When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemonade with a Friend

It was a tough week. Someone very important to our organization made the hard decision to leave the company. He was our upstander, guiding light, and coach. It was a hard and sudden loss to digest that put our team principles to the test (as if COVID-19 hasn’t already). When life hands you lemons, sometimes making lemonade just isn’t enough.

Stay calm and carry on

Whenever a critical leader moves onto new things, the team they have left behind is held in this waiting period until they can be backfilled, which can create a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. Although we understand great opportunities come up and at some point folks move on, it still leaves the team wondering, “how can we backfill this person? They’re not replaceable. What does this mean for our future?”. Fortunately, our organization has a team of authentic and transparent leaders who are making it their full-time job to support people during this time.  

When our leadership team first received word of the news, the first thing we did was not rush to the conclusion that the world was going to end. Instead we paused, reflected on how we thought the announcement would impact the team, and what action we needed to take. It was critical for us to not rush and make any hasty decisions to role model the behavior we’d hope to see from other managers. If we could stay aligned and committed to our mission, then we could work through this together. 

People matter most

Our first and most important step was to check in with our folks. People matter most and we wanted to be sure we clearly understood what was on our team’s mind. What questions or concerns did they have? And accordingly, what answers did we have readily available and what information did we need from our Senior Executive Leadership.

On that note of needing more information, we also waited a couple of days for our larger organization’s Town Hall. Another critical step for us was to not assume we had, or were the right people, to provide all of the answers to the questions our teams had. There is a bit of a “wait and see” aspect whenever there’s a large organizational change. You won’t always have insight into the other decisions Senior Executive Leadership is making simultaneously (this is where ambiguity creeps in) and what other factors they’re taking into account for the better of the company. This is why principles are important for teams to develop and live by; these principles are what drive decisions and allow people who are part of those teams to trust the decision-making that lies ahead.

Empathy and authenticity

Post this Town Hall, we were able to clearly see what questions remained unanswered and needed to be addressed in our language. Another critical driving factor here is empathy. A strong leader must be able to put themselves in the shoes of others, especially in this situation where the Senior Executive Leadership is stepping in during the interim until a new leader is vetted and onboarded. Our Leadership team knew we could help by sharing what lied ahead for our team in our own words. We’ve started to do this via skip level 1-1s and Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with our folks. 

Something I’ve learned over the years is in order for AMAs to work, you need to show up authentically. Otherwise, what’s the point? In fact, you could burn trust if you show up as a leader who is only towing the company line without any care for the team’s mission. Our team is incredibly special and unique in the way we share information because we show our hearts. What do I mean by this? We pick up on signals and we’re open about our own concerns while also showing the path forward. Brene Brown speaks about vulnerability and how she’s been asked to speak at companies as long as she’s not too vulnerable. Brene will be the first person to tell you that doesn’t work. You need to balance vulnerability with confidence to be an effective and trusted leader. Reason being is if you show up too confident, you could come off as an arrogant jerk but if you show up too vulnerable, you could raise concern unnecessarily. 

Refueling your heart tank

It’s a tricky thing to balance and requires a lot of energy from your heart. As we know, energy requires fuel and time to recharge. My father once told me I’m an extreme empath in the sense that I really care about people but sometimes that hurts me because I take on folks’ problems or concerns as my own. It’s a slippery slope because I’m no good to anyone if I’m completely burnt out trying to solve everyone’s problems at once. Don’t get me wrong; I love my 1-1s with my team and always look forward to them but if I sit in my office for 10 business days straight without a break, I’ll only have energy to give up to 50% (or less) of my attention to people rather than the 100% they deserve. Again, I can’t stress enough how important team principles are because they give you the permission to lean on them. For example, one of our team principles is raising your hand when you need it or offering help when you see it’s needed. 

As Chief of Staff and a People Engineer, I’m here to facilitate the conversations that need to happen to help our team through change and time of uncertainty. There is so much going on at the macro level that sometimes I forget to look more granularly and internally. Receiving reminders that “You need to take good care of you so that you can keep taking good care of us” and offers to help lead the AMAs so I may take that much needed break was the hand I needed so I took it. This concept might take a bit of mental rewiring depending on your background (it did for me) but it is NOT a sign of weakness if you accept a lending hand. It’s a sign of a strong team that cares about each other like a second family. So when life hands you lemons, don’t only make lemonade but share it with a friend as a reminder you’re part of a team, whether it’s in your personal or professional life.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t make decisions or take action in haste. Our teams put in their time for our mission so it’s important leaders give that time back by investing in well-thought out decisions.
  • Get to the root cause of issues by getting curious and observing people. Avoid the inclination to make assumptions.
  • Authenticity and vulnerability are the foundation to any trusting relationship. Don’t compromise here; once trust is burned, it sometimes cannot be rebuilt.
  • Make time for yourself. You’re no good to anyone if you’re at 50% or less. 
Enjoying a bowl of paste before a Britney Spears show in Las Vegas. Can’t help indulging in my guilty pleasures : )

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