9 management lessons from 13th and Violet

Our family stayed dry during the recent Boulder flood. But some of our friends fought a losing battle with the water. Flooded basements, flooded cars, rivers running through homes, and washed out roads transformed our calm, laid back town into a frenzied disaster zone. Even those of us without property damage found it hard to concentrate on “regular life.”

Emergency officials asked everyone to stay home. They wanted to keep the roads clear for first responders and inspectors. Crews examined bridges and streets to identify unsafe routes, marking road closures with orange barrels and National Guard troops.

I followed orders. For two days. But I’m not good at sitting around and waiting if someone needs help. And I think many employees are like that, too.

Frustrated by the wait, an all-volunteer group quickly sprung up to identify and respond to flood needs: BoulderFloodRelief.org. I don’t think they waited for permission from anyone to set up shop. I think they just acted. They created a straightforward way for flood victims to request assistance. Volunteers can call a number for an assignment, a place to help out.

A family friend phoned Boulder Flood Relief and received instructions to report to 13th and Violet for a water diversion project. My kids and I went along, armed with shovels and not sure what to expect. Quite unexpectedly, I walked away with some important business insights.

The landscape at 13th and Violet was alarming. A large expanse of water, the size of a football field, and two to twelve inches deep, was flowing directly into a group of homes. This was Tuesday, six days after the worst of the storm had passed. I realize there were worse problems elsewhere in Boulder County, and that emergency officials had to prioritize their resources, but for the people in this neighborhood, this problem was desperate.

In the storm, a small, meandering creek had become a raging giant, jumped its banks, and created a new, unwanted path into a neighborhood. Our assignment? To divert this water away from the houses.

Lessons for business:

  1. If a goal is crystal clear, available employees can help, even outside their areas of expertise. When we first arrived at 13th and Violet, there were no water experts. People just jumped in and started building berms. No one was giving orders. None were needed, because the goal was measurable. You could see whether your efforts were doing the job or not. You could see where water was leaking through and where it was successfully diverted.
  2. Leadership can (and sometimes should) shift mid-project. The original project lead at 13th and Violet said, “I’m just a homeowner trying to get this water away from the houses. Here’s what we’re working on.” An hour later, National Guardsmen arrived, and one of them was a water expert. He did not criticize the work done so far. Instead he stepped alongside the volunteers and demonstrated a next step in the project.
  3. True leadership does not bark. The National Guardsmen did not order the laypeople to step aside. Instead, they joined the volunteers and worked fluidly alongside. They led by example and encouragement. We watched what the uniformed men were doing and followed suit.
  4. Even the most unlikely helper can make a difference. Don’t count anyone out. Every individual can think through, “What can I personally do to work toward this goal?” A seven-year-old can hold open a burlap bag while an adult shovels sand into it. Both jobs are important, and the National Guardsmen made a point of praising the bag holders, not just the heavy lifters.
  5. A good manager sets the goal, not the how. In some spots, people were diverting water with sandbags. In other places, they were using broken doors and rocks.
  6. Effective leaders flex with changing resources and conditions. We quickly ran out of burlap sacks for making sandbags, well before the job was complete. Rather than stop work and wait for more to arrive, we asked, “How else can we get this job done? What flood debris could be used to accomplish the same end?”
  7. If something isn’t working the way you planned, modify on the fly. We had successfully built a berm to redirect the water. But it was clear that the force of the water against the berm might cause it to break. A National Guardsman looked upstream and chose another place to divert water to take some pressure off the berm. It wasn’t in the original plan, but it made sense to add—and it got the job done more thoroughly.
  8. Employees who are not involved in a mission-critical activity need the latitude to help elsewhere without waiting for orders. Senior executives face a tough task of prioritizing goals and allocating limited resources. In the Boulder flood, getting food and water to stranded people, and evacuating them, needed to be the top focus initially. But there were other grave needs. If someone is available, let them tackle those needs.
  9. Every organization can benefit from having its own internal version of BoulderFloodRelief.org. Do you have a clearinghouse where folks can report a business need? And any employee with a bit of spare time can volunteer to help? All you really need is a Google Drive spreadsheet and a triage person to match resources with the most pressing needs.
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