, safety, and experience. It can help a school make strategic decisions in line with its mission and priorities. The investment now means preventing, minimizing, and preparing for loss later.
 
Generally speaking, this process involves three broad steps: identify risk, assess risk, and “manage” risk. The options may include avoiding the risk, assuming the risk, or taking steps to mitigate the risk.
 
RM isn’t a sprint, and it isn’t even a marathon—it’s a living process that should become engrained in the culture of the school. And it should change and grow with the school.

Setting Up a Risk Management Team

RM may be executed by one person or a team of people, depending on a school’s resources and goals. Potential members may include faculty, staff, trustees, administration, parents, and third parties (attorneys and consultants). A school may designate an internal or external candidate to run the process, or it may put together a committee or committees on the employee level and sometimes also on the board level. With the latter, schools should not allow the trustees’ work to deviate from good governance practices. It’s also important that the group not be unwieldy.
 
However, person-power is just part of the equation. RM requires an investment of both time and money. While it can be started on even the scantest of budgets, it is wise to consider whether there is room in future budgets to grow the financial support for RM. When it becomes a line item in the school’s budget, it communicates that safety is a school priority.

The Risk Management Process

The school team must decide which area of risk gets attention first. This may be dictated by circumstances (e.g., an overhaul of travel programs or new plans for construction) or may be determined by the RM manager or team in conjunction with leadership. Common risk areas include physical plant, activities (including trips and travel), athletics, academics, finances, human resources, and outside threats (natural disasters and acts of violence or terror).
 
When identifying risk points, schools (whether handling internally or with a consultant) may decide to create a risk register, report, heat map, or other tool that allows them to catalogue the information. This facilitates step two: assessment. In this phase, the school takes the identified risks and assesses the character and scope of the risk. This will help the school determine how to prioritize work around risk and what steps to take for phase three: management. This is simply a way of describing what, if anything, the school will do with the risk: accept, mitigate, or avoid (which, in some cases, means eradicate completely). 
 
If the likelihood of loss is low and the loss itself is not catastrophic, perhaps the school will decide to accept the risk, whether that acceptance is short or long term. Alternatively, the school may decide to take steps to mitigate the risk, whether immediately or as part of its strategic planning. This could take the form of program, practice, policy, or physical plant adjustments in an attempt to diminish the danger or to contain the scope of the potential loss. Finally, the assessment may yield knowledge of a risk point that the school would like to avoid altogether and may take steps to eradicate it.
 
In any program, having a continuous, repetitive, evolving process is critical. This will allow the program to match the school’s resources and needs. Additionally, it will allow the school to incorporate learning; a good program will consider past incidents and patterns and will analyze the impact those had on the school in order to assess if changes should be made. Schools should exchange ideas with each other, including ways to identify and mitigate risk.
 
For a deeper dive into risk management, see Rise Above Uncertainty: Advancing Risk Management at Independent Schools by NAIS and United Educators.

Megan Mann is legal counsel and vice president of government relations at NAIS.
 
 

Five Ways to Build Learning into the Crisis Management Process

Crisis strikes fear in the hearts of many school leaders, but crisis can also present opportunities for the organization to become stronger and even better. In order to make the best of a situation, however, schools must build learning into the crisis management cycle. Here are five steps to take at your school: 
 
1. Conduct tabletop exercises with your board and crisis team to practice how you would respond in different situations. As crisis researchers Erika Hayes James and Lynn Perry Wooten suggest in “Crisis Leadership and Why It Matters” in The European Financial Review, scenario planning “helps leaders create cognitive maps that provide a reference point and increase the organization’s ability to navigate unfamiliar terrain.”
 
2. Talk with other leaders who’ve been through the same thing. For Gretchen Kane of Ursuline Academy of Dallas (TX), the support from peers is useful in crisis and when dealing with everyday conundrums. “The different experiences and contexts of other schools can help you see solutions that you may not have considered,” she says.
 
3. Debrief after every crisis event. In what ways was the response effective? What could you have done differently? As with students learning in our schools, talking about the issues can help adults process and encode learning too. In “Learning from Crisis” from the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, researchers Edward Deverell and Eva-Karin Olsson recommend transferring knowledge gained during a crisis to “nonhuman repositories,” such as policies, strategies, ceremonies, and rules.
 
4. Evaluate the root causes of the crisis, not just the symptoms. Gather data and information that will help you analyze the situation, and use this information to adjust your organizational strategy. Did the crisis expose any weaknesses or liabilities? Create a plan to address issues, build on strengths, and consider ways to build resilience and foster adaptability.   
 
5. Consider the opportunities your situation offers. While many organizations work to return to the status quo after a crisis, innovative organizations consider the new possibilities the situation exposes or creates. Has your market changed? Did you learn new ways to reach students? Have you uncovered strengths among your faculty and staff that you didn’t know you had?
Author
Myra McGovern

Myra McGovern is vice president of media at NAIS.