Most everyone has to deal with prioritizing on a pretty regular basis. For some, it can be a few times a month, for others, it might be multiple times per day. The end result of prioritizing is to assess what is most important to get done, and what else is going to be pushed off or ignored. I like to think of the items that don’t make the priority list as being intentionally neglected. While they might be nice to get accomplished, it will just be easier if you peacefully accept they are being ignored, perhaps forever, and don’t worry about it.
Now, what if you find yourself in a panic situation and need to prioritize? Essentially, it’s the same process, you are putting the most critical items first. In a way, though, it’s easier, since now there is a stark contrast in the level of importance. For instance, if you find your house on fire, the first priority is getting everyone out safely, and NOW. Cleaning the gutters, washing the outside windows, and paying bills, all became completely irrelevant in an instant.
Here are two of my more memorable “panic” moments in my professional career.
Running out of Fuel:
I was working on a bankruptcy case for a security staffing company, and one of the services the company provided was on-site vehicle patrols. Since this service was critical to the business (and therefore the ability to sell the company and repay creditors), a waiver was included in the bankruptcy petition to continue paying the fuel card vendors in the ordinary course of business. This waiver was granted by the court.
As part of any bankruptcy, all creditors were notified of the filing. The default position for the fuel card companies was to immediately terminate the account. Despite offering to pay off the existing balance and put down a deposit (we had a court order granting this), every company we talked to said they would have no choice but to immediately terminate the account (this is when a corporate policy trumps good business decisions
Now we had respond to the dilemma. First, we gathered the finance team and laid out the situation
- One of 4 fuel cards was cancelled that morning, we could expect at least 2 more to get cancelled soon, the 4th was an interesting exception to the others.
- The company spent approximately $100,000 per month on fuel.
- Employees and location managers typically lacked the financial capability to pay and get reimbursed later.
- A shutdown in the company’s fleet had the potential to cause massive customer defections and could lead to a Chapter 7 conversion.
Knowing all of the above, in order to keep things afloat, we would have to get cash out to many locations (>100), and fast. Here was the plan of attack:
- Identify which locations were using what fuel cards.
- For the locations with cards that were still active, instruct them to immediately load up on fuel.
- Review the usage level at each location in order to quantify how much money to send.
- One employee, armed with a lot of available credit, went to multiple drug stores and grocery stores to purchase 10’s of thousands of dollars in prepaid gift cards in various amounts (Visa / Amex).
- We sent the cards out via UPS across the country.
Did the thought of sending multiple tens of thousands of dollars across the country with almost no controls in place seem like not the best idea? Of course! There was a very high chance of theft and misappropriation. Not to mention having to send UPS envelopes priority overnight all over the US (some were north of $70 each). Given the situation we were in, it was the best alternative. Interestingly, it didn’t break the budget as the company had planned on paying the amounts owed to fuel vendors at the time of filing. Since the vendors insisted on shutting off the company’s accounts instead of getting repaid, there was a lot of money available for plan b. Incidentally, I think the company came out ahead versus the budget on this.
Looking back, there were many other very important things going on when the day started, they all got shelved for several hours for some people, almost all day for others, since nothing else mattered if the company would find its doors immediately shut.
Missed alarm:Imagine waking up at 7:55 AM for an 8:00 conference call. You’re traveling on the road and for whatever reason your cell phone alarm was going off but it was at such a low volume it was almost inaudible.
Now let’s complicate matters a LOT more
- You are leading the call to discuss underperforming results with a CEO and an owner about how to respond to the bank, since the company was already in the penalty box.
- You are scheduled to be on a 9:00 AM flight to start on a new client.
This wasn’t hypothetical, it was real. I took 3 seconds, made a plan, and then moved VERY quickly.
The short version of the story is I was able to lead the conference call with the CEO and business owner about significant changes regarding business all the while finishing packing my suitcase, getting in a cab to the airport, and making it through security. I knew the numbers cold, I did not have to look at them, I could relay the relevant facts, add color and drive the discussion, even with other things going on in the background. I was only able to do this because I had the facts locked down.
The ideal situation would have been to have my phone volume not turned down so low that I would not have missed the alarm. However, given the situation, it was a pretty good outcome. I was at the gate, with breakfast in hand, before the flight started boarding.