Like most professionals, I’ve read a lot of articles that provide business advice ranging from “Things Great Bosses Do Every day” to “Management Mistakes that will Drive Away Good Employees.” I’ve seen white boards displaying actions that take “zero talent” and drawings of icebergs that clarify what people don’t see. I get a little boost of confidence after reading them because on one level or another, I know those things intuitively.
Their messages are simple encouragement that my perspective makes sense and I am doing the right things. We tend to think that work is work and life is life and never the twain shall meet. However as a seasoned professional, when I found myself taken off-guard by the sudden decline in my wife’s health, I found little motivation in the side-by-side picture of “old vs. new thinking.” Conversely, I believe that there are lessons that we can learn through adversity that translate into the professional world.
Medical challenges and work motivations are two totally different things, right? One involves addressing the things you control…schedules, resources, teamwork…in an effort to achieve an objective. We see an issue and break it down, working systematically to resolve it. Medical issues…well, sometimes bad things just happen. We don’t control it, there’s nothing we can do about it, and no amount of brainstorming is going to cure your wife of cystic fibrosis or magically pull her out of respiratory failure. However, we do have control of some things and my sense is that we are not framing the issue correctly.
Why would you visit a loved one in the hospital? Sure, you are there for moral support. Yet when my wife was in a chemically-induced coma I could argue that she might not require as much of my time – she certainly did not notice me, thoughI still felt I needed to be there. So what value did I really add…? I knew my wife’s medical history. Not as well as she did but better than the new nurse that was randomly assigned. Like a mall security guard, I could observe and report, adding my comments during the morning rounds and providing a clear picture to her doctors. During the day, I could stretch her limbs and move her joints so that she would be more comfortable and in better physical condition when she awoke. When she emerged from the coma, I could help her with therapy so that she had a chance of qualifying for a double lung transplant. Add to that leg shaving, nail clipping, food cutting, and hair brushing, and I found myself having a pretty full day.
So if there are defined tasks, what is the challenge? I simply needed to be positive and encourage her. What stood in the way of completing such simple steps with a smile on my face? The challenge turned out to be dealing with my own emotions and ensuring my response was not the same as my gut reaction. After hearing the news that your wife may not survive the night, the most important “accomplishment” becomes the control of your response. Emotions will flood and initial reactions are involuntary, but the only thing you have a chance of controlling is your response. If you need to take a minute, stop and reflect, remember why you are there, and then suck it up and go brush her hair because nobody in this scenario has it easy.
Be it strangers in ICU waiting rooms or some of my wife’s relatives, I spoke with people who lashed out or acted selfishly. Change it up a bit and that person is the mid-level manager that yells at his employees because a test fails, it is the VP who “goes off” because the quarterly numbers were shy of his stretch goal, it is the plant manager that blames the welder on an issue caused by a bad process. Before you can control the situation, you must be able to control yourself. In a world where the majority of events are out of our control, we must constantly adapt to bad news.
We talk about adaptability all of the time in business but rarely on such a profound level. Continuous improvement, change management is often externally focused. Sure, a conservative engineer might want cringe when hearing about a change to a long-time process but imagine if the things that were changing were significantly more personal. Benjamin Franklin said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” In business, competitors become more efficient, costs change, and disruptive technology abounds. In the hospital, a committee’s decision to decline a transplant candidate can occur before you are mentally prepared. So when that happens two, three, or even five times in a row, you must decide whether to succumb to a gut “reaction” or to adapt. You adapt by reasoning that if those hospitals were not going to accept her, it was good that they did not waste your time. You adapt by letting it reinvigorate your drive to do physical therapy and get stronger. You adapt by doing more research into transplant hospitals and developing an excel spreadsheet that Bill Gates would be jealous of. My wife’s medical issues were the greatest challenges of adaptability I have had to overcome and they provided some hard learned lessons.
In the end, you cannot blame your response on the bad news. The bad news is out of your control but your response falls squarely on your shoulders. The way to distinguish yourself in life and in business is not to cut yourself off from your emotions – own them. But more importantly…own your response.
Ray Poole is married to Rebecca, who was born with cystic fibrosis. He became involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and was named “Milwaukee’s Finest.” He later became a member of the Wisconsin CFF leadership board. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and materials engineering and a master’s in business administration. Ray has recently worked as an engineering manager and product manager in the electrical industry. Ray’s book, Lessons from a CF Cornerman, is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats. To learn more, visit www.CFCornerman.com.