William Onion: How to survive and thrive when the boss unexpectedly leaves the company Featured

2:53am EDT August 15, 2013
William Onion, Managing Director, Briteskies William Onion, Managing Director, Briteskies

As the business partner who remained in the office, leading the company and being charged with keeping the train on the tracks, I developed my own critical advice to plan for and survive an unexpected crisis like this one.

I had no idea that a phone call saying, “Mike’s in the hospital with a fever,” would turn into a four-month absence, leaving the company we had run together for 12 years solely in my charge.

Here are four valuable lessons I learned:

Over-communicate

Once I knew that Mike was going to be out for a significant amount of time, possibly weeks, months or years, I needed to take action. We pride ourselves on a culture of commitment and transparency, so it was only natural that I began to communicate to the team on a regular basis, sharing whatever latest information I knew about his condition and updates on what was happening across the organization.

In a vacuum of information, people will fill it, and the last thing you need is for employees to start thinking that the business is falling apart because they’re not hearing anything from the top. 

Cross-train

This may seem like very basic business advice, but it’s amazing how often it’s overlooked in today’s fast-paced environment. In general, as owners, we have a lot of key client and project knowledge in our heads. Assuming that we’ll always be around, this information is rarely shared with others, much less documented. This is a bad idea.

This goes for other employees as well. There shouldn’t be just one single person capable of doing any mission-critical tasks. At the same time, key customers should have multiple points of contact. Key company accounts like banking and insurance shouldn’t be in one person’s name, as it creates a problem when trying to gain access during a crisis.

Get comfortable with uncertainty

About three months into Mike’s absence, I faced a choice about a critical hire for the organization. If Mike were going to return, I would not need to make the hire. If he were going to be out for even a few more months, I would need to make the hire. I had no idea what would come next.

I looked at my internal resources and determined whether we could keep picking up the slack for just a little longer. We did, and he returned soon enough. The bottom line is that you have to be OK with trusting your gut and rolling the dice.

Prepare for re-entry

During Mike’s absence, by necessity, life had moved on — people had new roles, and there were new ways of doing things. One thing I wish we had done was to have a minimum two-week grace period after he returned dedicated to his transition back.

We could have had a summit with the entire organization about what had happened, who picked up which roles and what had changed. Then we could have scheduled individual sessions with each person who now owned a piece of Mike’s role and allowed them to take him through that on a specific level.

Every business is only one phone call away from a crisis. The company should be set up and prepared to perform under uncertain circumstances. At the same time, when a crisis does strike, remember to trust your team, because they are more talented than you may think. They will rise to the challenge and will be willing to help out.

 

William Onion is the managing director at Briteskies, an eCommerce design, development and integration firm, and can be reached at (216) 535-4099 or www.briteskies.com.