Life calls. How do you respond?

One of the many memorable scenes from the movie Forrest Gump has the then-heavily bearded character running down a street. A man, running along side, states the obvious: Gump has just run through a pile of dog poop. Gump’s timeless response? “It happens!”

While stepping in sh-t is yucky, messy, smelly, and somewhat unfortunate, let’s face it: dog poop is a surmountable event, not a crisis. But, just like the potential for stepping in something unpleasant, crisis happens in life and work. The important question is, how will we respond? In this post we’ll examine a scenario, explore available options for advance choices, and then I’ll share what actually occurred when this recently happened in my life.

Scenario Analysis

This is a test. The answer offers critical insight to how you live your priorities. Without discounting the influences of economics and the nature of work, some individuals will find the response easy. Others will not. Regardless, the awareness of your own reality allows you to think about what choices you’d like to make given similar circumstances.

Consider this scenario. Your schedule reflects a full load, with commitments for work, family, home, health, and community. My guess, what ever your current role and priorities for work and life, your calendar has abundant entries. The phone rings. A beloved member of your family, who lives 2,500 miles away, has received urgent word her mother is in the hospital (60 miles from your own home) and may be near death.

Think fast—no deep contemplation or analysis—how do you respond? Can you—will you—clear your calendar for this need? What duration is possible? Are you free to decide to give the highest possible level of support? What does that look like?

Take a sheet of paper. Write the word “Crisis” across the top. Now create two columns; on the left, list all the actions you, ideally, would like to take to help. On the right, list all the actions you’d actually be able to take. How are the lists different? What would have to change to be able to respond according to your ideal?

Leveraging Choice as a Crisis Response

Life includes the unexpected. We have the opportunity to consider the potential of various risks occurring and our choice of how to respond. Advance thinking and planning helps us optimize the options available to us.

Within organizations, enterprise risk management offers leaders and executives a sound practice involving identifying potential risks, assessing these for probability and impact, prioritizing which risks to address, deciding how to handle them, and then monitoring for changes in likelihood and effect. Planning for risk generally falls into one or more strategies, typically expressed as the four categories of avoiding or preventing, reducing or mitigating, sharing or transferring, and accepting. Leaders can apply a parallel strategy for considering risk and opportunity in their own lives and families.

The first step is to consider the domains of opportunity and risk. Who doesn’t want (or seek more of) the following …

  • Vibrant health?
  • Economic security?
  • Strong relationships?
  • Time to focus on priorities?
  • A legacy of significance?

Each person’s list of what’s important will be unique. For example the opportunities to increase economic security look different from the perspectives of an organizational executive and an entrepreneur or business owner. The key is to begin with a list. Then ask, how can each be increased and what could take each away.

As an example, if a leader desires vibrant health, then elements contributing to more health include appropriate choices for food, engaging in various forms of exercise, and getting sufficient sleep. In learning more of what makes a person healthy and resilient, an executive might discover meditation as a mechanism for reducing stress and increasing awareness and focus. For some leaders these are opportunities. At the same time, these choices also help address risks.

Let’s consider a known and an unknown risk related to health. Specific cancers have known risk factors such as smoking. However, cancer may also occur due to a random mutation, which a leader has no way of anticipating with certainty. Based on an individual’s and his or her family’s medical history, as well as environmental and lifestyle factors, a person can choose to:

  • Avoid or prevent some forms of cancer by quitting smoking and avoiding environments of second hand smoke or known carcinogens.
  • Reduce or mitigate the likelihood of certain cancers by practicing other lifestyle factors such as exercising, getting plenty of rest, and eating well.
  • Share or transfer the impacts of cancer risk by ensuring he or she possesses a quality health care plan and long term insurance.
  • Accept the potential for cancer and budget in time and coverage for health screens that aid in early detection when cure and survival rates are higher.

Notice that cancer does not impact health in isolation. A health crisis also influences economic security, relationships, time and energy available for priorities, and a person’s potential to achieve significant contributions in life and work. Thinking through a series of “what if” scenarios allows leaders and their families to contemplate gaps between how they desire to respond when life comes calling, and what might actually occur due to current limitations. This knowledge enables a person’s options for choice.

My Recent Call

The “test” scenario described above occurred this month. Let me describe how our family responded, and discuss advance choices that allowed us access options.

