How to Prepare for a Crisis: Lessons from United’s 9/11 Chief of Operations

Amber Johnson Leadership, Strategy, Values-Driven Leaders

Sitting in the board room with an eye on his corner office, Andy Studdert, CEO of NES Rentals, is relaxed and in control. His company is growing again after a series of difficult leadership transitions and recession-related challenges, and the prospects seem bright. But what makes Studdert so calm isn’t the increasingly positive external market factors. What makes Studdert calm is knowing he has a plan.

As the former chief operating officer of United Airlines, Studdert is a strong believer in readiness. Major airline accidents are infrequent, but when they occur lives are at stake, and the public’s eye is immediately on the airline. Studdert knew the only way to be prepared was to have a plan – and to test the staff on their ability to follow it.

During the summer of 2001, Studdert became concerned that United’s staff wasn’t as prepared for a significant crisis as they should be. “I was worried we’d become cocky,” said Studdert. “We thought it couldn’t happen to us.”

And so Studdert decided to launch a no notice drill. Working with a pilot on a flight to Australia, Studdert created a crisis scenario (lost communication and a presumed crash into the ocean) that the rest of his extensive global staff believed to be true. He tells the dramatic story in this short video.

Studdert’s drill was held in late August 2001, just weeks before September 11, when terrorists hijacked two United planes carrying more than 100 people. In the days following the drill, reaction to Studdert’s training lesson was vitriolic: he says he’s never faced more criticism. Leaders called for his resignation, saying his training exercise was inappropriately intense and emotionally damaging. But, on 9/11, United’s staff was freshly prepared, and they faced a crisis of magnitudes much greater than ever imagined with the professional resolve that was critical in those uncertain hours.

Preparing for a crisis takes more than putting together an “in case of emergency” phone tree, or having a fire extinguisher on hand. It takes thinking through emergency scenarios, developing extensive plans, and engaging employees in exercises that test and build their readiness to respond. Studdert’s video, above, outlines some of the ways he encourages companies to prepare.

Andy Studdert shared more about the intensity and complexity of his experiences on the morning of September 11, and the nature of leadership in a crisis situation in this compelling video:

Studdert spoke with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership as part of our Champions of Responsible Business video series. Learn more about Studdert’s work at NES Rentals in these short videos:

Lessons for Leadership: Move to the Fire
Improving Safety Organization Wide

Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership‘s corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. In addition to blogging about business for the CVDL, Amber writes about other topics on her personal blog

Previous ArticleNext Article