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SmartAdvice: Planning Ahead Means A Disaster Needn't Wipe Out Your Business

Planning ensures a business will have in place a road map and people to give direction, The Advisory Council says. Also, managers have to work on 'soft skills' to get ahead.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers two questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to [email protected]

Question A: What should be included in a "state of the art" business-continuity plan?

Our advice: A comprehensive business-continuity plan must enable you to survive as a legal and financial entity in case of disaster. To do this, the plan must address all of the key assets that are necessary to continue operations -- people, process, information, and facilities, as well as technology.

At the executive level, lines of succession should be included in your corporate charter and board of directors meeting minutes, so that there's no question about who is empowered to make what decisions.

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SmartAdvice: Disaster Recovery Plans

In the case of major disasters, you should have access to a detailed organization chart with job descriptions for every position. This should be accompanied by an employee file containing training levels and certifications for each employee. Should some personnel be unable to perform their tasks after an event, this can be used to fill key positions quickly. Businesses can use an in-house or outsourced call center to notify employees of immediate and ongoing status.

Finally, plans should include training and drills in the continuity plan itself.

All business processes should be documented. Should the need arise to train new employees, well-written processes will accelerate that training. If it should become necessary to outsource an operation while you're rebuilding your infrastructure, the processes can be used to train outsourced staff as well.

Much of the corporate information required to maintain the enterprise as a legal and financial entity is still paper based, requiring appropriate document-image backup technologies. If you have questions about the documents that may be vital to your recovery, you should discuss them with your corporate counsel or law department. This typical Records Retention Schedule [] can be used as a starting point.

Computerized information generally protected includes customer and supplier databases, bills of material, financial databases, and human-resource databases. But key information some manufacturing companies forget includes engineering drawings, product specifications, and equipment specifications and settings.

The business-continuity plans of many enterprises deal with physical facility protection as just that -- protection. A state-of-the-art plan, however, should include having agreements in place for occupying other locations from which business can be conducted for an extended period of time.

Most businesses have plans in place to back-up essential data. And most, if not all, have installed firewalls to prevent unauthorized access to their systems. But recognizing the vulnerability of data centers to physical damage, businesses should establish relationships with outsourcers that provide disaster-recovery hot sites.

Backup facilities should be on different power and communications grids than your data center. To protect your day-to-day operations, you also should have redundant network connections, through different service providers. Authorized employees should have access through a virtual private network not only to E-mail, but to business applications.

A final word: Having any plan is better than having no plan at all. But no matter how simple or complex your plan may be, test it. That's the only way you will know if it meets your needs.

--Ron Bleiberg

Question B: Which interpersonal skills are most important in an IT leader's career?

Our advice: The common denominator of all leaders, managers, and followers is working with people. It's those "soft skills" that you must master.

So, here's my "Top 10" list of interpersonal skills:

  1. Listening: This capability is probably the most difficult to master. There are so many obstacles and distractions to hearing what someone else is saying or not saying. It takes great concentration and desire to listen deeply to the other person.
  2. Crucial conversations: The other side of listening is speaking. Knowing how to have those very difficult conversations in emotionally packed situations leads to success. Knowing how to sort out the facts and logic from the emotions leads to solutions.
  3. Relationships: It has been said that credibility is 80% relationships and 20% expertise. One needs to constantly work on building and maintaining one's network. For the extrovert, this is relatively simple. For the introvert, he/she will need to operate outside of their comfort zone.
  4. Persuasion: The ability to sell your ideas is crucial to leadership. This is usually done in informal conversations, where you must first understand the other person's point of view. It's then that you can put forth yours in a manner to which they can relate.
  5. Negotiation: Budgets, headcounts, contracts, project plans … all require negotiation. It's here that "think win-win" really applies. If both sides don't walk away from the table believing they got what they needed, there will be a future price to pay.
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  7. Managing conflict: Seeking resolution to conflict draws upon many of the other interpersonal skills. The ideal is to be sensitive to other people's emotions to avoid the conflict. Once into the conflict stage, diffusing emotions takes a lot of empathy, objectivity, and courage.
  8. Presentations: The key to presentations is to immediately relate to the audience's problem and demonstrate that your solution will bring value to them. If you don't have their attention by the third slide, you've lost them. If you could only use one slide, what would it be?
  9. Writing: This seems to have become a lost art. Our technology has taken us away from formal letter writing, and made us more dependent on the informal E-mail. Word-smithing and proper grammar are still requirements of effective written communications.
  10. Saying "No": Learning how to say "no" is often a matter of overcoming a fear of being seen as a poor performer. What's really needed is the capability to sort out priorities with others, and being able to communicate your position.
  11. Use of humor: Knowing when and how to use humor in various situations can often be the winning advantage. It can be a test of whether the other person or audience is listening to you. It demonstrates both brightness and balance.

Developing these skills will draw upon your natural talents and will take constant practice. First, know yourself. Then, instead of judging others, try to understand them. Where there's mutual understanding, there are successful interpersonal relationships.

--Bart Bolton

Ron Bleiberg, TAC Expert, has more than 25 years of increasingly senior responsibility and experience in the areas of consulting management and delivery, disaster-recovery planning, document-management systems, and total-quality management. His primary focus is working with clients to develop strategic business plans, identify opportunities for the use of state-of-the-art techniques to improve client-interaction capabilities, revenue and profitability, and the solutions associated with those efforts. He is VP of products and services at FileOn, a document-management vendor.

Bart Bolton, TAC Thought Leader, has more than 30 years experience leading the consulting arm of a major IT equipment manufacturer. He is recognized as one of the country's leading experts on building effective organizations. His specific areas of expertise include development and documentation of "Best Practices", individual and organizational development, and change management.

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