The very first issue involved interim childcare. Our family solved this by flying my mother to the east coast, allowing our daughter-in-law to fly to the west coast. This was both less costly and offered more confidence and continuity of care than trying to identify and secure emergency caregiving. The young children maintained their home and school schedules, and our son maintained his work schedule until we determined what was actually happening. With mom away, we “adopted” her pets for the duration and kept an eye on her house.

Second, I cleared my schedule entirely for the first week. As a business owner, this has an economic impact. At the same time, all of the clients and business associates I reached out to were gracious and supported reconnecting at a later date. This decision freed me to literally drive my daughter-in-law everywhere she needed to go.

We did have an alternative. She could have driven herself in my mother’s car. However, driving under significant stress often creates distractions that impair the safety of both the individual and other drivers on the road.

A key benefit of my driving was the running task list we generated and tracked with every leg of the journey. We used my daughter-in-law’s phone, because she carried it with her everywhere. Before we departed our home each day: Did we need to bring or do something before leaving the house? Did we need to stop somewhere?

For the first five days, our routine involved driving to the hospital or hospice care facility for a visit. After that, we drove to her mom’s home and collected paperwork or began the process of a room-by-room assessment. We’d return to my house to sort documents. Between each location we’d check the list. What did we complete? What did we need to add? What was our next action?

Throughout the week, her mom declined. She passed quietly during the night on Friday. Middle of the night calls were made, and my son left his house by 3 AM on stand by for the next available flights. Saturday, my daughter-in-law and I headed to the mortuary, and my husband drove to the airport to pick up our son. We met at the home of my daughter-in-law’s mom to run through the preliminary assessments we’d made and let the guys determine what tools and items were needed to prep the house for sale.

Sunday—Mothers’ Day—we literally cleared the house and staged it for sale. After selecting and setting aside keepsakes, every room’s drawers, cupboards and closets were cleared. Furniture, art, and bedding or accents were chosen and moved to best highlight each room. Everything (yes, everything) else was designated as trash, donate, or give away. A Craig’s List post invited people to come and take away furnishings and home goods. By 2:30 PM, my Fitbit indicated I’d exceeded 16,000 steps. The real estate agent was floored with our results.

By 6:15 PM we were loaded and ready to head home. We hauled home the last loads of keepsakes, and these were added to piles of collected items in my dining room and library. Because of our progress, I felt like I could keep a short business trip to San Francisco. My son and daughter-in-law attended to legal issues and the real estate sales contract.

Upon my return on Wednesday, we got the call from the mortuary—the remains would be ready the following day. We made reservations for a boat. Thursday, we held a lovely private service at sea, scattering ashes of my daughter-in-law’s mom and grandmother together. Friday, my son and daughter-in-law flew home. Saturday, I picked up my mom at the airport.

Week three involved a couple days of shredding, along with organizing what was left into a more contained space. I still have four boxes to sort set aside. Finally, I began the process to actually catch up on my email, my calls, and the copious deferred to do items.

Weighing our choices

Take a moment to compare the crisis response worksheet you crafted with our actions. What was on your “like to” versus “able to” do lists? Was there anything you simply couldn’t have done?

We prioritize family and the value of relationships. Knowing this allowed for aligning choices in the moment for maximizing response to my daughter-in-law’s needs. When an emergency occurs is not the time to discern your priorities. Having a clear understanding of what’s most important assures we are unlikely to make rushed decisions we’ll later regret. Are you able to clearly articulate the essential priorities of your life and work?

Obviously, being a business owner facilitated flexibility. If I was in a corporate role, I would have tried to leverage vacation, telecommuting options, and remote support. Having strong relationships with clients and colleagues, who know your authentic self and your values, positions you for support when you need it. This worked in my favor when I made calls to defer work related actions. Who are the people, in a crisis, who would unreservedly support you if you needed to take time? How might you build or nurture these relationships?

Although our family’s crisis played out over a compressed time period, if we hadn’t had my flexibility, some of the actions and decisions would still have occurred over an extended number of days and weeks. Having a financial reserve for emergencies also allows for greater latitude of choice and options when a crisis presents itself. What advance structures and thinking would allow you to respond in closer alignment to your own priorities and values?

While this scenario encompasses a “life” event, I could have easily faced a “work” event. Scenario and risk analysis applies to both. At the end of the day, my choices to live with an essentialist’s mindset served our family well over the past weeks. I wish for each of you reading this a life free from crisis. If you do face an emergency, however, I wish for you the serenity of knowing your response will honor your values and priorities.

When your leadership and execution are essential, are you ready? Consider elevating your leadership through executive coaching. Choose a time that works for your discovery conversation.

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