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Why A Disaster Might Just Be The Thing You Need

How many times have you had experiences that you classified as a “disaster”?

Chris Robb believes in finding the silver lining in disasters.

Most people I know have had significant adversity at some stage of their life on a business or a personal level and quite often the two have been intertwined. It is my belief that often our greatest opportunity to grow and learn comes from times of extreme pressure. I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate that my life has been punctuated by disasters that have helped me to learn and evolve into a successful person.

My amazing journey started out growing up poor on a farm in Zimbabwe, part of which was in the middle of an independence war. At the age of 15, I slept with a gun next to my bed behind sandbags and we wouldn’t venture out after dark. Each morning my Dad would walk the 1.5km from our front gate to the main bitumen road to check that landmines hadn’t been laid overnight before we went to school. At one stage, there was barely a week that went by where we didn’t hold a minute’s silence at assembly in honour of a former pupil who had died in service.

It may sound dramatic and confronting but I knew no different and these “disasters” taught me so many valuable lessons. The importance of family and mateship, resilience, adaptability and initiative to name a few. The reality is that there are many people all over the world growing up and living in far worse conditions than I experienced.

The fact that I was poor presented a gift that introduced me to entrepreneurship at a young age. When I was 14, I ran a small roadside stall selling fruit and vegetables to help pay for my school uniforms and running shoes. When I was 16, I had my next entrepreneurial experience when I organised a fun run to resurface our school running track. Little did I know that it would lay the foundation for my career in the mass participation sports industry that over a 30-year period has exposed me to a multitude of disasters.

This journey has taken me around the world and delivered many highlights including working on the Sydney Olympics, impacting the lives of millions of people by delivering some of the biggest running and cycling events such as the 55,000 participant Singapore Marathon and recently meeting Sir Richard Branson at his home on Necker Island.

I have successfully managed the impact of the deaths of participants, a prime minister and a king, extreme weather, political demonstration, highway collapse and the GFC to name a few. On each occasion, I have been presented with many invaluable gifts that have helped me on my continued journey.

In 2004, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to expand my business from Australia to Asia in partnership with JPMorgan to help them deliver the inaugural JPMorgan Corporate Challenge in Singapore. It was to involve over six months of planning and be a ground-breaking event that would require the closure of CBD roads for thousands of runners during rush hour on a Wednesday night. Something never previously done in Singapore.

10 days before the event The Nicoll Highway collapsed tragically taking the lives of four people. The collapse was close to the run route and for days we were not sure whether the event would even be able to go ahead.

The team focused on crisis management and contingency planning and spent many hours in meetings and waiting for meetings. One of the contingencies even included laying bitumen on a dirt track in case it had to be used as an alternative route. We were finally given the greenlight to stage the event standing on a street corner along the route at midnight the night before.

From there it was a massive all-night scramble to finish the setup and the event flagged off on time at 6pm. A few hours later I was standing in the finish area watching the prize presentation, admiring the stunning Singapore night-time skyline thinking that we had pulled off a minor miracle when I got a tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see the Medical Director waiting to tell me that one of the participants had died of a heart attack. So, it was back into crisis committee again until late into the night to deal with a multitude of issues including supporting the runner’s family and colleagues as well as staff that had witnessed the incident and preparing to deal with the media.

In the debrief the next day the global head of the event from New York opened the briefing with the words “congratulations, you have successfully managed to deal with every speed bump in year one that most events take 20 years to hit.”

The gifts that were presented to me in those few days were numerous and valuable on both a personal and business level and these are what truly matter.

In a matter of days, I’d learnt many lessons about crisis management and communication from some hugely experienced executives and the different ways death is handled in Asia. This disaster afforded me the opportunities to build strong relationships in a short period with the various event partners including government agencies by acknowledging that all parties had a set of outcomes to achieve and working collaboratively.

It also forged a strong bond in my newly-formed team that laid a strong foundation for future events. Whatever we had learnt during the time could now be applied to create a more robust contingency plan and improve areas where communication could be enhanced for future events.