On March 22nd this year, 16 people were killed and 150 injured in a terrorist attack at Zaventem Airport in Brussels.
The damage to the airport was profound. Reports at the time suggested that it would be closed for many months. Yet within 12 days a first flight had departed and in 72 days it was back to full capacity. The airport had achieved an amazing recovery from a massive blow.
Brussels is not the only example of a recent crisis that has provided major challenges for airport leaders and their people. Consider, for example, the devastation caused by the raging natural wildfires at Fort McMurray or the complexities associated with the extended crisis of the missing MH370 airliner.
Few of us would want to be caught up in such traumatic and extreme events. Yet invariably those involved have a powerful story to tell about what happened and how they managed. What lessons can be learned?
- Having an inspiring vision, mission and sense of purpose which everyone can buy into – a light at the end of the tunnel – becomes really important when times are difficult. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In the Brussels case, a determination that the airport would ‘come back stronger’ proved a very effective rallying cry.
- A co-ordinated approach to communication is essential. In a world of social media and 24/7 news coverage, continuous professional support needs to be available as speculation and misinformation can swiftly fill any communications vacuum. The Malaysian authorities found that as soon as relevant and accurate information emerged, it needed to be communicated. A balance must be struck between ‘rationality and humanity’ in the tone of messaging.
- A decentralised management approach based on mutual trust is helpful. Natural leaders emerge, sometimes unexpectedly, in response to fast moving and rapidly changing local circumstances. It’s important that the organisation gets behind these leaders and teams. In Brussels, empowered and agile teams provided the energy, commitment, ideas and capacity to deal with varying situations.
- Support for people is important. In situations such as Fort McMurray and Brussels, there is a human toll with emotional and physical exhaustion, fear, and anxiety very common. People may also have financial concerns. A combination of practical and psychological support is required, provided by managers, peers and sometimes professional psychologists and counsellors. Assistance has to be tailored to individual circumstances.
These are tales of human spirit, strength and resilience. In a complex world where the unpredictable is becoming the norm, the lessons learnt from crises are directly relevant to the way we manage change and our everyday operations.
As Veronique Vogeleer, human resources and corporate communications director at Brussels Airport says: “It’s the people that make the difference.”