Anyone can make a mistake, right?

Misunderstanding a situation, shooting ourselves in the foot, failing to take action as or when required – these things happen occasionally. It comes with the territory when you’re in a management role. And, as long as our good decisions outweigh our goofs, we’re usually OK by the time for the annual review and bonus conversations roll around.

But sometimes, we screw up in such a colossal manner, that nothing is going to overcome the lingering affects. At those times, you either move on to someplace else or another person makes the decision that it’s time for you to “take some time to be with your family.”

Because we can learn from others’ mistakes, I intend to use this space occasionally to highlight some of the humdingers. This month, it’s FEMA. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the Federal government’s emergency management agency. It’s in place to coordinate, support, and augment the efforts of all the various agencies at local and state levels which are in place to deal with crises. FEMA is one of those agencies that everyone is supposed to love and look forward to having around in difficult times. And up until about 2004, it was highly regarded. However, as a result of some changes organizationally that took away much of its autonomy and budget decision authority, it’s not so fab any longer.

Over the last week or so, California’s been experiencing some very bad fires. Thousands of people have been affected. This is precisely the kind of very demanding situation where a leader’s good management skills become clear to everyone around her or him. Or not.

Faced with some unfavorable press about its reaction to the fires, the guy in charge of FEMA’s communications decided that a press conference was required to show the world that the agency was on top of the situation and doing a good job.

This, in itself, was good thinking. It works in any organization. If you’re under a microscope, go out of your way to show that you know what needs to be done and that you have the skill set to get the tasks completed successfully. Don’t wait for others to come looking (and maybe finding) weak links in your chain of management.

But with all management decisions, it’s the execution that counts. A good idea comes across as very dumb if poorly executed. That’s what happened at FEMA.

Rather than have a real press conference; they staged one. In the staged conference, employees of the organization played the role of the press. They threw a few powder puff questions at the man who was playing the communicator and for a few minutes it looked like it was going to work. The “press” would ask, “How do you feel about FEMA’s response to the fires?” The spokesman would reply, “I am pleased with how were doing out there.”

And (I guess the plan said) everyone would watch and believe. There would no longer be any worry about FEMA’s work or capability. But trying to fool the press isn’t so easy. FEMA got busted for being phony.

The guy who staged this debacle, John Philbin, was earlier scheduled to be moved up the ladder before this occurred. He was going to become the head of Public Affairs for National Intelligence next week. But instead he got fired. (What does it say about National Intelligence if they wanted a communications guy like this?)

What can we learn from this management blunder?

1. You can still fool some of the people some of the time. But if you’ve made a big mistake in the past (remember Katrina’s press statements), bear in mind that your credibility will be tainted. People will watch your every action more closely from then on. In this case, it’s likely that some members of the press and the government were waiting for FEMA to hit a banana peel again so they could jump on them. Same thing happens in all organizations.

2. Good work usually speaks for itself. When we start to believe that we get past mistakes by managing communication flows, we start to miss the point of why we’re there in the first place. This can breed a very bad management philosophy which invariably filters down throughout the entire organization.

3. Bad management can’t hide behind BS forever. If someone’s a crappy manager, they can BS their way through it for a while. It’s frustrating to watch someone getting away with a poor performance by conning others – but it usually catches up to them. Even naive bosses have some intuition and catch on after a while. Then the BS’er gets busted.

And recognize this one when noodling about a new job opportunity –

4. Don’t attach your star to an unhealthy environment. Even good managers at FEMA are now tarred by the actions of senior leaders. It’s not going to be easy to move to other organizations with that on the resume.


Leadership Coach