Amidst the rapidly evolving operating landscape, organizations are recognizing the need for a robust Risk and Resilience strategy. iluminr’s Gamechangers in Resilience interview series is dedicated to sharing the inspiring stories of leaders who have demonstrated exceptional resilience and helped their organizations thrive in the face of unprecedented disruption.
As part of our commitment to celebrating diversity and inclusivity, iluminr is using the month of March, designated as Women’s History Month, to showcase the contributions of women who have played a pivotal role in making our organizations and communities more resilient.
Kim Hirsch is an experienced program director in Business Continuity, Crisis Management, Risk Management and Disaster Recovery. With extensive experience leading advisory teams as well as enterprise capability, Kim currently leads Enterprise Business Continuity for UnitedHealth Group. A true strategic thinker, Kim has demonstrated leadership and problem-solving expertise in corporate and manufacturing environments. She’s definitely a Gamechanger you need to know.
Q: Kim, how did you land in Resilience?
A: Like so many others in our industry, I didn’t choose resilience – it chose me! I worked at a Fortune 50 corporation that decided to sell the unit that I worked in as a vendor manager and then contract back with us for services. We basically had to setup a multi-million dollar company and all of its necessary operations in a few month’s time, so anyone that could manage a project was given a project to manage. One day, I got called into the boss’ office and was told that our soon-to-be former employer was requiring that we have a BC/DR program, but the one that we had as part of their company was not good enough (what?), so they wanted me to put one together. I still remember being in the first meeting and literally hearing a buzz in my ears because I had no idea what anyone was even talking about. Luckily, I was able to figure it out and went from being completely disoriented at the thought to owning BC/DR for the entire corporation – but as is often the case, it was just one of my many jobs. My title was literally “manager” at that point, because it was hard to fit vendor manager, new business development and BC/DR on one business card.
I ended up leaving that job after being recruited into a procurement organization to be an account and vendor manager – after being increasingly miserable doing that for a few years, the greatest thing happened. I got laid off. Which gave me the opportunity to wonder what I would actually enjoy doing. When I sat down and really thought about it, the part of my job that I knew that I liked the most was business continuity. So, while applying for jobs in procurement organizations half-heartedly, I applied for a full-time business continuity position. And somehow got it. And discovered that this really is the thing that I was meant to do. I’ve been told more than once that I look like I’ve “really drunk the Kool-Aid” when talking about resilience – but I take that as a compliment. I am one of the lucky ones that really loves what I do!
Q: You have helped so many organizations navigate great change. What are some of the lessons learned from that experience?
A: While every organization and the challenges that they face are different, the approach that we can take as business continuity professionals is fairly universal. That doesn’t mean that we should stay stuck in old ideas and methods, but that the basic concepts of what we do can and should evolve to meet that change while staying true to the concepts that have served us so well. I especially love how we’ve evolved from the concept of a “business continuity program” to “organizational resilience”. What we do and the data that we need to know to be effective in our roles can serve so many other purposes throughout any organization. Which, in turn, fuels other parts of the business’ interest in actively being a part of your program.
I’ve worked in a fairly diverse set of industries as a practitioner and with even more when I was consulting. From that experience, I know that I can walk in, look at the program and get a pretty good idea of how effective it will be in terms of organizational resilience without knowing a great deal about the business itself – how the sausage gets made. That’s because there are certain factors that, when done well, will make a company incredibly strong in the face of adversity and crisis. If you ground yourself and your team in those concepts and then apply them wholistically throughout your enterprise, you are likely to be successful when the crisis hits and you truly test your program. Those concepts have to be kept fresh and continue to evolve if we are going to continue to peak the interest of the partners in resilience that we need to continue to be successful.
Q: As it relates to Resilience, what do you think organizations are struggling with the most?
A: Sadly, the thing that I have seen a lot is that a company’s leadership will understand at a fairly low level why a resilience program is needed, but really, they only want to check a box that they have one. They don’t want to make a true investment in having a great program. I think that’s because no one really thinks that a true crisis will happen to them. Take the pandemic. Some businesses really struggled, but a great many were able to pivot to working from home fairly easily. They patted themselves on the backs and decided that meant that they could handle whatever happens. The thing is, pivoting to working from home for people with desk jobs was not hard to do. We were so lucky that we weren’t called upon to do it until most people had laptops and a decent internet connection and the whole world was in the same pickle, so there was a lot of grace and allowance for taking a few days or weeks to figure things out.
