Peer-to-Peer: "My senior executive is dying"

Written by PROFIT-Xtra


Last issue the president of a mid-sized IT consultancy based in Vancouver wrote to ask PROFIT-Xtra readers:

“One of my senior executives is on leave due to illness. He told me he’d be back, but I’ve just found out that he has an inoperable brain tumour and will probably pass away within months. I can barely manage this news, but I need to stay strong for my staff and my customers. How do I tell them? How can I soften the blow? Will morale (and, although I hate to say it, productivity) plummet?”

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Reader responses

Don Linder, Western Executive Network:

First, confirm that this news is correct by speaking to the executive who is sick. With his knowledge and agreement, tell the staff and customers of the situation as soon as possible.

While there’s no good way to soften the blow, letting the news just leak out will be worse. For the staff, offer them counseling with a professional.

If you’re concerned about productivity, bring in an interim executive for a specific period until you can decide to either promote internally or hire an external replacement. Making a quick replacement decision under these circumstances can be dangerous.

Benita Stafford-Smith, Life Matters Coaching:

This is a very tough issue to deal with, but a great opportunity. Here are some tips:

  • It is important that you grieve, feel all the feelings of sadness, mortality, fear, anger, depression. Once your have processed your feelings over a few days, it is imperative to present this information to your staff. (They will find out anyways, and it is better if it comes from you.)
  • Yes, productivity will plummet for the day but this is part of the process, part of the humanity we all share.
  • Tell your staff from a place of compassion and quietness, allowing the feelings to come out without letting your feelings overwhelm you. Then provide each staff member an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in an open forum. This will help to build the team. Start a donation fund for the dying executive’s family, a way for your staff to contribute and come together around this crisis.
  • Tell the executive team first and then the general staff. Have the executive team stand unified in this announcement.
  • This is a great opportunity to share your humanity as a team, rally around a common experience and promote a common bond for the team.
  • You cannot soften the blow, so don’t even try. Authenticity is always best.

Vaughn Berkeley:

Be open and honest with your staff and customers, but talk to the executive first. He sounds like a person that you and others are close to, and hence your concern about morale and productivity.

  • Step 1: Talk to him. Think of how hard this must be for him. Knowing with certainty that you will die makes one question if they’ve got their own affairs in order before meeting their final fate. A friend of mine, a mother of three kids, recently died from cancer after a long fight. She told all her friends she was going to her native country for a couple of months to be with her family and get some rest. She died within two weeks.
  • Step 2: Remember and appreciate him. If there are others who admired, loved and respected him, then let them all become his supporters in the final journey. Help him go out with dignity, knowing that his people hit the targets and achieved the goals that he was a part of.
  • Step 3: Allow time to mourn. Set an hour apart where people can come together and relate some stories about the executive. Pick a few really good ones. Let people be part of it and live it in their hearts.

Above all, be sincere.

Kelly J. Ramsay:

This is a most unfortunate situation, but you need to speak with your staff about it and let them know the real situation; for they will surely find out on their own, and that will create a situation in which your credibility and trust will be undermined. I would not be concerned about morale or productivity, since most people understand that things like this can and do happen in life. You need to show your staff that you are strong and that the business will go on.

In regard to customers, if they ask, then you need to tell them, otherwise let it slide.

And remember, miracles do happen, and hopefully your senior exec will be one of them.

Judy Clark, Bortolotto & Associates:

I am sorry to hear you will be losing a senior executive who sounds like he is not only important to the company but important to you. This is never an easy situation. But life is about constant change, including the loss of people who are important to us. This is an opportune time to show your leadership skills, and I’m sure you are already a competent leader or you wouldn’t be asking the questions you are asking.

How do you tell your staff? Start by being honest. Tell them what you do and don’t know about the situation. Tell them about the issues that you foresee and problems that may occur. There is no way to soften the blow, but you have the opportunity to ask for your staff’s and clients’ support and advice. A great leader knows when inclusion is important.

Will morale plummet? This will depend on whether you are reactive or proactive. You can turn this devastating news into an opportunity by having your company take a leading role by showing a genuine interest in the senior executive’s family to assist them through their crisis. By including your staff in this process, you can help them experience and further develop their own integrity and that of your company.

Convey to the executive’s family just how important and well-respected he is and has been to the company, and show support to the community at large. Perhaps you could initiate a cancer fundraiser in your executive’s name. Better yet, time permitting you could ask the executive what sort of legacy he would like to leave. Perhaps your company can see this legacy come to fruition as an ongoing fundraiser for cancer, a scholarship or a mentoring program in his name.

By bringing together all the affected people — you, your staff, clients, the executive and his family — you’ll create an environment in which they can all grieve, offer support and give meaning to an unavoidable situation. By creating a positive, inclusive environment, you will all come through this challenge to be stronger people. Increased, not decreased, productivity will follow.

For her answer, Judy Clark will receive a copy of Magna Cum Laude: How Frank Stronach Became Canada’s Best-Paid Man by Wayne Lilley.

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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com