By May, I knew it was going to be a bad year for my 7 year-old company, and for me and the 25 staffers at Dorf/MJH Communications. So did the 8 staffers I’d just terminated after we lost a major account. Struggling to meet payroll and pay bills (since we’d also moved into new, larger quarters) turned out to be a trivial issue when I got the fateful call: serious, advanced cancer in the body of an otherwise healthy 30 year-old CEO. Oh, and by the way–assuming, of course, I survived–I’d be out of commission for at least two months.
Business was truly horrible, hand-to-mouth, with nervous employees and furious suppliers on the phone or at the door, looking for assurance from the CEO with his name on the door, while that fella was rather distracted, to say the least. Decades later, I still can’t forget the lunch with my newly-anointed “number two,” whom I’d chosen over recently-terminated #3 and #4. It was simple. “Here’s what’s happened at the doctor’s. Oh, and by the way, the business is in deep trouble, as you know from our conversation on last week. Here are my keys, and some new signature cards from the bank. I hope you’ll do your best, as I know you will, and I hope I’ll have a company to come back to when it’s over.”
Alex had been with me less than three years when the s—storm struck, but his talent and dedication led me to promote him twice in that time, expand his responsibilities, and treat him like an owner, which was exactly the attitude he’d shown since day one. We had a leadership meeting, told everyone the story, announced Alex’s new role and told the staff together.
A few weeks after surgery, I noticed that Alex had barely visited me if at all, unlike more than a few of the closer team members. Delicately curious, I soon learned that he was practically sleeping in the office, nights and weekends, keeping the “wings on the plane” and trying to get the red ink off our P&L. Some weeks later, he arrived at my hospital bed after an unexpected second surgery with a “cat that got the canary” grin on his face, from ear to ear. His dedication, type a personality, and lack of sleep paid off: he’d closed a big long-term engagement with Ralston-Purina, something we’d been chasing together for months. What’s more, it turned red to black on the monthly P&L for the first time that difficult year.
The second surgery delayed my recovery by several more months, but Alex drove from Brooklyn to my home in Connecticut more than once, sometimes with clients, as I began the slow crawl back to my usual 80-hour-a-week pace. Some years later, when we sold the business for a pretty penny, that once-very-junior guy was President of Dorf & Stanton Communications and owned some 30% of the company.
Several decades later, it’s all still an indelible memory, especially the dedication of a relatively junior employee and his commitment to keeping the wings on the airplane, even if he didn’t have a pilot’s license, own the plane, or have the time to visit his boss in the hospital.
What should you do?
First, of course, avoid cancer and many other dreaded diseases. Second, I’ve collected a few thoughts for the few things you can do(other than hire great people) to be ready just in case a lightning-bolt of this magnitude and (fortunately) rarity strikes:
- Hire right in the first place. Be sure you know both the technical and human talents you’re looking for.
- Promote talent ambitiously. Let strong performers earn their way up, into new, bigger roles–and reward them.
- Treat your top performers like partners, even if they aren’t. Be open and honest with them.
- Have a written-down D-Day Plan and keep it up-to-date(I didn’t).
- Offer the best health insurance you can afford, funding a greater share of it quickly, with a bias toward your outstanding performers.
- Remember, some things are more important than work.
- Get lucky. Maybe you’ll have an Alex Stanton at your side in good times, bad times, or both.
P.S. We’re still good friends almost 30 years later!
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.