In November, my company lost a key employee of 41 years, our lead salesperson, Rick Legg.
Rick was an amazing colleague. Helpful and fun, he was the epitome of a company man. Rick was the first to arrive and last to leave every company function. His four decades of institutional knowledge allowed him to take excellent care of his customers. And when there were accolades directed his way, he was quick to credit the team and the organization. Not to mention he was absolutely killing it with the work he was earning. And then, one early Saturday morning, his motorcycle left the road and hit a pole, and he was gone.
We were all shocked at the news, and really, we still are. But amidst the shock and grief of losing someone you worked beside every day and considered an ally and friend, is the reality of losing someone, without warning, who was so impactful to your organization. It doesn’t take long for a shared disquiet to descend upon the organization, and whether it is verbalized or not, you can feel the concern: Will we be OK?
In a small-business environment, you tend not to have a lot of redundancy, especially in your highest-paid key positions. And these positions have scope creep like you wouldn’t believe. Part of what makes your key people key in the first place is their willingess to do what needs to be done. Finding an exact replacement for someone, especially after decades of scope creep, is simply not going to happen. And with Rick, everyone knew that.
The first order of business was to acknowledge the tremendous loss, both personally and professionally, and allow people to grieve in whatever way feels right to them. We supplied an additional day of PTO and closed the company so that people could attend services, or to take a day for themselves. We also reassured our employees that we will adapt and find our way forward. What we didn’t do was tell everyone that nothing has changed or push a business as usual approach.
It is tempting to tell people everything is fine and not to worry. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently manifest a loss of confidence that could lead to people finding other employment. But if your aim is to have a positive, healthy and productive culture that honors the contribution and effort of your people, telling staff that everything will be fine or that you are going to just replace someone implies that they are just a cog and that their work has no impact or importance. Honoring Rick’s contribution to the company signals to all employees that they are valued.
Next, we had to design and communicate the way forward. In this situation, it was an opportunity to redefine the role and take a fresh look at how this work can be accomplished. After all, nothing is the same, and we can’t replace our colleague. This is a chance to do things differently and hopefully, in time, do them better.
Churchill reminds us to never waste a crisis. We suffered a loss that I am still wrapping my head around. But it was a loss that had a galvanizing impact on our staff, reminding us how much we value one another. It allowed us to demonstrate that our company values aren’t just what we claim to believe, they are a description of our behavior, allowing us to do things differently and to be better even in our darkest moments. ●
Jennifer Ake-Marriott is president and CEO of Redmond Waltz