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Managing an unexpected absence from your business

Lisa Elder, President, Heads Up Inspiration from Information

This is the story of how I have been fighting cancer in the past year, while being the owner-operator of a small business. I hope it brings you a sense of calm if you, too, are faced with circumstances beyond your control. Or ideas for how you might prepare yourself in the event that you, too, are sidelined.

My business is in marketing research and brand consulting. We are a team of five researchers, including myself, plus my husband as CFO. We’ve been in business for 22 years, starting off as a sole proprietorship and growing into one of Canada’s leading boutique qualitative research companies.

Life was grand for me, before June 2017. I had lots of work that I loved, lots of travel, two daughters who had completed (or were just about to finish) university. I’d been happily married for 31 years. I had a spotless health record, and had comprehensive check-ups every two years that always included a mammogram.

Then I had pain in my breast… which I initially attributed to the underwire of my bra.

And then I found the lump. It felt like a large marble… and a punch to the gut.

Over the past 14 months I’ve undergone chemotherapy, two surgeries, radiation treatment, and am finishing preventative treatments. Hooray!

Now, it’s a perfect time to reflect on what I did to manage an unexpected absence from my business.

I needed to know the numbers, immediately

After unravelling myself from my husband’s arms, I needed to review our finances. Could the family stay afloat if we had no business revenue? How long could we cover employee salaries? My husband and I reviewed:

  • My life insurance (for the family if I died)
  • My long term disability insurance (to cover my salary while I didn’t work)
  • My critical illness insurance (a one-time payment to cover the first three months of no salary, and a fund for future treatments if necessary); and
  • The company’s savings (to cover employees’ salaries)

The answers were clear within an hour, and I could see how we could survive. I thanked my younger self, and my financial advisor (who herself sadly passed away from cancer), for securing the insurance products I now could lean on. I could move onto caring for myself.

I told other women business owners, who were under a cone of silence

Two days after the news, I had my monthly meeting with the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO). I shared the news without fearing it would spread outside my control (given neither my kids nor my employees knew anything yet). I sobbed. They consoled me. They offered their personal support, and gave me names of breast cancer survivors I could contact. They also said that maybe this would be a blessing for my company. That from what they had heard over the years, my researchers would step up to the plate if I was not able to be there. (So true… I think I laughed.)

I confided in one employee to test the waters, then spoke to the rest as a group

The next week, I had lunch with my longest-standing employee, who is a master at organization, who deeply understands all of us in the company, and who considers herself a, “catastrophic thinker” (a perfect person to confide in). I was trembling as I shared the news, still scared skinny, but found comfort in strategizing how to tell the others in the company, and possibly our clients.

When I told the other employees, she and my husband were by my side. I could assure everyone their jobs/salaries would be covered, no matter what (because I had already worked the numbers). Our objective would be to keep projects within the company, but with one of them being the lead researcher, not me. They were surprised I would make a point of reassuring them… when I was in need myself.

I created a network of cancer survivors

All the people I had known with breast cancer had died. So it did me a world of good, personally, to connect with friends of friends who were survivors. I asked them about how they dealt with work. While none were entrepreneurs, I found about half stopped working to make their health their job. The others kept working – some didn’t want others at work to know, some craved the normalcy that work brought them, and others were determined to put illness in its place. I wasn’t at all sure which way to go. I decided to play it by ear.

I slowly gained the confidence to tell clients, as I saw fit

In the first weeks, doctors’ appointments played havoc with my schedule, and my ability to attend client meetings. Once, I was scheduled to meet with the surgeon the same day I was to be conducting focus groups. I rallied my courage and told my client I, “had to see a surgeon about a medical issue.” She hoped it was not serious, and sweetly volunteered to cover the groups herself, but also asked if I had another solution. Yes! I was able to offer up another moderator in our group who had been fully briefed. I went on to describe her background and experiences. The client said, “Lisa, I know how impatient you are when it comes to incompetence. How long has she been with you? Three years? If she’s good enough for you, she’ll be good enough for me.” This exchange gave me so much more courage to face other clients.

  • Early on, pre-treatment, one close client wanted to talk about an upcoming opportunity. So I told her straight-up, over coffee. We talked cancer, and then talked business. And she showed her compassion and commitment to my health first. That put me in the best frame of mind ever. She allowed me to, “plan without commitment.”
  • One client, whose project was just coming to an end, saw me on CTV’s coverage of the Look Good Feel Better program. She asked if I was okay. I accepted her heartfelt well wishes, without the need to share any details right away.
  • One told me about how she was planning on leaving work for heart surgery. I then told her about my cancer. We were doing the same things: building our medical team, and paving the way for another senior person to fill our shoes. So many parallels that made transitioning out of the project, without losing the business, possible.
  • More distant clients still haven’t heard about cancer from me. But that’s what the grapevine is for.

I got psychological help

Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Ontario has many services on offer to their patients, and I jumped at the chance to see a psychologist who specialized in cancer patients. It was cathartic to go a couple of times near the beginning of treatment, and again near the end. I could let it all hang out and she could listen, uncover, and advise. It was a far better experience than in the movies.

In the first session we talked about whether I could keep the business going despite what was on the horizon, and whether I wanted to work or not. I remember her saying, “You’re speaking as if you have this choice, but at some point, you might not.” That was important to hear.

What did I learn?

Employees will show their devotion to you

Never have I benefited so much from the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. One employee offered to fly from Calgary to conduct a few projects in Toronto, leaving her husband and six year old behind for days at a time. I asked her how she could do that. She said, “My husband and I both understand it’s what you need, and we’re here for you.” By the way, I’d never met her husband… wow!

All of the team worked so tirelessly last fall, that revenues were up from the year before. Incredible! And as the WPO team member had suggested, they kind of liked stepping up into the void.

Clients will show their trust in you

My clients treated me with such love and understanding. During treatments, they met with me for lunch or coffee, and talked about life, not work. When they asked what they could do to help me, I asked them to continue to use us for research. And they did.

They never pushed me to predict what I would be doing or not doing. Just said that whatever I felt was best would be good with them. Unbelievable.

Sharing your personal trials and tribulations allows others share to theirs, too

I learned more about others’ lives as I shared my own. About their parents, families, and their own health challenges. It created deeper connections that will definitely stick.

The organizational and analytical skills you use to run your business will also help when you need to run your health

It’s an important skill to ‘actively listen’ to a doctor or nurse. To be able to write notes with real-time speed. To plan the topics to be covered in the next meeting. To find discrepancies, and to resolve them.

What I had to learn was how to stop the train – immediately – when I felt something was going wrong. I failed once, and stayed up most of the night obsessing about the threat to my health. Then I created, “Stop. Understand. And Decide,” fashioned after the classic adage, “Stop. Drop. And Roll.” This plan for any ‘next time’ allowed me to get over the trauma, and be prepared for the unexpected.

I hope you have gleaned something of relevance for your own life. If you’re in a similar situation, let me know if I can help.