David Chia is not excitable. "I have a deadpan delivery—which does not work so well in video or presentations," he admits. "And I'll never be the cheerleader type."
But he is the man you want in a crisis.
"I believe this work plays to my strengths—I am methodical and remain steady and calm when people are overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. I work with them to regain control," he says.
Over the past 5 years, McKinsey's team of crisis experts has helped corporate, government, and not-for-profit clients through 50 high-profile crises including epidemics, natural disasters, and catastrophic operational accidents. While the timing of a crisis is not predictable, the way it unfolds is. David and other colleagues help clients understand what may happen next, what issues they need to be ahead of, and, equally important, what they can deprioritize as they struggle with limited time and resources.
An Australian with a background in chemical engineering, David held line-management roles in oil, gas, steel, and rail infrastructure before joining McKinsey. He then helped a large energy company over several years to reduce their operational risks. This led to work on crisis response in public health, in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He worked at the country level to help reduce and manage the risk of an epidemic. "While the threats are very different [in energy and healthcare], the leadership qualities you need, the capabilities and resources you put into place, and the coordination and approach during a time of crisis are similar," he points out.
Helping clients prepare for a crisis is very different from helping them respond to one, according to David. In preparedness it can be hard to motivate people to focus on implementation when they have pressing deadlines in their day jobs competing for their attention.
"In responding to a crisis, people often are overwhelmed by fear and unsure of what to do next, because everything seems important. They can't see the forest for the trees because they are in the middle of it. I sit with clients and methodically work out priorities and break them down into small steps. You can literally see them start to regain control," he explains. "As they start to get small wins, the fear subsides and that's the turning point—they can begin to see the clear path forward."
Based in North America, Becca O'Brien Kuusinen has led recovery programs for some of the world's worst natural disasters and public-health threats. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the most catastrophic natural disaster in US history, swept across the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana and Mississippi. In New Orleans, the levees collapsed and the city flooded. More than 1 million people were displaced, and more than 1,800 died, nearly half of whom were elderly people who drowned.
Becca took a 3-year leave from McKinsey to work for the US Federal Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding and then as executive counsel and senior policy adviser to the mayor of New Orleans.
"I got to see the situation from both sides," she remembers, "and I was completely captivated by how hard everyone worked and nonetheless how difficult it was to make progress." During her 2 years in New Orleans, she and her team helped develop the framework for coordinating the government resources earmarked for the region's long-term recovery.
Following this experience, Becca focused her efforts at McKinsey on helping clients think through the issues of governance and operational mobilization during a crisis, how they actually run a recovery and response, and especially how to make sure they bring lessons learned from previous events to bear on the crisis they are facing at the moment.
She adds, "I can walk into the office of a leader who is in one of the toughest moments of his or her life, and say, 'You don't have to do this alone. You can stand on the shoulders of many people who’ve been in this position before and learn from their experiences. We'll face this together.'"