Personal leadership during life-changing events

Recently, my father passed away. It gave me the opportunity to re-emphasize my commitment to office relationships. Sheryl Sandberg reports, in her book “Option B,” that after the death of a loved one only 60 percent of private sector workers get paid time off — usually just a few days. In the U.S. alone grief-related losses in productivity may cost companies as much as $75 billion annually.

Take it from me, who can count on one hand how many sick days I’ve taken throughout my career, three days off for bereavement wouldn’t have been enough. Employees will come back tired, unproductive, possibly resentful, prone to costly mistakes and incredibly disoriented if they haven’t had time to distance themselves from the distress of losing a loved one.

My co-workers made a momentous impact. The result inspired me to share tips on personalizing your leadership during life-changing events.

A baby is something to celebrate. Share your joy. Invite a discussion about work concerns they may have. Create a pool around the forthcoming birth date or weight. Have an office shower/lunch with a theme, like favorite picture book. Hang a baby photo in the department. Email photos to colleagues. Send the parents a photo of the team holding a sign that says “Congratulations!”

Give the employee time to grieve and attend to family needs. New parents prepare for months for the birth of a child, but in a flash, you could lose a loved one. It can derail the best employee with unexpected family, house, medical and financial anxieties. You don’t want employees to return too soon. Surviving spouses may need help with living arrangements, financial support and children.

Give employees at least the equivalent of a week off. Send a meal home and/or flowers to the funeral home. Show up and pay your respects. Send cards. Offer flexible hours upon return. They’ll never forget your loyalty.

Affirm reasons for a leave of absence. If employees take approved leave, assure them that you’ll work together to create a plan to make the transition as easy as possible. Affirm their need for personal time and that you will support them in any way possible.

Ask them to set a schedule of projects and tasks they hope to accomplish before they leave and to create a list of ongoing responsibilities so that you have things well covered for their return. Decide if anyone in the organization can attend to the tasks or if temporary help is needed. Share this plan early with other team members who are worried what will be expected. Hang a “welcome back” sign upon return.


If you think your company is too big to provide these personalized touches, you’re wrong. Have your marketing and HR teams roll out an employee-centric brand that includes some of the items listed here. Forgo giving a free lunch to build engagement.

People want to know the company cares, that they have flexibility and professional development. Make it personal before your most important assets take your disengagement personally.


Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE, is president of, an executive coaching firm that helps busy leaders thrive, earn and influence from the convenience of their office, an airport, or at their leisure. Mary Lee is an award-winning mindful executive strategist, ICF certified coach and author. She has 20-plus years as a CEO leading organizations worth up to $26 million within 60,000 employee organizations, as well as coaching executives on how to get off the treadmill to nowhere with mindful confidence, connection and calm to enjoy record performance and more time with the people who matter while it still matters.