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How To Worry So That Others Can Relax and Do Their Jobs

Dec 01, 20054 mins
IT Leadership

Imagining the worst helps bring out the best in others

I come from a long line of worriers. It’s not in the DNA, exactly, but it is in the dour family psyche. In some of us it rises to the level of full-blown neurosis (I speak for the others, not for myself). It’s not a trait we are proud of, and not one we’d likely regard as constructive. So it’s somewhat perplexing to contemplate an entire profession whose native duties include speculating on the very worst things that could possibly happen.

Constructive worrying should be “about 10 percent” of a CSO’s time, says Dick Lefler, a crackerjack worrier in his own right. For example, long before the ominous shadow of the bird-flu pandemic became a nightly staple of the national newscasts, Lefler was speculating creatively on the challenges multinational companies will face in trying to assure their employees’ access to decent health care in the earliest affected regionslikely in many instances to be places where the health-care infrastructure is iffy at best.

Before Lefler became VP of worldwide security at American Express (he left AmEx in 2001 and now heads up a consultancy, the Business Security Advisory Group), he spent 20 years with the U.S. Secret Service. For some of that time he was Special Agent in charge of Protective Operationsthe group that protects presidents, vice presidents and other top executive branch officials.

“I know that if you get to the point where you have an attempted assassination on your protectee, it’s already too late,” he says. Thus, the goal of the “professional worrier” is to never recognize a threat too late. As an activity, constructive worry involves synching up future company strategies with future developments in the external environment.

In this way, Lefler’s speculation about the pandemic is a simple math problem: 10,000 employees in Southeast Asia plus inadequate health-care infrastructure plus mechanism for rapid human-to-human infection equals a brewing employee-protection disaster unless strong contingency measures are put in place.

“The critical thing to think about is that it’s no longer about heroic recovery. It’s about developing a framework of readiness. DHS talks about prevention first, protection second and recovery third,” says Lefler.

The goal of the “professional worrier” is to never recognize a threat too late.

Less dire than widespread global mortality is this hypothetical (but not uncommon) scenario for constructive worry. Lefler posits a widget maker that has outsourced to China the manufacturing of one of its product lines. “Obviously,” he says, “you’d want to look at any political considerations that might result in some kind of estrangement between China and the United States. You would have to prepare a worst-case scenario with an alternate solution should you not be able to get your manufactured goods out of China.”

You’d also need to worry about protecting your intellectual propertywhatever constitutes the proprietary secret sauce of what you do. “You need to be comfortable that [it] won’t be stolen or otherwise used for somebody else’s profit,” Lefler says. Meaning, make sure that your Chinese manufacturing partner is not producing extra units of your products and selling them under a different label.

What makes worrying a constructive activity rather than a manifestation of neurosis comes down to what you do with it. Having identified some worrisome threats, you must then decide on appropriate steps to take and get management to agree to them. That buy-in will depend on the mind-set of senior managementhow ready they are to look beyond the next quarter. Sometimes it’s possible to get management’s attention by reminding them of the hideous misfortune of some other company within your sector. Unfortunately, firsthand experience is the best teacher.

“Often the companies that are best prepared to deal with the future, in terms of readiness, are the ones that in the past have suffered some kind of difficult situation,” Lefler says.

Does engaging in a disciplined exercise of dire imaginings take its toll on security executives? “You’re correct,” says Lefler, “that security directors do become rather cynical. They are professional worriers. But that’s what we’re paid to do…and the good news is that when you’re successful at doing this, the company is successful and there are no problems. If there are no problems, the businesspeople can concentrate on taking care of business,” he says. “So, the real reward for a security director is the absence of a problem.”

And the burden of worry shouldered by CSOs makes the company more productive. Lefler says, “If the businesspeople are having to spend any large percentage of their time worrying about security issues, then I have not been doing my job.”