Leading Through the Death of a Team Member

Posted: December 24, 2014 in Leadership
Tags: , , , ,

Earlier this year, my team experienced the sudden tragic death of one of our teammates.

I am fortunate to lead a great team.  Our team members had been in place and unchanged for over five years.  We knew how to support each other and perform as a highly functioning team.  As we left the office together on Thursday evening, for an extended shutdown weekend, we wished each other a good weekend.  Sunday morning, a couple of us began to notice some comments on social media about “prayers for Jane’s (name changed) family.”  By the time we were returning to work Monday morning, our fears were confirmed.  Jane had died suddenly Saturday evening as the result of a traffic accident.

As I said, our team had been intact and unchanged for over five years. We were a high performing successful team.  We are also a very lean team.  One person on an extended absence creates increased workload for the remaining team members. But this wasn’t an extended absence. Jane, a highly respected manager and seventeen year employee, was gone and she was not coming back.

As a team and as a leader, we were on an odyssey we would have never chosen.  Yet, our team must continue.  We have customers to service. We have a mission to accomplish. We must succeed.  We had to navigate through the morass of emotions and increased job requirements before we could begin to recover and return to the highly performing team which we are capable.

Like many leaders navigating new experience, I turned to wisdom base of the internet. I searched for anything related to “leading after the death of a team member.” My search results provided little to no guidance.  I guess it is such a painful and emotional event, many leaders would rather not relive their experience by writing it out.  That is probably why it has taken me nearly eight months to sit down to complete this blog post.

Throughout our recovery, I have tried to capture notes of leadership lessons learned in my journal.  I have consolidated these to nine key leadership lessons for leading through the death of a teammate.  I hope you never experience these, the way we have this year.  But if you do, I hope you find some comfort in our shared experiences.

Understand Mourning Process – When we returned to work Monday morning, we were slapped in the face with the reality that Jane would not be returning.  A couple of us had pieced together information from various social media posts.  Others were just learning of Jane’s death that morning.  We did not need to take time for mourning.  The mourning was confiscating time for itself.

We spend as much time, often more time, with the people we work with than we do our own families.  On this particular Monday morning our work family was deeply hurting.

Jane’s workspace was the first space you saw as you enter our team area.  As a team, we felt it was important to have a memorial, a small vase with some of her favorite flowers, at Jane’s desk. It was a stark reminder of our loss that encouraged memories of happier times.  It was important that we mourn our loss as a team.  It was just as important that we mourn individually.

As a leader, it is important to realize that each individual mourns differently.  It was important for each person to have the freedom to step away whenever needed. We still had jobs to do.  Our customers had no idea what our team was going through.  As much as possible, we had to maintain business as usual, so stepping away was the safety net each needed for overwhelming emotional moments.

In May 2014, Dave Stachowiak, on his Coaching for Leaders podcast, discussed the emotional side of leading after a workplace loss. His podcast offered some excellent advice for dealing with team members’ emotional wellbeing.  For me, the podcast was a great reassurance that we had handled the emotional aspects of our loss fairly well.  Dave and I have shared a couple emails since.  With his permission, I have included a link to the podcast episode at the end of this post.

Together, We Are A Team – “As a leader, you set the tone for your entire team.” (Colin Powell) 

As we stood consoling each other and discussing what we needed to do first, all I could think to say was: “Together, we are a team.”  We will get through this, together.

That word carried a lot more weight than I ever imagined.  It was more than just a reminder that each of us is there for the others.  It was a reminder that we are watching out for each other.  We would remind each other to “breathe” when the weight of the moment became too much.  We found greater comfort in mourning our shared loss together. We attended the visitation for the family and funeral, together, as one team.

We discussed how we would need to adjust our workflow, for the immediate future.  But all of that seemed miles away during the early moments.  As the days rolled forward, it was our commitment to together that helped us focus and succeed as a team, even though business was no longer usual.

Leadership Can Be Lonely – John Maxwell says: “Anyone who says, ‘It’s lonely at the top’ is not a leader. A leader wouldn’t be at the top by alone.”

While a completely agree with Dr. Maxwell’s statement, in this situation there were certainly some lonely leadership moments.  Securing access and rerouting Jane’s email, even though business related, felt like an invasion of privacy.

Going through her desk to separate out any personal belongings definitely had a more personal feeling.  You truly recognize what is most important to a person, when you look at their personal effects around the workspace.

