The Pandemic Made Personal Crisis Planning a Requirement
I never really understood the depth of the old adage “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” until the pandemic turned my personal and professional life upside down.
Take a second to ask yourself this question: What happens to your team, your company, and your livelihood when a personal crisis takes you out of commission? The more of a leader you are, the deeper your absence will be felt. If you’re at or near the top of your organization — and especially if your company is in its earlier stages, like a startup — there’s a good chance that if you go down, the business could go down with you.
So every good leader needs a personal crisis plan. Let’s talk about how to develop one.
It wasn’t 2020 that took me out — it was 2021
It was exactly one year ago in March 2020 when business stopped overnight. At my primary company, we initiated a deep-cutting fallback plan to begin riding it out. The startups I advise all immediately went into shutdown, with some of them better suited for that than others. My startup “projects” — ventures that hadn’t quite matriculated to revenue-generating businesses yet — went on ice.
During that same week, my kids stopped going to school, my travel and vacation plans all imploded, and like everyone else, almost everything I did outside of the house either stopped completely or changed drastically.
But I pushed through all that.
Like a lot of people, I rode out the spring thinking things would be better by the summer. Then I toughed out a long summer thinking things would be better when the vaccines got here. All along, the business crisis planning we had done and continued to do allowed us to remain above water. We actually started to recover, and there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, on the first day of 2021, just as we were all bidding good riddance to 2020, the bottom fell out of my personal life. A series of unfortunate incidents and accidents over the month of January took me off my game completely and thoroughly.
How do you plan for that kind of upheaval?
This is going to be one of the rare instances when I’m going to tell you to do what I say, not what I do. Because even though I had plans upon plans for every element of my business, I didn’t have a personal plan for the unexpected. And I should have. And so should you.
Most of us who are in leadership positions — whether we’re doing the majority of the work or managing the majority of the workforce — don’t have any sort of backup for when we can’t be present. Some of us have succession plans in place for injury, illness, or outright removal — the “what if John gets hit by a bus” conversation. But even those plans are usually limited.
I didn’t get hit by a bus. I didn’t get Covid. In fact, I suffered no physical injury or illness whatsoever. But mentally and emotionally, I got damaged repeatedly over a short period of time. All in all, I wasn’t present for about a month.
What I learned was that no amount of business crisis planning can guarantee that a crisis won’t impact you personally in a way you weren’t expecting. And no business crisis plan can prepare you for your own personal disasters.
It could be a situation like the pandemic, where an external threat to your professional life also impacts your personal life. It could be the stress of a shrinking livelihood finally taking a mental toll on you. Hell, it could just be a random tragic life event.
An ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. You have to take the extra step to prepare for the unknown.
Why a personal crisis plan is necessary
What we saw with the pandemic was that those companies that were nimble and could pivot quickly had a much greater chance at survival than those that could not. We put our company crisis plan into place in early March. Others waited way too long.
Two months after the shutdowns started, I had a long conversation with a friend who was second-in-command at a popular and successful local business.
“We’re not going to make it,” he told me. “The owner is panicking and frozen. He keeps coming up with these ideas to save the business but he’s not implementing any of them. We keep telling him let’s pick one and go, but he keeps backing down.”
The lesson there is that it’s not just a matter of business model flexibility, it’s also a requirement for leadership to flex along with it. When the captain can no longer steer the ship — physically, mentally, or emotionally — they need to go somewhere for a while and recover.
There are rules for this in the military and in government. In business, it’s a different story. While there are indeed cases where a CEO or a board can force a leader to take a leave, usually that decision is left to the leader.
And we don’t do it. Because we’re too important.
What is a personal crisis plan?
When a business crisis hits, you don’t just stare down its barrel and operate normally, nor do you close the company doors and walk away. You pick a point in time and you pivot.
A personal crisis plan uses that same approach. Your company doesn’t have to replace you, it only has to temporarily survive without you. You’re not walking away, but you need to go somewhere for a while and recover.
It’s so much easier to do this when you plan ahead.
Come up with a one-week plan, a three-week plan, and a three-month plan. Yes, three months. That seems like an eternity, and it is, but we’re preparing for the unknown here, and crises don’t arrive with an expiration date. At the end of each of those periods, decide, on your own, if you’re ready to come back. If you feel ready, meet with your leadership team first and decide together how you’ll reintegrate yourself.
You also want to have some canned messaging ready to go ahead of time. The messaging should be different for your leadership team, for the employees, and for outside constituents like customers and partners. You don’t want to be wordsmithing your breakdown in the middle of your breakdown.
Choose someone who can execute all this for you. Then put the plan away and keep it private until you need it. Hopefully, you never will.
When it’s time to go, you’ve got to know
Much like my local business friend’s mentally paralyzed owner, when you find that you’re freezing, when you can’t make good decisions, it’s time to initiate the plan.
So how do you know when it’s time to go? There are a couple of warning signs.
Having a “brave face” is one of the most important and least appreciated aspects of leadership. There is a great episode of The Office where, amidst rumors of the branch being shut down, a young and idealistic Jim lobbies for transparency and honesty with the employees, while the veteran (and somewhat incompetent, which is why this works) manager Michael constantly disrupts the workday with an office-wide role-playing game.
Honesty and transparency are critical, but there’s a time for it, and also a proper way to deliver bad news. When you can no longer be honest and transparent from a position of strength, it’s time to check yourself. When you undergo a personal crisis, you will be angry and frustrated, you will feel a sense of unfairness about everything that is happening. Do not inflict this on your team. Don’t let your emotions dictate your actions.
Good leaders learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The last year has been marked by prolonged discomfort, and there will never probably be, in our lifetimes, a more prolonged period of discomfort. If we can survive that, we can survive anything.
But everyone has their limits.
When too many people ask you if “everything is alright,” or you find yourself apologizing to people more often than asking permission (especially when you’re an entrepreneur), you’re approaching your limit. If moves and decisions start to feel desperate, or if you cross a line you know you shouldn’t and otherwise wouldn’t have crossed, you’ve hit your limit.
When to come back
Look, there’s no point in stepping away to get fixed if you’re going to come back broken. If you’re not ready, stay away for as long as it takes.
But prepare for the fact that a personal crisis can change you. It can change who you are, what you want, and how far you will go to get it. It can alter your goals and your outlook in a way you also might not be ready for. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my own trials shifted my perspective. Not totally, but enough to make a difference.
I’m going to come back to that long three-month plan. It’s something I never want to initiate and I hope you never do either. But it’s there for a reason. Despite conventional wisdom, I believe most of us actually love what we do, but sometimes, it takes a slap in the face to realize we’re doing it the wrong way.
If you have to go to a three-month plan, you might be facing one of these moments. Don’t stare down the barrel with a stiff upper lip, and don’t walk away. Pick a point and pivot.