Leadership under fire: Lessons in the aftermath of the Santa Rosa fires

On the eve of the first anniversary of the California Tubbs fire, I salute all the Keysight employees and their families who, having to rebuild from the ground up, never hesitated to help each other, their communities, and our company emerge from the crisis. That the company never missed a beat in serving customers and delivering growth to shareholders is a testament to the extraordinary spirit and resilience of our people. In honor of that spirit, and that of the company’s leaders who more than rose to the occasion, I’m re-posting last year’s account. – Elizabeth Geary

Leadership under fire.

When the Tubbs fire, dubbed the most destructive and costly in California history, swept through Santa Rosa, we at Keysight found ourselves on ground zero of the mandatory evacuation zone, rushing to assess impact to our headquarters and our 1500 employees and families. It tested our crisis management and leadership skills beyond what we could have prepared for, exposed the true nature of our values, and changed us in indelible ways. It also left us with a monumental challenge: how, and how fast, to rebuild. This is what we learned.

Preparedness is essential but only takes you so far.

A vetted and practiced crisis playbook proved indispensable; so did local and global crisis response teams pre-assigned to critical roles and ready to spring to action. But every crisis is unique and this one was massive. Families were evacuated in the middle of the night. Tens of thousands were displaced, nearly five thousand homes destroyed. We were left to balance the established process with the unexpected and dynamic nature of the fire, the blinding speed at which it unfolded, and the myriad related crises it created.

A strong leadership shadow drives action.

The fire broke out at 10 p.m. on October 8, 2017 and, fanned by 50 mile-per-hour winds, reached Santa Rosa by 1:30 a.m. With CEO Ron Nersesian out of the country, the rest of the executive team had to deploy crisis response in the middle of the night, making on-the-spot decisions the first 13 hours, while Nersesian jumped back on the first flight back. The team set up a command center away from the fires, directed immediate action and decided on employee aid and compensation. Our ability to take the helm during the crisis was enabled by the strong leadership shadow Nersesian had cast in his 3-year tenure as CEO.

It really does take a village.

We expected the rest of our 145 sites around the world to focus on business continuity. The crisis, however, proved just too big for the executive and crisis team to handle by themselves. With unreliable cell and internet coverage, employees outside Santa Rosa organized phone trees and deployed multiple forms of communications to reach impacted colleagues. A software team in Atlanta had an SMS text solution working within hours as well as a public website to match requests with aid. The social media team in Colorado used its channels to help employees keep track of one another. Another team set up a charitable fund. Critical to the effort was our ability to use these extended teams across the company to solve problems that could be addressed remotely.

Business continuity is not business-as-usual.

Keysight customers are innovators who win or lose in the market based on being first and best and whose timelines don’t leave room for equipment delays. We had to put mitigation actions in place, from special customer outreach, to loaner equipment, to addressing predatory actions from competitors, keeping our customer-facing teams around the world on alert.

No task too small or far-fetched.

By day 3, the crisis team had hardly slept. There was no time to eat. The CMO and CFO shopped for supplies for the command center, including a pillow and two dog beds for a makeshift bed for the crisis commander who hadn’t slept in 36 hours. Another leader offered to come to the crisis response lead’s home to “sit there and get food and water.” An R&D director researched and set up an external call center within 2 hours to take calls from the mounting number of employees needing assistance. Whatever was needed, whatever it took… we set aside roles and titles to do the right thing.

Rebuilding in the aftermath takes more than we think ...and longer than we expect.

Employees who had minutes to evacuate left their homes with only their families in tow and the clothes on their backs. Rebuilding from a large-scale crisis takes time well-beyond when the last embers of the fires are extinguished, and requires much more than re-opening the company’s doors.

Address physical and emotional needs. The makeshift relief center sponsored by the company addressed basics like phone chargers, underwear, and bottled water. But it also became a place people could come to connect, help, get support, and receive counseling – from professionals as well as colleagues who were themselves crisis survivors. We learned to start with the most basic, then build from there as we understood other needs.

Acknowledge the heart. We had to remember these were people’s homes, families, and friends affected. CEO Nersesian’s messages to employees emphasized people first, response and resources second. We learned we couldn’t take a fact-based, checklist-driven approach when people’s lives were intertwined with the crisis.

Offer respite. When personal life is in flux, work can become something to hold on to, a source of stability. Setting up temporary work spaces while the site was being cleaned up turned out to be a source of healing, as did photos of the beloved campus when it first restored power, and its hundreds of centuries-old trees that had survived.

Don’t rush. The reality is that we are still navigating the crisis, and may be for some time. While our culture is intact, our community must rebuild. As we move into this next phase, we’re figuring out day by day what that rebuilding looks like. It’s new homes for employees, new lives as children enroll in different schools, community gatherings to get stronger together. Now, as the fires come under control, we’re filtering decisions based on what our people, and the business, are ready for. Re-starting critical operations is a source of stability; delaying optional ones gives us breathing room to find our new normal.

We are not the same company or the same people we were before the fires. But we ARE stronger, more resilient, and more resourceful as a result of having lived through them. #KeysightStrong