The Coast Guard report on blame for the Gulf oil spill reaffirms a crisis verity: somewhere in the story there’s almost always the revelation that two organizational factors—company culture and leadership communications—are significant elements in achieving workplace safety and product reliability.

In its 288-page study, the Coast Guard said Deepwater Horizon and its owner “had serious safety management system failures and a poor safety culture.”

“What-ifs” pop up in post-crises analytics. What if the workers at the explosion (or the accident or the incident or in the factory) had believed safety and quality trumped speed or efficiency or cost? What if the information flow on conduct and safety was uniformly interactive, two-way, trustworthy and imperative? What if the mindset in the C-suite believed in a culture of transparency, trust, caring and caution?

And, what if the chief communications officer had warned fellow leaders of the physical, financial and reputational risks of slack in top-to-bottom-and-back-again culture-building communications?

In his book Flirting With Disaster (with the track-stopping subtitle “why accidents are rarely accidental”), Marc Gerstein recounts his role as Cassandra at the C-suite table.

Gerstein, an MIT Sloan School of Management PhD who has taught at Sloan as well as the Columbia Business School, now heads his own management consulting firm. His 2008 book was published, according to the fly-leaf, “for those who want to foster truth-telling in their organizations and head off disasters in the making.”

His book is outstanding, and I recommend it (with limited enthusiasm for his advocacy of whistle-blowers), but I wonder how instructive he is in how to take truth to power inside the organization—which is what I care about: how do CCOs lead communications on disaster avoidance when others in the C-suite have their own axes to grind?

Gerstein tells the story of a meeting with peers in a company’s leadership some years ago. He had put himself on the agenda with a new topic: avoiding worst-case outcomes. At the table, he handed out hard copies of a memo he had sent to them individually. It was an in-depth analysis of market share data and results of simulation studies that pointed to gloomy future scenarios for the firm. He sought discussion among his peers at the table on the seriousness of the forecast, hoping to generate thought leadership on ways to steer the company away from harm.

Instead, there was restless, resistant body language, and silence until a team member summing up the skepticism with the question, “Are you sure?” Gerstein was stunned. No, he replied, nobody could be certain, nobody knows the future…but the warnings he had turned up seemed clear to him; he tried to keep the idea alive, proposing a more thorough study—which was waved off as a waste of money. His fellow C-suite leaders (which now included the board’s leadership) had convinced themselves that the storm that Gerstein forecast would not persist, that good times would return.

That was not to be. Within 18 months, the strength of negative trends took hold. Income sank, hundreds of jobs were lost and the end came, to use Gerstein’s words, as “a humiliating merger with a competitor.”

Are CCO’s rejected by warning of reputational loss? What happens when efforts toward culture change and communications range are squelched by C-suite peers, or by the CEO’s gut instinct?

Gerstein writes of his case that the suite group’s “unsubstantiated intuition…trumped (his) inconclusive analysis…” Which suggests to me that his analysis needed weight or expert validation.

I’m open to your view of this.

Is the better strategy to bring in outside experts to paint the picture, once the CEO has blessed that option, and to thereafter nudge forward any path of promise?

E. Bruce Harrison
Chief Executive Officer
EnviroComm International