A New Baby Goes to Heaven and Changes Me As A Leader
April 13, 2017 started out as an ordinary day for my family and me. Around 2:30 in the afternoon I was on a conference call when my cell phone rang. I looked down and it was my wife. Usually I wait until my calls are over and then call her back, but something told me to pick it up. Three words were pressed from her lips that once again changed the course of our lives, “the baby died”. As best I could I held my composure. She was at the doctor with both boys and I was 40 minutes away. I dropped everything and ran to my car… not knowing if my new ankle would support a run… and hoped adrenaline would get me there.
I drove with composure, but fought uncontrollable emotions. I cried… I yelled… WHY this? WHY again? We were out of the danger zone… we have two healthy boys… HOW?! I saw my wife first and boys second. Five year old Jackson was as composed as possible until we said to him, “Jackson, it is ok to cry if you are sad”. That ushered in the third worst moment of my life (after the deaths of two babies)… the must gut wrenching cry of , “why did my baby sister have to die… why again…I want my baby”!
We held our family, crying, and wondering how we were going to get through this again. Would I have to bury another child (the answer no, by 3 weeks), how would we ever be whole with two children in Heaven? We no longer believed the cliche that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, because we knew that wasn’t true. Survive it, yes, handle it no. Emily and I have amazing family and a couple great friends, and where we couldn’t “handle”, they handled for us. Two weeks later, the pain is still raw and numbing… even as I write this I can’t believe I’m writing it.
The reason I write it is that it also changed my leadership style, for the better, as Andrew’s death did two years ago. I’m not writing for sympathy, but to share how the horrors in life CAN make you better, or it CAN make you bitter, your choice. I am blessed to have an extraordinary man as a boss. When the baby died, he immediately was there. He along with my peers and my directs, knew I had too much to handle, and they picked me up. Last week flowers arrived from unexpected places and calls from people I never anticipated. The message was clear, we walk this out together.
I learned from my boss, peers, teams, and colleagues was simple… grace wins every time and, most importantly, it needs to be the fiber of my leadership. Dictionary.com has seven definitions for the word “grace”. The most applicable definitions for Corporate America include “favor or goodwill”, “a manifestation of favor, especially by a superior”, and “mercy, clemency, pardon”. As I meditated on “grace”, I realized that grace doesn’t exist without transparency. Transparency, as defined by businessdictionary.com, is “lack of hidden agendas and conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision making”.
So what does that mean for you as you lead your teams, or dream of leading in the future? My first recommendation is that you trade in ALL of your political motivations and thoughts and replace them with “transparency”. When we let our personal agendas get in the way we often become blinded of the needs of our teams and tend to play “hide the ball”. Playing politics will get in the way of thoughtful collaboration, efficient problem-solving, and saving your company money and reputational damage later.
Ridding political ambitions does not solve the problem by itself. Without “grace” you will certainly be blunt and action oriented, but will come off as arrogant , uncooperative or a know-it-all. Take it from someone that altered the wrong way of doing this, me, no one wins without grace. My second recommendation is a strategy that has always worked for me and has been enhanced by keeping grace at the forefront. I manage 4 direct reports, each managing a combined 16 Team and Project Managers. The Team Managers collectively manage 99 FTE. We all play a part in the success of our team, but the 99 production employees are our heart and soul. My goal is to clear obstacles for them to work efficiently. To understand those obstacles I must understand them. Each year, twice per year, I spend 30 minutes with each of them. I do not talk about their stats (production and quality), I talk about them. What interests them, drives them, annoys them. I collect the data, look for efficiencies, make changes where needed, and improve the whole of my team.
100 employees, 30 minutes each, twice per year equates to 100 hours. It is 100 hours well spent because we create efficiencies and identify control gaps, but it allows them to see my management philosophy is real. Through the death of my babies I have learned to better in these interactions instead of bitter. I demand excellence from my team, but with grace mistakes are tolerated. Through transparency mistakes are identified and corrected. We do not tolerate laziness or corner cutting, but when you lead with transparency and grace, a demand for excellence is universally accepted (with outliers of course), and your “average” becomes above average, and your above average becomes excellent.
Listen friends, we all experience tragedy and pain. I would encourage to find how those events can make you a better leader. We are all together as a community for such a short season (I tell all 120 people on my team this when I meet with them). Let’s find ways to make each other better. One last practice I do each day is the “revolving door”. To get into my workplace I swipe my badge, wait for the ding, step in, and revolve until I enter the office. As I revolve, I evolve…. i look at it as coming through the tunnel at the Super Bowl…. I don’t know how many days I will have to make a difference… in that 5 second spin I tap my chest and remember why I do this each day… God, Emily, Jackson, and Colin in the present… God, Andrew, and Baby October cheering me from Heaven. I want my team to feel this unshakeable love and support.
Be the present for your team…. you have them for a brief moment in their career… shape them!