My house burned down and my agency is stronger

Personal hardships and vulnerability can create better leaders and a better work environment, says Tom Lindell managing director of Minneapolis-based Exponent PR

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

In late January, the unthinkable happened. My family and I were flying back from Phoenix when our Minnesota home was destroyed by a fire.

Despite the efforts of fire crews, nearly everything was burned or unrecoverable. In the midst of a minus 50 degree wind chill, our only possessions were the warm-weather clothes in our carry-on bags. We never felt so helpless and vulnerable.

As a leader of a 50-person PR agency, I quickly realized this traumatic experience would follow me to the office, impacting not only my role as a leader but also my colleagues, particularly the senior executives.

In every workplace employees face personal struggles, from family issues to health concerns. But what happens when the leaders face personal struggles? How do they recover after experiencing such loss and vulnerability?

My family’s journey was overwhelming at times but also filled with hope and strength. We navigated it with the help of friends, family and colleagues. But there are few manuals to help leaders adjust to events like this while continuing to lead and inspire their organizations.

Here are some insights I learned to help other leaders prepare for the aftermath of a crisis.

My first days back held many awkward moments. I’m well-known for avoiding hugs at all costs, but it was the one thing everyone could do to express empathy and support. I caved within minutes of returning to work.

Frankly, I needed them more than I realized and have since gotten over my reticence. I accepted many hugs during those first days — the real kind that demonstrated care — from colleagues, clients and friends.

Also, while some coworkers almost immediately offered condolences, others thought it was best to avoid me. I quickly learned it was best to acknowledge the topic head-on and answer any lingering questions about the fire so we could all move forward.

I was also quick to admit that life was very difficult, but I presented it with a positive outlook and even moments of levity. This helped people feel they could talk about it and that we could deal with difficulties at work, despite what happened to me.

Still, at times it was hard to interpret some questions or comments, like when someone said they were glad all we lost was just stuff that could be replaced. Despite mixed emotions, I always tried to respond with gratitude and grace.

I believe that letting staff and colleagues understand my hardships helped us recover faster and promoted a culture where people are allowed to be their real and true selves. My early behavior had a profound impact on ongoing productivity, employee culture and client work.

For a while, people thought it was a burden to include me in certain meetings or on correspondence, when it only made my job harder and could have slowed down the work. It was important to state that my involvement should continue as always.

Of course, staying focused wasn’t easy. Soon after the fire, my daily goals were adjusted to navigate a barrage of meetings with investigators, adjusters and recovery specialists. It helped that my amazing wife divided and conquered the burden with me.

Even though it was harder than ever, I constantly reminded myself to turn off the chaos of my new reality while at work. Compartmentalizing work and personal matters made me more productive and better able to handle the upheaval. Being disciplined this way is a practice that must be formed long before a crisis occurs.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that kindness is a business imperative. Displaying genuine interest has a profound impact on productivity, retention and revenue growth.

But another aspect of kindness involves receiving generosity. Before the fire, it was much easier for me to show compassion than it was to accept it. Today, I recognize compassion goes two ways.

Generosity — like colleagues making meals for my family or chipping in to replace the well-loved shoes I lost — helped us heal and move forward. It also created a culture that is better prepared for unexpected events. A kind and nurturing work culture people want to work in is an environment I’m proud to support.

While setbacks are inevitable in advertising and PR, as they are in the rest of life, I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared for personal tragedies or crises.

But the most successful marketing and PR pros have developed the skills to effectively navigate work life with personal life. A leader’s response to setbacks can inspire the people they work with and help organizations face any challenge, whether it’s professional or personal.

Tom Lindell is managing director of Minneapolis-based Exponent PR.

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