Being a manager of an emergency team



For almost 9 years, I headed different emergency response teams while I was based in Uganda (the Great Lakes emergency), Kosovo, Pakistan/Afghanistan and later out of Dubai. Back in 2006, I took a sabbatical and after that worked for three years in Italy, outside of the emergency response scene.

The Haiti operation is my first emergency since four years. Just before leaving Rome, on my way to the Dominican Republic, I wondered by myself, if I still had it in me. If the tools I built for myself over the years were not rusty. But already the first day on the ground in Santo Domingo, it was clear the past experience I was able to build up, did not fade. I felt -once again- as a fish in the water.

In our office, we manage about 80 people, most of them coming from different operations all over the globe. People were picked from other offices, all over the world. From North Korea to Ecuador, from Rome to Indonesia and Malawi. I think they must come from 50 odd different offices. Some are experienced staff, and for some, this was their first emergency response. Some are logisticians, others finance officers or procurement staff, others are administrative assistants, fleet managers, air operations specialist, counsellors, warehouse managers or nutritionists.

How, as a manager, do you make these people fold into one team? I often think about what makes a team work. And the role of a manager in a team. Off the top of my head, let me sum up some points I find crucial.

1. Give direction
Define the team goals from the beginning. It gives people a sense of direction, it helps turning the faces of all different units in the same way.

2. Care
As a manager, your staff is your main asset. Your staff will make or break an operation. Be sensitive to the individuals in your team. Debug conflicts right at the start, before they become major issues. Ensure your staff keeps healthy, care for their wellbeing. A fruitbasket a day sometimes makes all the difference. Mind their energy levels. Chase them out of the office when needed, so they don't burn out.

3. Give feedback
Tell your staff when things are not done well, knowing they do their best, and have the best intentions. Praise when praise is due. An occasional pad on the back does not cost anything.

4. Structure
Draw up the team organigram from the start. People need to know who they report to, and what unit they belong to. Put a person in charge of each unit. Ensure the reporting structure is respected, and assist the unit heads where needed.
Brief new staff as they arrive. Explain the team goals, the organigram, the way the office is run.

5. Smile
Everyone has a bad day once in a while. I for one, never hide it when I am in a pissy mood. But I also love to walk around my team and hand out a friendly word and a smile from time to time... Amazing how much difference it makes sometimes.

6. Enable
As a manager, you are an enabler. You have to give the people the tools they need. Be it the budget, connectivity, a decent office space, or equipment. Without their tools, the best team members will not be able to function.

7. Debug
After defining the initial team structures, the basic systems and procedures are put in place, and giving your team the tools it needs, one of the main tasks of a manager in emergency operations, is to be a debugger. Ensure people come to you with their issues, and help them on the spot. Don't let problems 'breed' or 'simmer'... Keep your door open.
Often people ask me what I do, as a manager. Apart from my task in linking the teams to the 'outside world', be it the government, the UN system or our HQ, my main day-to-day task is "debugging". I see myself as the guy who walks around with a toilet plunger -the stick with a large rubber suction tab- sticking it into the lavatories and going 'Zwonk-Zwonk', until the garbage is gone, and the water flows again. I am a professional toilet-declogger.

8. Involve
Teams working in emergencies tend to become very focused, which is good. Well-functioning units concentrate on their task at hand. All OK, but also ensure they maintain the overall focus and the context of the operation. Even after the first month in this emergency, I still have an all-team meeting once per day. It gets people from behind their desk for a few minutes while I can give some information on what is going on beyond our office, within the emergency. Everyone likes to feel part 'of the big machine', feel their work makes a difference. Certainly important for humanitarians!

9. Delegate
In a fast evolving emergency, it is impossible to micromanage. Ensure you have staff you can entrust with the task at hand. Empower the supervisors within their own team, and delegate the tasks. Pass through the supervisors rather than tasking people directly. Often one of my big challenges, by the way.

10. Spot check
It is impossible to check everything going on. But random spot checks on what's up, gives you as a manager a good idea what's going on. Read the signs. Sloppy expense reports might point to a sloppy finance officer. Delayed attendance sheets, might point to a sloppy HR officer...

And now I am thinking "Where did I sin against my own rules, today?" :-)

Picture courtesy Jonathan Thompson

8 comments:

Fiji Truth [Na Dina]. 23 February, 2010 05:23  

Cool. invigorating stuff here. Thanks for sharing your expert guidelines.

Paul C 23 February, 2010 10:57  

This one post is a more useful guide to management than 90% of the books out there. Thanks Peter!

Isabel,  23 February, 2010 18:25  

I just found this blog, and I can't stop reading every post, thank you so much for this great and enriching amount of information specially for people like me, on the break point of my career and wishing to be an aidworker.

By the way, I think I know some people on that pic ;)

Thank you again for this great work, and keep it up!

Helle,  23 February, 2010 18:45  

Good stuff Peter. Send my warm thoughts to everyone on the ground, and will be seeing you out there in the world. Leaving Rome 4 March.

Peter 23 February, 2010 19:53  

@Helle: See you!!!
@Na @Paul: tnx!
@Isabel: yep, we have some (in)famous people in our team ;-)))

P.

Gisella 03 March, 2010 18:12  

The perfect manager in 10-point checklist... that's cool!

Luckily, good managers exist. It's healthy to know that good managers exist, most of all when a worker is experiencing the opposite situation.

Have a good job in Haiti :–)

Pablo (yo) 03 March, 2010 18:52  

Great blog!!!
If you like, come back and visit mine: http://albumdeestampillas.blogspot.com

Thanks,
Pablo from Argentina

Peter 07 March, 2010 19:58  

tnx again, all for your comments!

p.

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