The thing is, most crisis events will not look like this. They will happen fast. They will be bad. And you will have no time to figure it out while the world patiently waits.
In a world with plenty of potential crisis situations, take a cyber event as an example. Part or all of your company will shut down immediately and there will be a long delay before you can go back online, assuming you ever can. How many companies have really well-thought-out responses ready to go? My experience tells me, not many. Planning to do work without the applications you rely on is one of the hardest things to do. Most people reading this probably have plenty of business partners who have told them that there’s nothing they can do but wait for the app to come back. Which is often true. But is it a risk that leaders who don’t truly invest in resilience programs understand? If they did, they would be investing a whole lot of money in a true resilience program.
Q: We are celebrating Women’s History Month. How has being a woman influenced your career experiences?
A: I have been extremely fortunate in that I have happened to work in many organizations where women leaders were present and my team also had an equal or greater number of women to men – at one large corporation, I was on an all-woman BC team! Even then, I faced the occasional issue. At that same job, the most consistent review feedback that I received was that I was “too opinionated.” Of course, when I asked for examples, none were given. I believe in ensuring that I deal with negative feedback – I know that I have plenty of room for improvement – so I asked my team of highly capable women if they could help me identify examples. They all told me they had no idea what I was even talking about. I asked them (and my male leader who gave me the feedback several times) to please pull me aside after any meeting where they saw this behavior. Never happened once, even when I occasionally reminded them all, which I did, because the feedback genuinely bothered me. I was a debater in high school (in fact, we were the first two-woman team to win the MN State Policy Debate championship in what was then close to 90 years of history) – I know that I am not afraid to share my opinions and love a spirited discussion, but I also didn’t ever feel like I had tried to shut anyone else down.
The turning point came when I finally went to a woman mentor and asked her if I was missing anything that I should do to try to overcome the feedback. She looked directly at me and said, “Do you want to change how you approach your work?” I said no. She said, “Then ignore it and move on.”
I can’t tell you what a moment of freedom that was for me. When I looked at the situation from that lens, I realized that I was spinning on feedback without context that I was pretty sure had never been given to a male on the team – the leader that gave me that feedback was certainly just as opinionated as I have ever been.
I also realized that part of what makes me a good crisis leader is that I am decisive and not afraid to get in front and lead in a time of uncertainty. I would be much better off fostering those skills than trying to suppress them.
Q: What advice would you give women who are earlier in their career journey?
A: To be yourself, to trust yourself and to question anyone that holds you back.
One of the amazing things about this generation is as I have watched them join the workforce over the past two or three years…they do not just accept things as they are.
I am no shrinking violet, but I was taught that you can’t change the system and you really shouldn’t even try.
To have seen these colleagues come in and force conversations and change that would have been unthinkable to my generation – especially when we were just starting out – is an amazing thing to see.
My hope is that they don’t become jaded and keep doing what they are doing. For women in particular, that includes speaking up for themselves – their opinions, their needs as employees and to ensure that they are being given the same opportunities to advance as their male colleagues.
Now, I also want to stress that, for most of my career, I have had extraordinary opportunities and felt valued and respected by my leaders. Part of that is luck – I worked for good people who treated their teams fairly. But I also think that it is because of the strengths that I bring to the table – I know my subject, I have good soft-skills that translate towards leadership – verbal and written communication, wanting to lead in difficult situations, having compassion and empathy, not being afraid to be the first to speak up. These aren’t always traits in women that are encouraged by others – so it is super important to ensure that you recognize their importance and continue to develop and elevate yourself.
Q: What advice would you give to teams who are looking to be more diverse and inclusive?
A: This one is difficult – as Lisa pointed out in her Gamechangers conversation, many times we want to hire people who have experience working in resilience and that isn’t a diverse population at this point in time. And it’s also true that there isn’t an educational pool to recruit from. That said, I’ve always believed that most people in resilience today had the same experience that I did – you were asked to work on this thing at a company that had an unfilled need and discovered that it was work that you really enjoyed. So, I would encourage anyone in a position to choose someone for this type of work to cast a wide net. Who are the people in your organization that are curious about the enterprise and are great communicators? Who are your problem-solvers? Who can look at old processes with fresh eyes? There is no way that there isn’t a diverse pool of people in your organization that could fit that bill. You can teach resiliency to them just as you were taught the same.
