I experienced two strokes in quick succession. The second almost ended my life. When I was awakened – after life-saving brain surgery and several weeks in an induced coma – I found myself in a diminished state physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was only after months of intensive physical therapy, the support of friends and family, and by the Grace of God, that I was able to resume something like my normal life.
Three months after the strokes I returned to work, first on a very limited basis and, sometime later, full time.
I’d like to share what I learned about the work reentry process in the hope that my experiences will make it easier for others to move back to their jobs as they recover from a brain trauma or, perhaps, other debilitating illnesses.
Listen to your body.
Your body will let you know what you are capable of doing or not doing. For me, fatigue was a major issue. Throughout my career I could push through my fatigue and just keep going. Not anymore. Now, I try to stay aware of my energy levels and slow down or stop at the first sign of weariness.
“The mind’s first step to self awareness must be through the body.” –George Sheehan
Listen to your doctors and physical therapists as well.
They can anticipate many of the bumps you will be facing on your road to recovery that may catch you unaware. That doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate with them a bit when you have a difference of opinion. Mine were somewhat reluctant to agree that I was ready to return to work. But I explained to them that I was the COO and would be sitting behind a desk, not doing any kind of stressful physical labor. They agreed to my plan, only asking me to pace my re-entry into the company.
Allow yourself to ease back into the job. I started going back into the office for four hours a day, five days a week. I wanted to see how it would go. After a month or so, I was feeling pretty positive and increased my attendance to a “full” day – eight hours. Note that before the strokes, a full day was more like twelve hours.
Rev up your memory.
Before returning to the job, it’s vital to practice memory techniques in order to get the brain ready for the demands that will be put upon it. One of the side effects of stroke and traumatic brain injury is memory loss. It may be mild or it may be severe, but odds are some loss will occur. At one point after my strokes, I could be told something, and five minutes later I couldn’t remember what that something was. In the course of rehab, therapists worked with me to improve my memory and taught me techniques for remembering.
Those techniques, called association, include remembering a list of items by grouping them into a larger category and remembering someone’s name by associating her or him with a famous person with the same name. I also used word search games where I had to look through a jumble of letters and try to discern certain words. Playing the games on an iPad, I was able to keep track of how long it took me to complete a puzzle. I could see my time improving almost every day, and that is great positive reinforcement. I also worked with Sudoku puzzle books which use numbers instead of words in their games.
Don’t get frustrated.
Don’t get frustrated with yourself, or with the people around you, when problems or misunderstandings arise. Conversations may go off track, misunderstandings may arise, your work may go more slowly than before. Give yourself, your colleagues, employees, and clients a chance to adjust to the new norm – to your new level of activity.
Do something to prove to yourself you are close to returning to your old self.
Connecting At A Deeper Level
The first step to strategizing what kind of team you want to lead is deciding what kind of story you want for your organization. What stories will your customers tell their friends and family? What stories will your employees tell their friends and family? Your business’s success and profitability depend on the stories that get told. Take the time to develop a story that captivates and engages.
Here’s an example. I have spoken many times around the world about a disastrous experience I had on Lufthansa Airlines over ten years ago. There is even a video of me available on the Internet telling the story. Personally, Lufthansa has lost over $350,000 in business that they could have potentially got from my international travels because of this experience.
Conversely, British Airways is one of my all-time favorite airlines because of the emotional connection I have with them. Why? What is the STORY that makes me go out of my way to do business with them?
Create a WOW Story
It was New Years 2010, my daughter, then 19 years old, flew back to Europe to see her school friends and celebrate New Years with them. She had a lot of fun – apparently too much fun because when she was returning home, she had to transfer to the last leg of her trip at Heathrow Airport. While she was waiting for her next flight, she fell asleep in a chair at the gate and missed repeated PA announcements calling her to board her flight.
How to Help Your People, Team, and Organization Achieve
In the Seven Disciplines of a Leader, Jeff Wolf explores what leadership looks like when done right. Jeff has coached hundreds of leaders and offers his disciplines in order to benefit leaders at all levels of the organization. I recently talked with Jeff about the leadership disciplines discussed in his book.
