Risk Management

Business in a conflict zone: Is your company ready?

What can business leaders learn from the US Army Corps of Engineers?
article cover

Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

· 4 min read

There’s no question that finance professionals need to prepare their organizations for disruption. From the war in Ukraine to natural disasters to cyberattacks to the Israel-Hamas war, the potential for business disruption is high for organizations of all types.

Retired Lt. General Thomas Bostick has a unique experience with disaster recovery and business continuity. He was the chief of engineers and commanding general of the US Army Corps of Engineers, a role with a heavy focus on building, infrastructure, and emergency response, from 2012 to 2016.

His time in the corps included oversight of reconstruction projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, the national recovery effort after Hurricane Sandy, and he was even tasked with securing the country’s nuclear arms codes on 9/11, according to his website.

With his deep breadth of experience in mind, CFO Brew recently interviewed Bostick about leadership in crisis: How can leaders prepare their companies for disruption and chaos, whether it’s armed regional conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East, the climate crisis, or cyberattack?

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In your work managing rebuilding in Iraq and earlier in Bosnia, I’m sure there were constantly shifting variables. How did you keep track of your risks?

You’ve got to look at the entire region, to take a more macro, global look, in addition to focusing on your organization. What are the outside forces that could influence success or failure? What are the additional stresses that could be applied in the country where you’re working from outside actors?

And secondly, in terms of continuity, where could you rely on for help from outside the immediate area? One thing that’s always important is what we call the lines of communication and logistics, and what do the supply lines look like? Air, road, rail—how do I get my products in and out? And can I do that from sites and locations that have less risk?

So I think if I’m a business leader and I’m in the area, then I want to do something similar. I want to know not only what are the risks and threats in the immediate area that I’m operating in, but who are the actors outside. And equally, if I had to move my operation, what are the friendly allies and locations that I could go to?

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.

Were there any leadership lessons that really stood out from your service?

In Bosnia, I had a really visionary boss. He asked me one day, why do the troops coming from the US fly into Sarajevo and fly into Frankfurt, Germany, and then they take trucks and buses and trains into Tuzla?

I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s because we don’t have a strategic airfield [large enough to land 747 airplanes.] And he goes, ‘Tell me what you need. I want a strategic airfield.’

We did it, and we flew that 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, into Tuzla. He was thinking about the threats to the troops if they had to come down there in buses and trains.

How do we reduce that threat? Well, one thing is to just change the conditions. What can we do differently, with a mind toward efficiency? How do we do it safer? How do we reduce risks? And then how do we help the country come back to life?

What are the human characteristics for a leader operating in a really uncertain and potentially dangerous area like this?

You know, the old phrase “Leaders lead from the front,” is really important in times of crisis. And I think communications is really important. Everybody’s always going to be nervous and challenged during this time, but they look to the leader to really understand what they’re going through. And the only way to understand what they’re going through is to be there, and to talk to them. The communications are regular; they’re constant. [People] looking for compassion and understanding.

And they’re looking for hope, a vision that things are going to get better. It’s not a promise that things are going to change overnight, but confidence in the leader that they’ve thought through the kinds of things that need to be done. And I think most people want to get back to whatever normal is going to be, even if that normal is a new normal.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.