For those of us with established programs and a first instinct to hire someone with experience, I would encourage you to give that another think. For someone like me, I had zero experience when I built my first program. I didn’t have a ton of experience when I got my first full-time job in the profession. So, why would I think that I need to hire someone with a lot of experience for every role? Insisting on doing so also creates another problem – how do you provide career growth opportunities for your team if you only hire people with 5 or 10 years of experience? To stay in business continuity, especially if you like the company that you work for, you are going to hit a limit to how many promotion opportunities you are likely to get because we tend to be on small teams and report up to leaders in other disciplines. So, for me, I think that it’s much better to hire people who I can train in resilience, hopefully give them a love for the work and then watch them grow. Again, that should naturally mean that I’m pulling from a pool of much more diverse candidates and then able to keep the people that I hired because they have room to advance. That’s a win for the employee and a huge win for my organization over time.
Q. What is the leadership playbook you are writing for yourself in real-time?
A: For me, it’s about helping others make the leap from pure business continuity to true operational resilience. For those of us that have been immersed in this mindset for a few years now, it seems natural. But for those that haven’t had the opportunities to be exposed to newer ways of doing this work, it is a huge change. I’ve been in this profession for close to 20 years now and there was a tried-and-true way of doing things. And, because the workload is usually greater than the team’s capacity, there is often no time to think about, much less implement, massive changes.
To truly help your organization understand and embrace resilience concepts instead of the more narrow world of continuity is huge. For me, this means finding the right pace for change and determining where we can have the biggest impact on risk reduction as quickly as possible.
Here’s the thing – for me, the pandemic showed that our profession had been getting it right for years. We knew pandemic plans were needed. We knew what “social distancing” meant before it became a common phrase. Any organization that had solid plans for the four all-hazard scenarios had a map for a really good pandemic response. The big change that I saw was that c-suite leaders suddenly cared that dynamic and solid resilience programs were a necessity and checking boxes wasn’t good enough. They recognized that we’re facing challenges unlike any we’ve faced in the past and they want their company ready. What didn’t change far too often is that most programs are still too small to accomplish everything that they are being tasked with accomplishing. So, what can we do as resilience leaders? We can embrace the concepts of operational resilience and design a roadmap that gets us to where we need to be with the resources that we have. It isn’t easy, but it can be done, with a robust plan to get yourself there. Luckily, we know how to write those!
Q: What is the hardest part about leadership in crisis?
A: This question is actually a little difficult for me to answer.
The thing is – I love being a leader during a crisis. When something is going wrong, I want to be right there in the mix, helping to solve for it. Being in the room isn’t nearly as satisfying for me as being one of the decision-makers. As I said, I am one of the lucky ones that really loves what I do.
That said, all of this works best when those on the crisis team are trained and understand the unique roles that we have to play. The others are SMEs in their own areas and I couldn’t effectively manage a crisis without them. It is also important for them to recognize that I’m an SME in my area. I haven’t really run into too many problems with this, but that’s because I’ve worked with crisis teams that were very well trained and we’ve had c-level support to do our thing without interference.
I’ve worked with a lot of companies where this isn’t the case. More often than not, I’ve been told that the plan is for the leader of the area in crisis to also lead the crisis response and that’s the only way it can work in their organization. That is just baffling to me. The leader of the area in crisis needs to focus on being there for their business and getting it back up and running. I don’t believe that you can be effective doing that and running the crisis itself – being a crisis leader is being a ringmaster. You have to keep all of the balls in the air and plates spinning – running meetings, getting notes out efficiently, answering questions, solving for the logistics… the list goes on and on. So, whenever I hear a resiliency leader say that they are not the crisis leader and defer to the business as if what’s needed isn’t a specific skillset… I know that company will not be successful when they face a true business-threatening crisis event and it makes me sad. So, I guess the hardest part for me is when I see that there is a better way that would save businesses and jobs when crisis strikes. When resilience leaders don’t feel empowered to impact this sort of decision and/or don’t truly understand the importance of their role, I know that they are facing an uphill climb.
Q: How do you apply the lessons of Resilience in your everyday life?
A: This question is the easy one for me! Whenever a difficult situation comes up in my personal life, my family always says that I’m not happy until I have a crisis plan in place. I do exactly what I do at work – I gather facts, get questions answered and then try to figure out the best possible response as quickly as possible. Whenever I can anticipate the crisis, I try to make sure that I’ve got my resiliency plan in place well in advance. You are talking to probably the only person in Minnesota that had a tornado shelter trucked up from Missouri and installed in her garage. My house doesn’t have a basement, so what else would a resiliency professional do? When the pandemic came, what did I use some of that shelter space for? Storing my extra supplies!