It was early in the morning when I arrived at the home in rural Georgia in a government vehicle. The Chaplain agreed to accompany me on this horrible trip. We were both in our formal military uniform.
When we approached the front door and rang the door bell, screams of terror emanated from inside the house. The Chaplain placed his hand on my shoulder as if to say, “Be strong.”
A young man in his twenties answered the door. Tears ran down his face as he invited us into his home and ushered us into a small living room. He was expecting us. He was the worried brother.
My eyes immediately locked onto the grieving Mother who rocked back and forth on the couch as she repeated, “No, no, no, no…”
I didn’t receive much training for this assignment. I watched a video. I read a manual and asked lots of questions. As I stood inside the home of this military family, I felt woefully inadequate for my task.
The one thing I did remember, however, was the advice the Chaplain gave me. He said to make sure I get all the bad news out all at once.
So, I knelt down on one knee so that I could be eye level with the soldier’s mother. I began to read the slip of paper I was required to read.
“I regret to inform you that your son…”
That was enough to send this heart-broken woman flying on top of me as I fell back and landed on her coffee table.
As the coffee table lay broken on the ground, the Chaplain did his best to help her off me and provide her the comfort and support she needed.
At the time, there were lots of rules to follow when you have the additional responsibility of “Casualty Notification Officer” in the U.S. Army. One of those was that we were not suppose to touch the family member, despite their tremendous grief.
As I gathered my composure, I realized my mistake. I had not finished informing her of everything I was sent to say. I swallowed hard and with every ounce of compassion I could muster, I had to tell the Mother of a U.S. service member that her son had committed suicide.
The words came out of my mouth and the soldier’s mother threw herself against the living room window in uncontrollable sorrow. It was as if a second punch had landed on her face.
To this day I will never forget the pain and anguish of this family. I felt so horrible for them. I felt disgusted with myself that I did not get all the terrible news out all at once.
The Chaplain warned me about this and I failed.
So, why am I sharing this story with all of you?
First, this is an all too common situation for many service members and veterans.
Second, this experience taught me many valuable lessons that I have incorporated into my life as a Founder & CEO.
While certainly very different situations, as the Founder of a fast-growth startup, your increasing duties as CEO will no doubt place you in the position of having to share bad, horrible, even life changing news. Hopefully it will never be as horrendous as the news I had to share with this military family.
Nonetheless, it will happen on your journey From Founder To CEO. It may be bad revenue news. It could be the loss of a key leader. It may be the shuttering of a business segment. Or, it may be having to release a large percentage of employees like Nick Francis mentioned in his #FFTC interview.
Here are some things you might consider the next time you need to share some bad news with your growing startup team.
1 – Make sure you don’t “dribble” the news out over the course of time. In the long run, it’s best to get it all out there for everyone to deal with.
2 – If you need some support, ask for it.
3 – Do your best to get all the relevant facts before you share.
4 – It’s often best that you yourself share the bad news…not a representative.
5 – Be patient. People digest bad news in different ways. Don’t expect immediate resiliency.
What have you learned about sharing bad news?
What has worked for you?