I have lost several people closely associated to me over the course of my life to inevitable death. I have seen death closely starting from my father when I was six years old to numerous family members, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Handling grief on each of these situations is different and varying at personal levels but equally difficult. But never have I experienced losing a co-worker on a team that I led until a few days ago.
Before I write my thoughts on dealing with this situation, I would like to write my tribute to my dear colleague Suzy Ong from Philippines who lost her battle to cancer. Suzy was (hard to use past tense) a young, extremely hard working, brilliant and honest woman. Professional to the core yet friendly and could strike a personal bond with colleagues and client team members alike. Very few offshore team members make a significant presence and impact felt on clients and Suzy was one. On a personal front her world was her family with her little daughter being the center of that world. All her aspirations and dreams were focused on her daughter. The news of her loss was shocking and unexpected. She was too young to die. My prayers and thoughts are with her and the family.
Coping with the loss and grief of a colleague working on a team you lead is personal, complex and a test of your character. I learned it is a delicate balance of professionalism, empathy and emotions. A few quick thoughts on handling these situations as a leader:
1. Absorb the shock quickly and take time to grieve later. You need to stay strong, help the team handle the loss and at the same time not let things go out of control and keep projects on track. Real contingency planning and execution is here. Allow team members to grieve and recover. Find time yourself to grieve outside of work hours in your own way
2. Reach out to the family of the departed colleague and show empathy, concern and offer assistance. Do it very quickly and don’t be late. Try to be in touch with the family during the ordeal and if the colleague has been sick for a while, offer moral support and work flexibility to tide through difficult times. The hard part of this is to recover the company assets like laptop, vpn keys etc. and do it sensitively at the appropriate moment later
3. Do something for the colleague’s family or something that would have pleased the departed colleague like a memorial, flowers, funds, charity etc. This is where the personal connect and knowing the colleague at a personal level matter. Knowing aspirations and beliefs of your co-workers is so important. Eventually the colleague’s memory will fade. Don’t let it pass as a just a news and do that something quick. Lip service is not enough. Your team is watching you and your actions matter to them and definitely to your own conscience. I was pleasantly surprised to note the maximum contributions for Suzy’s memorial came from the team or former team members and clients
4. Be transparent with communication to team members and clients. Be open about impacts on people and projects. Somethings will slip and it’s okay. Everyone is human, reasonable and understanding. Don’t be too hard on yourself and try to hide emotions while putting up a strong face. You are human too and your team and clients need to see this side of you
5. Allow time and be patient to let things settle down for your team, clients and yourself. Time gradually heals everything and reduces the pain and grief. Slowly move on with fond memories of the departed colleague and the good times together
6. Be thankful and grateful to the departed colleague. Reflect on all the good qualities and things done, hard work and contribution to the company and clients. Remember, although your colleague worked for the company everything they did was for you and for you to be successful, sacrificing many a thing putting your project over their holiday, vacation and personal time
7. Learn from the situation. Learn to eat healthy, exercise and stay healthy. Pause and reassess your perspective to life and bond with colleagues and people that matter to you. Make investments wisely and secure the future of your family. Life is much more than work
I pray to GOD to give Suzy’s family all the strength. GOD bless!
Shekar, I express my heartfelt commiserations over this loss. Suzy was indeed extremely hardworking and an honest person. Some valuable insights from you on how to cope with such a situation as a leader.
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