The lonely task that hit me the hardest was changing the voicemail message on her phone.  Listening to the old message, hearing Jane’s voice drove home the realization that my team would never be the same.  How we navigated the next few weeks and rebuilt our team would determine our recovery and continued success.

The worst days were behind us.  It was time to focus on the rest of our journey.

The “Hit by a Bus” Plan Is Inadequate – In every leadership position, I have encouraged key people to maintain what I call a “hit by a bus” plan.  The hit by a bus plan is a set of instructions of where key information, status of current projects, and current commitments can be found, if the individual has an unexpected absence for a period of time.

We even tested our “hit by a bus” plans when each individual would take vacation or be out for multiple days.  We would make adjustment for anything that had to wait until the individual’s return.  The worse situation was when we would need to call someone on vacation to find answers to problems we could not solve.

Now Jane was no longer a phone call away.  She could not answer any questions.  Any short falls in the plan were ours to work through.  We soon realized our “hit by a bus” plans seldom assume we will never return.

Respect Time in Replacement – Immediately after Jane’s death, our remaining team covered the additional duties, similar to the way we would cover during vacations or temporary absences.  The team’s mission was our biggest driver.  In reality, it was a very healing process for each of us.  As I spoke with each team member, each relayed that honoring Jane’s memory was a large motivator.

Filling all our activities with a smaller team is a short term solution to a long term problem.  The leadership challenge, for me, was finding the balance between respecting the time needed for emotional healing, the toll of the temporary workload increase, and refitting the team for our long term success.

In the end, it was nearly two months before we began seeking the right person to complete our team.  It was a wait that really stretched my comfort level, as a leader.  Ultimately, I am glad I did not allow my desire for expediency to overrun the team’s need to grieve, reprocess and begin to look forward.  The best leadership decision for me was to keep pace with my team so we all arrived at our destination together.

“Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people.” – Ken Blanchard, Patricia Zigarmi, and Drea Zigarmi (Leadership and The One Minute Manager)

The delay provided time to think through our team needs.  We had a blank page.  We had the opportunity to design our ultimate team, define our talent needs and find our new mix.

Compatibility, not Conformity – There is not another Jane.  Searching for her would be frustrating, at best.  Finding her would prove impossible.  Selecting the new team member is important.

Hiring to fill our needs and build the team is most important.  We had to avoid the hiring to “replace Jane” trap.  This is not “Jane’s Job” any longer.  Conformity to the old mindset was not optimal.  In the building of the new team, compatibility is paramount.

Respecting the time in replacement and defining our team needs encouraged a metamorphosis in my own thinking as the team leader.  We are not rebuilding the team; we are building the NEW team.

Team Building Phases Still Apply – We had been fortunate to have our team intact for as long as we did.  We had enjoyed a significant period of sustained high performance.  It would be easy for those of us who experienced that period of time to force the same expectations on the new team.  That is the mistake I most wanted us to avoid.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Bruce Tuckman defined the phases of team work as:  Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing – Transforming

I have found these to be true in my own experiences, as well.  There is a process to building a team.  No matter how good we are, we are not exempt from the process.  We must respect the process.  Knowing this is part of what drives us to continually improve.  We are not yet where we need to be, but we are a long way from where we started.  Our team’s best days are in front of us and getting closer all the time.

Honor History, Focus Forward – Not many days go by without us thinking about Jane.  We still see her influence in our processes and activities.  We find her notes and contributions in project files.  We have memories of times past and the benefits of lessons learned.  There are now more pleasant thoughts than sad.

Building our new team didn’t ignore history.  Instead, we found the best measure of honoring history was by focusing forward.  The best way we can honor history is by making this team the best ever.

It has been a difficult journey.  I have learned many more lessons, than I could ever mention here.  Those lessons will not be easily forgotten.  It is that knowledge that brings me to the greatest lesson of all.

Together, We Are The Team – We are moving forward together. We are succeeding together.  Together, we are the team.  That is what leadership and teamwork are all about.


As I promised, here is the link to Dave Stachowiak, Coaching for Leaders – Podcast 142:  http://coachingforleaders.com/podcast/what-to-do-after-workplace-loss/

  1. […] article on Leading Through the Death of a Team Member is now complete and highlights the nine lessons he learned. I’m impressed by how Tim made a point […]

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