As leaders, we are often called on to do difficult things. We have to have hard conversations with our employees. We have to choose one person over another for a promotion. We have to communicate budget cuts, project changes, and communicate decisions that sometimes even we do not understand.
It’s part of the job.
This became real to me recently when I had to do a hard thing. In fact, it might have been one of the hardest professional/personal things I have done in my life – and I’ve done some pretty difficult things. I thought I would share what I did to make it through, and even make somewhat of a success out of it.
For those following my story, you may know that three months ago I was, along with 300 of my dear friends and colleagues, laid off from a company where I had spent the last 17 years. I loved the company, and it was a difficult separation.
Last month, I received an invitation to the retirement party of my dearest mentor and friend, a senior executive of that company. He was gracious (as the best mentors are) and called ahead to be sure I wasn’t surprised when I received the invitation. I knew that the senior managers, the very managers who had just laid me off, were going to be there. I also knew that, despite this, I would be there to celebrate this individual who had been so instrumental in my development as a person and a leader.
I knew I would go, and yet I did not RSVP until three days before the event. It was that hard to commit. But I went, and I had a lovely (if extremely awkward) time, and I was so very proud to celebrate the amazing achievements of my mentor.
In reflecting on this event and other hard things I have coached others through, or done myself, I find that there are several critical steps to getting through:
- Know that it is the right thing to do
- Know your limits
- Act professionally, with compassion and authenticity
- Find your allies
- Allow space for decompression afterwards
The critical piece in doing hard things is knowing it is the right thing to do. In some way, for some reason, the hard thing is the best thing. In my opening scenario, it was absolutely the right thing to do to show up for my mentor who had always shown up for me.
This is just as important in everyday leadership situations. Take a difficult conversation with an employee, for example. One of the hardest conversations I ever had was an embarrassing discussion with an associate about body odor. It was creating significant drama in the area and disrupting the business day. Addressing this was awkward for both me and the associate, but it was clearly the right thing to do. It turned out that it was a matter of medication, and the associate had no idea that anyone else could smell it. The doctor quickly made a change and the problem was solved.
It is likely that at some point in your career you will have to communicate a decision you don’t understand or even fully agree with. In this case, it is absolutely imperative that you do additional research, talk to your boss, do whatever you need to do to understand where the decision is coming from. In this way, you will learn why others feels this is the right thing to do, and from there you can build your own case.
It is also important to know your own limits. Sometimes, doing hard things puts you in a position that is not in line with your values or ethics. It is vital that you know where that line is before you come up against it. I encourage every new leader to spend some significant time on this. In my opening scenario, I knew there were certain conversations I was not yet ready to have, and so I did not have them.
In another instance, early in my career, I was asked to “fudge” some numbers. What I was asked to do was not illegal, it probably wasn’t even technically wrong, but to me it crossed a line. I stood my ground and said ‘no.’ I can’t say I was well liked for that decision, but at least I felt good about myself.
When doing hard things, it is important to maintain your executive presence, but do so in a compassionate and authentic manner. This is a tough one. When doing hard things, we have to stay professional. We have to stay strong. This is easier if you have your “why” and you know it is the right thing to do. It can be easy, though, to let emotions and sympathy get in the way of doing this the right way.
At my mentor’s retirement party, I worked hard to stay professional but to share open and honestly with those who asked. I did not engage in gossip, I did not discuss individuals who were not present, and I kept my conversation light and positive. This was a celebration of an amazing leader and I did not want to be a distraction.
The other half of that equation is to be compassionate and authentic while being professional. I tried to recognize that it was difficult for those with ‘survivor syndrome’ and to honor that. I also did my best to empathize with those leaders who had to make the tough decisions on who lost their jobs and who stayed behind. It is okay to share that what you are doing is hard for you, and that you understand the immediate negative impact on the individual, but that in the end, it will be better for both sides.
One of the most important things I did to make the retirement party a success was to have my husband with me. He is my fiercest ally and I am always stronger when he is by my side. I also immediately found those individuals who I knew were my allies, who always had my best interest at heart. In this way, I found safety in what would otherwise have felt like a rather threatening situation.
Finally, the after the hard thing is over, it is important to give yourself space to feel your feelings, to give yourself space to decompress. On the ride home from the retirement party, my husband drove, and I cried the entire way. By the time we reached the driveway, I felt better and was able to fully enjoy the rest of the evening with my kids.
We all need to be sure we have the space to process the emotions that come up after we do hard things. We need to be able to release the pressure in a way that is safe and productive, and do so as soon as possible after the hard thing. I have several suggestions on how to do this – I’d love to hear if you have some as well.
Always remember – as leaders WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.
And as always, keep it positive!