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Have a Contingency Plan

by Emily O'Shaughnessy

There’s a piece of advice I learned years ago that has served me well both in my business and personal life. It’s simple, but can save the day:

Have a contingency plan.

Years ago, while studying for my MBA in New Orleans I did an internship for an amateur soccer team. I didn’t know much about soccer, but I knew it was a good opportunity to learn a lot about running a small business. I worked directly for the owner, who was president of a large local non-profit organization and well respected in the community. He was a successful businessman who had a passion for soccer and invested in this team with his own money. The team was his baby and he wanted it to succeed.

I put in a lot of hours, including late nights and weekends, learning the ins and outs of running a small business. I sat in on meetings about finances, regulations, advertising, marketing, and all things relevant to getting a new team up and running. I also did a lot of grunt work – lugging balls to practice, sorting uniforms, that sort of thing.

Soon opening day came and everyone was nervous but excited. Just a couple hours before game time we were going through our checklist, and my boss asked about the “The Star Spangled Banner” before the game. I confidently confirmed that a local Irish bar owner, sort of a mini-celebrity in the soccer world, would be singing it live. He wasn’t impressed, and replied, “What if he doesn’t show?”

“Huh? What do you mean, why wouldn’t he show?” I answered. “Any number of reasons – what if he gets sick, has car trouble, got the date wrong, or – not much of a stretch from an Irish bar owner – gets drunk and forgets? You need to have a contingency plan.” He made it clear that although I was 99% sure the guy was going to be there, I needed to have a back-up plan for that 1% chance he wasn’t.

And so that is how I found myself inside Virgin Records in the French Quarter on a busy Saturday afternoon, trying to decided between the rock or instrumental version CD of The Star Spangled Banner (this was years ago, back when people still bought CDs).  I was cursing the world, annoyed that I was once again sent to do the grunt work, rushing to get back to the field on time.

And what do you know? I arrived at the field and there was my singing Irishman all set to go. He sang beautifully, and the season opened on a spectacular note.  Perhaps my story would be better if he didn’t show and I needed that CD I rushed to get. But in reality it didn’t matter, because I knew I had just learned a valuable lesson. I would have never thought to have extra music on hand, or to line up a backup singer just in case. But since that day I’ve remembered those important words. Always have a contingency plan. And it has served me well on many occasions.

Ryan’s Mom Knows Best.

Someone else who knows the importance of a contingency plan is Ryan Seacrest. If you caught the Academy Awards red carpet last weekend you probably saw, or at least heard, how Sasha Baron Cohen, in character as “The Dictator,” dumped ashes all over Ryan on the red carpet. The ashes were some sort of powdery substance, probably pancake mix, but Ryan’s tux was covered. Everyone assumed Sasha Baron Cohen had some sort of trick up his sleeve, but no one could have guessed or prepared for that. But Ryan was a good sport and played it off well. And later he said something that made me smile: “My mom always told me to pack two jackets for red carpets, always wondered why. Now I know.” His mom knew the importance of having a contingency plan. In this case, Ryan was prepared and continued his job of interviewing the stars. Because, as they say, the show must go on.

I share that story because no matter what your business, it’s always a good idea to be prepared. Whether you’re planning a large event or preparing for an important client meeting, give a second thought to what could go wrong.  What if the caterer doesn’t show, or you run out of food? Do you have a rain plan? What if you have technological difficulties during an important business presentation  – do you have another way to present your information? What if the promotional products you ordered for a client don’t arrive on time – is there another local vendor that can do a quick turnaround for you in a pinch?

Of course you can’t plan for every single thing in life, but if you’re prepared for a variety of situations you’ll be more confident and ultimately more successful. More than likely you won’t need that backup CD, but it’s that 1% that can make or break a small business. So heed the advice of Mrs. Seacrest – have a contingency plan.

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