“Companies place the wrong leadership in the job 82 percent of the time.” –Forbes
What advice do you give to someone who wants to stand out and get noticed as a leader in a large organization?
Learn what your company looks for in its leaders. See if there’s a competency model that identifies successful leaders’ strengths and characteristics. Study this model and be sure to practice the competencies. If no such model exists, seek out successful company leaders and talk with them to gain a better understanding of how they became successful.
You should also volunteer to lead small projects, which will provide useful leadership experiences and exposure. You’ll gain confidence and enhance the skill sets that are weak.
Always be curious. Seek new opportunities and experiences, and always be open to trying something out of your normal comfort zone.
I would encourage budding and aspiring leaders to create a plan, put it in writing, and then “work it.” Research proves that people who put their goals in writing are usually more successful.
Read as many books and attend as many training courses as possible, both within and outside of the company. Vary courses so you can experience a broad spectrum of leadership skills.
“A leader’s upbeat attitude is contagious and lifts morale.” -Jeff Wolf
There’s another important challenge to overcome: Learn the areas in which you must improve because we all have blind spots. We see some of our weaknesses, but it’s truly impossible to identify all of them.
It’s important for leaders to be positive and have a great attitude because they can either impart or sap energy. A leader’s upbeat attitude becomes contagious, lifting the morale of those around them. You can always teach skills, but you cannot always teach people how to be positive; they either have a great attitude or they don’t.
Be sure you are striving to work well with others and be aware how other people view you. When you stand up to speak in front of a group, do you exude confidence, present articulate, clear messages, and carry yourself well?
Coaching for Success
What is the most common reason someone calls you for coaching?
Coaching used to be thought of as a tool to help correct underperformance or, as I often call it, the “broken wing theory.” Today, coaching is used to support leaders, employees with high potential, and top producers in an effort to enhance individual capabilities.
We work in such a high-speed environment! Organizations are finally beginning to recognize the importance of helping leaders achieve critical business objectives in the shortest possible time, so they’re hiring me to speed personnel development.
I’m often brought into organizations to deal with a number of leadership issues. Providing feedback is one key area. As leaders move into greater levels of responsibility, they receive less—perhaps even no—feedback from others on their performance. The unfortunate consequence is stagnation. Critical leadership and interpersonal skills often reach certain levels, and the leader is given no opportunity to become an even better leader. Working one-on-one with an objective third-party coach offers these leaders a trusted advisor who can focus on behavioral changes that organizations are ill equipped to handle. Coaching develops extraordinary leaders. Extraordinary leaders produce extraordinary business results.
If you are a new manager, what are a few ways to have a quick impact?
People make companies. As leaders, we often spend most of our time on strategy and improving bottom-line results, but what about our people? It’s our job, as leaders, to guide them, help them develop more skills, and increase productivity.
I think Walt Disney put it perfectly: “You can dream, create and design the most wonderful place in the world….but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”
For a quick impact, work to understand what your people want, not just what you want, and act accordingly. Ask your staff for their feedback with questions such as:
- What can I do to make you happier here?
- What do you find challenging about your work?
- What’s energizing about your work?
- How can I be a better leader for you to be successful?
- What resources do you need that you currently don’t have?
- What motivates you to work hard?
- Do you feel appreciated and receive the praise and recognition you feel you deserve?
Often times a new leader’s first inclination is to become too friendly with people. After all, everyone wants to be liked. But by trying to become everyone’s friend, leaders run the risk of losing respect and influence. If your staff considers you to be one of the group, they may not respect your judgment on important issues.
Additionally, they may lose their motivation to achieve goals, fail to work hard, and assume deadlines are soft when they believe their “friend” will never reprimand them. That’s why leaders must avoid falling into the trap of becoming too friendly with their staff. The bottom line? You’re the boss—not a best friend! You cannot be objective and unbiased when staff members view you as a work pal.