Three continents, four countries and many crises: For more than 40 years Werner Heesen in the aviation industry and experienced several emergency situations - including a terrorist attack. In the WB Risk Prevention Systems team, his focus is on organizing logistics and security concepts for company employees.
For 15 months, Germany has been struggling with the worst crisis since the Second World War. What orders are you working on right now?
Werner Heesen: Of course, the pandemic is also keeping our team in the WB Risk Prevention Systems business unit busy. Together with several colleagues, I am, for example, advising a large municipality on how to deal with SARS-CoV-2. As is the case almost everywhere, very rigid structures exist here in the administration. The challenge in a crisis is to adapt these structures, to reorganize responsibilities in order to be able to react at lightning speed. This is where many people find it difficult to lean on hierarchies. One sub-project, for example, is about communication with the urban population. First of all, we had to sensitize both the administrative staff and the citizens to the fact that Covid-19 really is a life-threatening danger. Now the community needs to promote vaccination, especially to groups that are harder to reach. In the Muslim community, for example, this can be done through well-known personalities or the imans in the mosques, Islamic associations and other multipliers. In another sub-project, we are looking at how the authorities can learn from the crisis. Because the pandemic will become a constant companion. I am firmly convinced of that.
You have worked for Lufthansa on three continents in various management positions, including 13 years in India. Their expertise on the subcontinent has also been in demand at Dr. Wamser + Batra since 2012.
Heesen: We are currently advising a German industrial company that did not have a lucky hand in selecting a joint venture partner in India. They fell in love too quickly and did not question the partner's background. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Now we are striving with the client for a speedy, preferably painless dissolution, within the framework of the contract or an out-of-court settlement. At the same time, we must succeed in ensuring that operations in India continue without disruption. After all, the customer is involved in close business relationships on the subcontinent that must not be damaged.
In the WB Risk Prevention Systems team, all partners look back on decades of experience with crises. But everyone also brings a certain specialization to the table. What is your focus?
Heesen: I have spent most of my professional life in the aviation industry and have experienced pandemics, terrorist attacks, evacuations, floods and earthquakes, among other things. My job has always been to organize logistics and ensure the safety of our passengers and employees.
Your time at Lufthansa also saw the terrorist attack in Mumbai that lasted several days, including on two luxury hotels in 2008. According to official figures, 166 people died. How did you experience those days?
Heesen: Yes, Mumbai was the Indian 09/11. The previous week I had stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was partially burned down in the attack, as it later turned out, under the same roof as the terrorists. And the Oberoi Hotel is where I had dinner. The thought of that still makes me queasy. I'll never forget it. The Oberoi was also where our crews of about 50 members were staying at the time of the attack.
You were Director South Asia at Lufthansa at the time, how did you manage the crisis?
Heesen: I mainly took care of communications and logistics. The crew members trapped in the hotel were trapped in their rooms for two to three days because they heard that shots were being fired in the corridors. Their lives were in danger and they could only be reached by their cell phones. In Frankfurt, we had set up a communication bridge with a permanent hotline to those affected, so that contact could be maintained with them at all times and psychological support could be provided.
As air traffic had been suspended immediately, around 300 of our passengers were stranded in Mumbai. We had to accommodate them in hotels, make return travel plans, provide them with ongoing information and ensure they were looked after locally. In such an exceptional situation, this is an extreme challenge. A week passed before all the people were taken care of.
In your view, what were important lessons learned to manage future crises without lead time?
Heesen: At a global airline that also flies to crisis regions, crisis management never ends. It is an ongoing process of renewal based on the lessons learned after each crisis. Apart from my role as Director South Asia, I was also the corporate spokesperson for Lufthansa in India. We were constantly prepared for certain crisis situations, it was like an MOT. Once a year we trained with professionals from IATA on how and at what intervals we react in crisis situations. A second point is organisation. If something happens like in Mumbai, it must be immediately clear who does what in the crisis team. There is no discussion, they pull open the drawer and the work can begin immediately. An air accident or a terrorist attack has no lead time.
What are the characteristics of a good crisis manager?
Heesen: He must react quickly and flexibly and be extremely disciplined. He must keep to the structures that have been set for him and ensure that they are observed by everyone else. He must take the people entrusted to him with him. Everyone must feel they are pulling together. In a crisis, the adrenaline level of everyone involved reaches peak levels. A sure instinct is required. At the end of the day, it is always a good feeling to have achieved something together, and that is also the motivation boost for the next crisis.
How willing are companies to address the issue of prevention after a crisis such as a terrorist attack has been overcome? After all, prevention also costs money...
Heesen: Medium-sized companies in particular often think they are safe, but they are at high risk. For example, through IT security gaps, industrial espionage or, as we have just experienced in India, the Indian partner skillfully trying to outmaneuver the German partner. When we discover that companies have the potential to be threatened, we see it as our task to convince them of the merits of a professional threat analysis.
With SARS-CoV-2, Germany is part of a pandemic for the first time and has also not yet had any experience with an epidemic. They have already experienced much more.
Heesen: Covid is certainly the worst pandemic. But in my career, this is already the fourth or fifth pandemic or epidemic. Every two to three years there was a wave, whether it was the plague when I started my job in India, and then later, for example, the bird flu. The experience I gained during that time certainly helped me to immediately have a certain basic understanding of the current pandemic. The most important thing in crisis management is strict organisation. There must be no grey area in the crisis.
You can read more about Werner Heesen's (crisis) experiences here.
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