June 1, 2020 -
Delaware consultant Kirsten McGregor helps economies rebound after a disaster. Here are her tips for government and business leaders in the wake of COVID-19.
In the 21st century, the U.S. economy has taken it on the chin more than once. The first decade started with 9/11 and was punctuated by a recession. A string of natural disasters caused massive revenue losses. Now municipalities and companies are facing a daunting disrupter: the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, Kirsten McGregor’s phone is ringing. She is the principal of SAGAX Associates, a Wilmington, Delaware-based economic recovery and development firm.
McGregor, who has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania, is a specialist in economic recovery. She was the senior policy advisor on President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force and an economic lead recovery coordinator working with FEMA after Sandy. Most recently, she’s been an economic recovery lead coordinator consultant in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Unlike a storm that passes before recovery begins, the pandemic remains an active presence as businesses begin to regain traction, notes McGregor. With shutdowns and layoffs, the economy felt the immediate impact of the coronavirus. That is true even in cities that aren’t hotspots.
“Communities reliant on severely impacted industries, such as tourism, will experience significant economic challenges,” she explains. The pandemic is also affecting economies across the globe.
As governments and businesses look to rebuild, there’s no reason to “reinvent the wheel,” she maintains. There are established federal frameworks that you can leverage. Leaders can also cultivate the characteristics they need to withstand what’s ahead.
You can control your actions and emotions, but you can’t control a force of nature, McGregor says. Even so, act confidently and quickly — even when you don’t have all the answers. Adapt to new information as needed.
Don’t let ego get in the way. According to McGregor, to lead by example, you must be:
Bring together people with whom you feel safe so you can hear different viewpoints. Empower your leadership team and delegate tasks. Communicate frequently and show appreciation. “Recovery work can be exhausting,” McGregor notes.
A leader should create an interdisciplinary task force — a recovery or resiliency team — and an office of disaster recovery with a dedicated staff and a chief recovery or resiliency officer (CRO). “The office and task force should be as politically agnostic as possible to avoid a recovery relapse if there is a change in leadership,” she says.
She also recommends a centralized coordinator to manage and oversee recovery funding to boost credibility and transparency when grant requests flood the office.
To develop strategic plans and strategies, the task force will need input from subject matter experts. “The federal government guidelines encourage a steering committee with a large percentage of people from the private sector,” McGregor says. “Businesses drive the economy.”
If you’re a leader in a hard-hit industry, such as hospitality or tourism, seek a position or representation on that committee.
“Your mindset is your message,” McGregor often says. Communicate a consistent, transparent and coordinated message to the community, internal and external government and stakeholders. If a desperate community can’t get answers from you, they will look to another source — regardless of its credibility.
Make sure everyone is working with the same datasets by forming data and messaging committees. “The coordination of messaging is key,” McGregor says.
McGregor says that a disaster will highlight preexisting vulnerabilities, from food supply issues to the need for mental health services. This is an opportunity to mitigate damage now and for the future.
Small businesses can be highly vulnerable in an economic downturn. Apply for any funding resources that you can find, she says. Contact the Small Business Development Center and go to your state’s Office of Small Business website to learn about federal contracts, organizations, and agencies that provide technical assistance.
“Pay attention to any policy and funding changes and how you can adapt,” McGregor says. “Changes will happen frequently, so embrace the uncertainty.”