As a seasoned preparedness expert, Bob Boyd is adept at crafting solutions for small to medium-sized businesses to implement when disaster strikes. This can be anything from a hurricane shutting down the power of a company to an owner contracting an illness that requires indefinite hospitalization. As president and CEO of Agility Recovery, a 23-year-old organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, he helps deliver and test recovery options for clients, Boyd is well equipped to provide best practices for such scenarios. As evidence of his company’s proficiency in disaster recovery, three years ago the Small Business Administration partnered up with Agility Recovery to create content for PrepareMyBusiness.org, a microsite offering a wealth of information on business preparedness. Recently, Boyd discussed with writer Iris Dorbian why small businesses need to make sure their disaster recovery plans are inclusive and why leadership roles are the most difficult to cross-train with employees.
ID: What are small to medium-sized businesses doing wrong when it comes to creating disaster recovery scenarios?
BB: I think a lot of companies make plans in a vacuum. In some cases, there’s one person who’s been designated with figuring out what to do if they have a fire or they get hit by a hurricane. It’s not an inclusive plan. That one person can’t possibly know what every department does and what they get done. I think for every plan to be successful, it has to be inclusive. You have to bring in a diverse group of people from the company, ask them what they do and then prioritize the responses. Then from those responses, you conduct drills that you want your team to be part of.
Also, a lot of small to medium-sized businesses don’t have plans. They think that’s only something that big companies have. Or only companies in Florida because that’s where hurricanes happen. Bad things happen to companies everyday and it doesn’t matter where you are.
ID: What about when it comes to delegating and cross-training your employees?
BB: People need to look at their organization and prioritize tasks. I use this strategy at Agility. If a disaster hits my office, the most important thing is to have my member services (or customer services) team back up and running. These are the people who take phone calls from customers. If something happens, I have to have this department back up and running very quickly. When I prioritize the company functions, the last thing that’s important to me is accounts payable. So I will get all my accounts payable people and train them on those customer service functions, such as using the computer system and what to say to a customer on the phone. When a disaster happens, I now have a surplus of people that can help me with customer service. It’s good for me; it’s good for my customers; and it’s really good for my employees because they see they’re a bigger part of the company. They might even see a career path.
Cross training your people is very important because it’s a huge win for everyone involved. If you cross train, you’ve got extra resources. You also show your employees that you value them by entrusting them with important duties. There’s no loss in the process.
BB: With Hurricane Sandy, we had small companies in New York and New Jersey whose disaster recovery plan was to have their employees work from home. We talked to them about the flaws in that strategy. Suppose your employees don’t have power? However, for one client—a small insurance company in lower downtown Manhattan—because we trained that company before Hurricane Sandy, they were able to think through how their people would be able to process claims and perform significant tasks [in the case of a disaster]. Even though Hurricane Sandy affected three-quarters of their workforce, they didn’t miss a beat.
ID: Based on your expertise and insight, what best practices would you offer small business owners when it comes to how to best prepare, delegate, and cross-train their staff?
BB: Take simple steps initially. Have the organization identify what the critical functions are. Identify people within that company that can train on those critical functions and then practice that. That’s an area where a lot of organizations fail. They don’t do it. They put these strategies together and never practice it. When you conduct a drill, you find the assumptions that don’t work. I believe strongly that every business should conduct drills at least once a year. It will make the organization better.
Also, take advantage of social media tools like Facebook or Twitter. Utilize them as alternative ways to communicate with employees. If you have a really good communications strategy then half the battle is won because now you’re able to set the expectations, know who’s available, who’s not available and make your employees part of your plan as opposed to not part of your plan.
ID: What organizational roles are the most difficult to delegate and cross train employees?
BB: Leadership roles are hard [to delegate], especially at some small businesses because they tend to be occupied by the entrepreneur who’s the visionary. But if that person is unavailable, you have to have other people who know what to do. You have to have them as backup. You don’t want people to figure who’s in charge after a disaster. You want that to be known today.
Leadership is really hard to train on the fly. It’s probably where most small businesses are susceptible because there tends to be a couple of key people [within the company] and if they’re not there, then somebody has to fill that void.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.