Mike Berlin; Planning for the unexpected

Michael Berlin, Founder, Briteskies LLC

In 2000, I founded Briteskies LLC, a Northeast Ohio technology company. While we’ve had our share of challenges, we had experienced steady growth and success for more than a decade, and I felt significant pride in my leadership role in the organization.

However, on Easter Sunday 2011, with little warning, I experienced a sudden, serious side effect of my Crohn’s disease. I woke up with a 106-degree fever that we ultimately found out was caused by e-coli in my bloodstream. Diagnosis and a subsequent nine-plus hour surgery to replumb my “insides” left me hospitalized for the next 30 days. All told, with the addition of another surgery, my recovery took over five months.

So for five months and without any time to plan, I was unable to return to work. The company I had founded, built and helped run day-to-day needed to go on without me. There was no certainty regarding when — and in what condition — I’d return.

Having suffered from Crohn’s disease since my 20s, I should have seen it coming. I had been told about the warning signs. Of course, as humans, and especially as entrepreneurs, we believe that it won’t happen to us. Additionally, as successful leaders, we feel that we are bulletproof. Otherwise we wouldn’t take the kinds of risks necessary to build a successful business or demonstrate the dogged persistence it takes to overcome obstacles in pursuit of a vision.

Those factors combine to make us a group of people who are less likely than most to consider, and plan for, the fact that one day the buck really may stop here.

Plan for ‘getting hit by the bus’

Now that it happened to me, I would like to let you know that there are several ways you can plan.

First, talk about the what-if scenarios with your team. By sheer chance, my co-founder and I had that very discussion four days before I got sick. We verbally agreed to a pay structure should anything happen to either of us.

Although verbal agreements are nice and worked out for me, I would still recommend that everything is put in writing. Meet with advisers or attorneys to determine what you need in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, ask yourself, ‘Can my company run without me? If I didn’t show up tomorrow, does someone know how to pay the bills? Sign paychecks? Are client projects being documented in a way that they can be easily handed off? Does my management team know where long-term projects stand?’

It is hard to carve out time to ask these questions, but if we as leaders build them into every aspect of our business, time will ensure the answers to these questions become part of how we operate.

What I wish I had known

I learned a lot of life lessons from this experience, but one tactical lesson sticks with me now more than a year later: While it’s important to plan the exit, it’s even more important to carefully plan your return.

Five months is a long time to be away. I didn’t take calls or respond to emails, and to be honest, I didn’t care. My goal was getting back on my feet and spending time with my family. In turn, the team at Briteskies rallied to make sure that our clients got the same level of stellar service they had come to expect.

I finally arrived back at the office with a mentality of, “I’m here, I’m back, let’s get to it.” But the company’s success in my absence meant that things had changed. There were different ways of doing things, conversations I had missed and judgment calls that had to be made and, consequently, were made.

It’s important for both sides to be patient and to communicate openly about the challenges of re-integrating back into the business. While it’s not possible to rewind and plug in exactly where you left off, it is possible to ensure a smoother transition.

Please don’t wait until you get hit by the bus. At times, we may forget how many people depend on us. Go above and beyond as a business leader and consider that it may happen to you and plan for what it will mean for your business, your clients, your employees and even their families. ●

About: Michael Berlin is the founder of Briteskies LLC. He can be reached at [email protected] or (216) 369-3600.