As the founder of a growing startup, I'm no stranger to intense emails--but the one I got last month was a doozy.
I was getting out of a hotel bed in New York for a full day of investor meetings when a former co-worker emailed to alert me that a wildfire was racing through my Los Angeles neighborhood--and heading straight for my house. After a call to ensure my kids and animals were safely out of there (they were), I turned on the TV and watched a scene that was decidedly not the series of "warm rooms" I'd hoped the day would bring. It was the smoking hull of my house, gutted by flames as a team of very brave firefighters set up in the yard to save what little they could and prevent further damage to the property.
The incident was upsetting and almost physically jarring in all the ways you could expect. But I was surprised to discover that my reaction was muted, almost methodical. Although I'd never experienced a day quite like this, I found myself grounding the ordeal in an almost perverse pragmatism ingrained in me by the rigors of a life spent running companies large and small. Of course, I've been long aware that the countless setbacks, crises, and even catastrophes I've experienced as a serial entrepreneur have left me with a formidable layer of mental scar tissue. But I now realize they've also yielded a kind of subconscious guidebook that, rightly or wrongly, has helped deliver me through many professional calamities--and some personal ones.
Here, assembled amid the heartbreak and heartburn of the past month, are some of its chief tenets.
1. Watch the house burn.
OK, so this one might sound a little twisted. But when your business is faced with something awful, choosing not to face the reality in front of you is often the most damaging mistake a leader can make. As I watched my house go up in flames, I quickly let go of the idea that any scrap inside might be salvageable. The result was a fast-disappearing phalanx of issues that might have needlessly occupied my mind in those critical first hours and made the experience far more painful as reality inevitably revealed itself later. At no time did I think I was going to save any of my possessions, so I was able to move on and focus exclusively on controlling the controllable. While painful, it at least allowed me to begin the recovery process from a small ledge of terra firma instead of amid the murkiness of false hope and imagined cataclysms.
2. Practice professional problem-solving.
Entrepreneurs are literally professional problem-solvers. And yet when a crisis hits, many of us are overwhelmed and undone by the resulting fallout. That's because we often lose sight of a simple fact: that a massive business dilemma is really just an intricate system of smaller problems that are usually solvable on their own. Not to be too clinical about it, but when the sky has already fallen, fear is officially an obsolete emotion. Instead, try to embrace the situation as a proving ground for the planning, ingenuity, and leadership that should be any entrepreneur's most highly prized assets. It's certainly not easy. But turning an all-encompassing debacle into a series of practical exercises will take the focus off the negative emotion of the moment and present an achievable path forward for you and your team.
3. Prioritize your relationships.
An overlooked aspect of responding to a company crisis lies in managing its impact on others: your employees, business partners, and their families. On the day my house burned, the outpouring from friends, colleagues, and even distant connections was enormous and a great source of emotional comfort. I got hundreds of texts and emails, and I quickly realized that I needed to prioritize some kind of response effort to ease their concern and express my gratitude. I wrote something I liked and, at night or during breaks in the action, I emailed it to people who had reached out. It was amazing how putting that energy out there was helpful to everyone who was worried about me and my family, and allowed us to move past the initial stages of grief and disbelief. In fact, a barbecue I hosted for the responding firefighters the day after the blaze ended up being one of the most powerful memories and important takeaways of the entire ordeal. The people important to you deserve your attention--especially in times of adversity.
4. See the growth opportunity.
As much as we all like to talk about our desire for change this new year, most people don't actually alter their behaviors unless forced to by some horrible circumstance. A death, an illness, a job loss, a divorce. There are reasons we call these life-changing events--and the change doesn't have to be all bad. The same goes for your business. When the bad stuff is over and the pain has subsided, ask yourself: "What did I learn from this?" or "How can it help me grow as a leader and a person?" For me, the lessons are as straightforward as they are indelible: Relationships, in business and in life, are our most important and enduring assets; I am definitely NOT the things I accumulate (they're gone, and I'm still here); and being incredibly choosy about the things I try to control is the best favor I can do for myself and my business.