I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. Last week was a pretty bad week for me.
On top of the normal day-to-day business problems, my personal life took an unexpected turn when my wife took a spill on the tennis court, broke her wrist, and required two back-to-back surgical procedures of the "it has to be done now" variety.
It's selfish of me to think about how her misfortune and pain impacts my day-to-day life. But it's also a reality, and an inescapable one at that.
The fact is, when she went down, I got handed another job, and this one was far more important, far more difficult, and far more time-consuming than the one I already had. It's basically the 24/7 running of a household with three kids, two of which are at the high-effort point of making a decision about college that will dictate the next four years of their lives and maybe their future.
I make no bones about it. I can't do what I do unless she does what she does. All in all, it could have been a lot worse, but it wasn't nothing. And that's my point.
The Sneaky Extended Time Blip
We all have accidents. We all get hit with unforeseen circumstances that, in the back of our minds, look like a bump in the road at the onset. But then a trip to urgent care turns into a trip to the emergency room, which kills a day, then bleeds into the next day...and suddenly you're faced with a week where you're totally out of commission.
It's a big deal for anyone. But when you're in a leadership position, especially at a startup, it can be massive. The day-to-day responsibilities of running a maturing company or team can be overwhelming, even with all 24 hours in a day to work with. When your available working hours suddenly get reduced to zero, you're often faced with a list of hard choices as to what doesn't get done and how much money gets lost.
You're hoping that this is only a week, not a month, or three--because that can happen too.
There's No Planning for the Unplannable
I'm a great planner, but I know that even the best plans don't survive getting punched in the mouth. At some point, math tells me that circumstances and events can keep extending that time blip, and lead to the unplannable--the scenario that was such an outlier that it wasn't possible to plan for.
You've got emergency plans, succession plans, and backup plans. But even with those in place, no one tells you how to navigate a personal crisis that seemingly has no end.
I'm old enough and have done enough leading that I've had several personal crises come at me from out of nowhere, either impacting me or people close to me. At certain times I've reacted poorly, and at other times I've reacted wisely.
Here are the differences between those two approaches.
Activate Your Emergency Plan
If you don't have a personal emergency plan in place for your business or even just your business life, do that now. Don't wait until you need it. And if you do have a plan, activate it sooner rather than later. Don't wait for the situation to worsen until it feels right to break the glass and throw the switch.
As leaders, we have this built-in preference to downplay all the crappy, unfair, awful things that can or do happen to us--because let's face it, if we didn't do that, we'd go insane. So we take meetings from wherever the crisis lands us, even if it's a hospital room, because it's doable.
Very few people ever say, "My work is more important than my health or my family." But I'll address that balance too. When you underestimate the depth of impact of a personal crisis, you're not giving your attention to your top priority, no matter what your top priority is at any given time.
Instead, clear your decks as quickly as you can. You can always pick your rhythm back up later. But for now, set the expectation that you're needed elsewhere.
Ask for Help and Take It
If you're working with people who wouldn't lift a finger to help you when a crisis hits, you've got bigger problems than being away from the business for a while. The same is true for the people you surround yourself with in your personal life.
Now is the time to ask those people for help. I know, leaders hate asking for help, it's like a sign of weakness. But let's be honest, a personal crisis is a state of weakness. Admit what's going on and ask for help directly from the people who can help you.
And when people proactively offer their help, whether that's offering to run a meeting or offering to deliver a home-cooked meal, don't let pride get in the way. Take it. Thank them. Get them back later.
Make Two Sweeps of Your Priority List
When the immediate dust settles a little bit, it's time to visit your priority list (or your task list, your schedule, or all three) and make some cuts. There are two categories you need to put everything in.
What gets done later: In fact, you might as well just push everything into this list. Cancel meetings with a quick "personal emergency, I'll get back to you later." Shift tasks and deadlines at least a couple days out, and notify the people affected by those tasks and deadlines.
What doesn't get done: This is the more important sweep. Don't try to convince yourself you can do the next two weeks' worth of work in the two weeks following those two weeks. Cut anything you can live with cutting. And don't tell me there isn't anything you can cut. There is.
Spend the Money
Money doesn't solve your problems, but it can save you time. If you have an emergency fund, now is the time to tap it. If you don't have one, you might have to go into emergency debt.
I'm not rich and I'm not the kind of person who spends money easily. I just know this, there's:
- navigating a personal crisis,
- running a business, and
- being conservative about your spending.
You can do two of those at any time. It's impossible to do all three.
I'm not saying spend like there's no tomorrow. I'm just saying don't avoid opening your wallet at the risk of making the personal crisis worse.
Lessen the Impact
OK, so now you've taken steps to plan for the unplannable. Let's stick to it.
One of the things that's going to keep you sane is to make sure you keep every commitment on your now-whittled down priority list and task list, and hit your new deadlines. In fact, if you've made the right decisions about what does and doesn't get done--and if you show up for the things that still need to get done--you'll still be reliable, dependable, and, hopefully, present.
And that's 90 percent of what a leader gets graded on anyway.