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Q&A on People Matters: Thomas Helmer

As Senior Director at CS&A International, Thomas Helmer knows what it takes to build resilience amid uncertainty in high-risk sectors.


Tell us a bit about what you are doing at CS&A. I support client projects in high-risk industries, e.g. oil & gas, petrochemical, aviation, shipping, and transport.


What are the biggest vulnerabilities faced by high-risk sectors such as oil and gas, aviation and petrochemical? Leadership is often too remote from understanding the risks and the controls that are supposed to be in place to protect them from disruptive events, such as loss of containment, oil spills, fires and explosions.


Many leaders have never worked at the coal face and therefore have difficulties assessing the real risks they face. Even at the coal face, I find that many have little insight into why controls need to be vigorously deployed. That may be due to the fact that these types of events are rare and complex.


Do you think that companies in these sectors give enough thought to how a crisis might impact their business? Many leadership teams think they can handle a crisis without training and practice since they can manage daily business disruptions.


Oil and gas companies face increasing social and environmental pressure to contribute to decarbonised energy solutions and more sustainable practices. How does this impact the way you support businesses with continuity planning and emergency response? Companies are under more scrutiny than ever in a world where they must face the reality of how they impact climate and society. There is no difference in the way we support businesses. When we develop scenarios for our clients, they are always based on research of their current challenges, as they need to be realistic yet slightly out of their current horizon of reality.


How have technological advances impacted your ability to provide clients with the best crisis management solution? More and more, we see that leadership teams are no longer in the same location. Hence the model of meeting in a room somewhere when a crisis hits does not reflect reality. Technological solutions allow teams to congregate virtually, mobilise support teams and target instructions and messages with precision.


You’ve worked across many countries and continents for nearly four decades, including the Netherlands, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Israel and Nigeria. How do cultural differences feed into the crisis management process? Does a crisis response plan need to be adapted to a specific location? A crisis response plan can be generic in structure to a large degree and customised for the team makeup, subject matter experts, stakeholders and contacts. Cultural differences only affect how rigorously the teams want to simulate events, as some cultures will not appreciate it if there’s a perception that someone has failed or are not yet competent.


Most think of crisis management as something handled by crisis management teams (CMTs) who must make sound strategic decisions. How much responsibility should others have, and how does this accountability impact how you work with your clients? Crisis management is a misnomer, as you cannot manage a crisis like you manage business performance. All you can do is try to mitigate the impact and maintain your company values by focusing on people first and the environment second, before assets and profitability/costs.


What is the most significant difference between a company which effectively responds to a crisis and emerges more resilient than one that does not? Companies with leadership teams who have done training and regularly practise through desk-top exercises and simulations can come out better than others.


The pandemic has brought to the forefront the need for contingency planning and crisis management for businesses across different sectors. As a specialist in risk, crisis, and business continuity management, what was the most valuable lesson for businesses from this experience? The most valuable lesson is that you never know how to respond well until it hits you in the face. For instance, many companies had contingency plans for the pandemic, which proved to be a joke when COVID hit societies around the globe. By practising different scenarios, we hope to help leadership teams become more open to stepping outside their comfort zones and thinking outside the box.


Now for a question that's not about work: if you had one day free of commitments (work, family or otherwise), what would you do with those 24 hours? I spend my spare time on my passions: family history and genealogy and Flemish art from the period 1900-1950.



 

Thomas Helmer is a Senior Director with CS&A based in Hong Kong. Through his experience in oil and gas across the globe, ranging from on- and offshore operations, defining policies, setting standards, auditing and more, he provides CS&A’s clients with best practices in crisis management, business contingency, continuity planning and emergency response.


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