WHEN THE BOSS GOES ON A SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED LEAVE: Is your organization prepared?
Special post by Tina Hamilton, PHR, president of myHR Partner
On August 18th, 2017, my family suffered the unimaginable: my son passed away unexpectedly at the age of 35. It is an experience that is worse than you can ever imagine, so I ask you not to try. I do not wish this kind of pain on anyone. My family and I are adjusting to our new normal way of life and taking it one day, sometimes one moment, at a time.
The well wishes and generosity from the people around us have been a tremendous source of comfort and light. If you ever wondered about if your small acts of kindness make a difference, I am here to tell you that they do.
When it all happened, I had to rush down from Pennsylvania to Texas, where my son lived with his wife and two daughters. My daughter-in-law and grandchildren needed me, and quite frankly, I needed to be with them.
Life does not care about your plans or your schedule
All this meant an extended leave of absence from myHR Partner. What happened next was beyond incredible. Under the leadership of Vice President of HR Services Kelly Coblentz, PHR, SHRM-CP, the entire myHR Partner team snapped into action to keep the business running without missing a beat.
We have always cultivated a workplace that would be ready for an unexpected emergency, and in the past, hurricanes, blizzards and illnesses within our ranks have tested our preparedness. But having me, the president of the company, totally disconnected for an extended period of time, so unexpectedly, was a new type of emergency.
A company that can’t run without you, won’t run without you. Period.
The ability of our team to deal with the sudden leadership absence wasn’t a lucky break. It is the result of the careful cultivation of a workplace environment and company culture that can handle such emergencies. Good leaders can prepare their teams to face unpredictable situations in ways that keep the organization moving forward on solid footing. And it was not as if we had a “plan” in place for this type of situation. It was a matter of having a completely engaged team, that is empowered and trusted to make decisions in the best interest of our company and our clients.
There’s an excellent story about business owners being prepared for emergency absences that was published a few years back by Harvard Business Review. It features an anecdote about a CEO of an online-education start-up who was seriously injured in a Vespa scooter accident. His absence left his young company scrambling. The experience brought to light the importance of developing a prepared workforce that can mitigate the risks of an unexpected vacuum in leadership that leaves employees confused, stressed and worried.
Having a team with tools and a game plan for operating without you temporarily will become crucial to your organization’s survival should an emergency arise. If you and only you carry the know-how and understanding of how your organization operates, all that you created will crumble when you are away.
Of course, the best time to plan for an emergency is before it occurs. While each company’s situation is unique, there are certain things to consider as you devise an emergency leadership absentee plan. They include:
Have something in writing.
Addressing an emergency succession plan in written policies and procedures can help your team spring into action and keep your business operating smoothly in your absence. It can also reassure them during a temporary-but-stressful period of time, and let them know in advance what your expectations are of them during a crisis. For some businesses, there may already be good up-to-date documentation in place on how the company does certain tasks and functions, making the addition of emergency plans fairly simple and straightforward.
Pre-designate someone as second in command.
In the event that you cannot specifically communicate with your team, another executive or top-level manager must take the helm during your absence. The person should be someone that is up to the task, prepared and trusted by you and, just as importantly, trusted by your team. In our case, myHR Partner’s Vice President of HR Services, Kelly Coblentz, PHR, SHRM-CP, took charge of the day-to-day operations of our company while I was away, for which I am eternally grateful.
Have a specific system for staying in touch with your team…and stick to that.
For those absences where you can stay in touch with the office, having a designated contact person or two to keep directives and information sharing clear will benefit everyone. You will not be bombarded with calls and requests, and your team will not hear multiple reports on your status or concerns. It can actually reduce stress and increase confidence in your next in command.
That being said, staying in touch in some small measure will help with your critical leadership role as “Visionary in Chief.” The HBR article reminded me about how important it is that your team does not lose sight of your organization’s vision and mission. That inspiration comes from you. If you have been instilling these values all along, a simple email or message via one of your designated contacts offering an update, thanks or encouragement will resonate with your team.
While I did not get involved in the business of myHR Partner while I was away, I did send update emails and text messages to let them know how I was doing and to let them know how grateful I was for them. I also shared direction on how they could communicate comfortably with me about my son. I wanted to eliminate as much awkwardness for them as I could prior to my return.
Continuously foster self-reliance and company culture.
Building a workforce that will continue to function and succeed in their tasks while you are absent takes time and effort, but the importance of this cannot be underestimated. Training, mentoring, developing meaningful goals and responsibilities, offering useful feedback and monitoring performance in ways that translate into a stronger workforce are more than just exercises in HR management. Consider them part of your company’s survival preparation. In addition, wouldn’t your life be enhanced by this type of work environment?
Hire very wisely
A solid hiring practice could include considering how your applicant would handle a temporary leadership absence. How dependent is this person and this position on direction from leadership and what can you do to manage this ?
Plan now – because you never know.
I have often championed measures like the ones listed above as ways in which employers and HR professionals can make a difference in workplace productivity, employee performance and overall improvements in a company’s bottom line. But these measures and practices can also help a company survive in times of crisis.
I hope that by sharing my own story, others can see the value of preparing their organizations as well. It’s a gift you give to your team and yourself when you do.