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Leading Through Tough Times

If you follow us on social media, you likely know 2022 was quite a year. From professional highs to personal lows, it was a roller coaster. I've said this before; I sometimes struggle with how much to share in this public space. In our weekly media meetings, we discuss everything from shop promotion, to photoshoots and social media voice comes up often. We study others, analyze engagement and laugh at funny reel ideas (none of which are on brand and therefore do not make the cut!). We talk a lot about this idea of experience gatekeeping too. How is sharing certain experiences related to our work? Is getting "personal" on brand? Is this how we're using our voice in this space, even for just a little bit of the time? I've come to learn that I don't really care about the answers to those questions as much as I thought I did.

This business is all about sharing. Clients share their spaces and how they want to live their lives in them. We share our creativity and expertise to bring things to life. I recently started creativity coaching because I love to talk shop and see others thrive- I really do just love sharing. So I thought I'd share my experience and some lessons I've learned as a business owner, leader and creative as I've walked through the toughest season of my life and slowly coming out on the other side.

The reality is that we will all go through hard things. A jarring diagnosis, loss, fall out. And more reality is that the world keeps moving. So how to do we do it? How do we walk through these hard things, honoring our experiences and caring for ourselves while trying to maintain something we've worked so hard for?

My hard thing started in 2020. Of course we all felt the disorienting, sometimes paralyzing blow of COVID and I know a lot of us endured loss. But for me it predated even this historic crisis. In January, I got news that my mom had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. The first thing my parents told me was "Lauren, don't Google it." Did I listen? Would you? The prognosis was three months to a year. I was devastated. I remember going to a design meeting the next day and feeling in a haze, so fragile and weird. Nothing in the world felt the same because I knew it was all about to be rocked for me. What would it even be like to lose her? How was I going to tell my kids? It didn't seem real but when the reality would bite, it bit hard. I sent an email to my clients apologizing if I'd seemed aloof in any way, and shared the news as succinctly as I could. I wasn't looking for sympathy and felt so awkward, but also felt like I owed an explanation. More or less, this would be the story for about two more years. Miraculously, my mom had rallied and beat so many odds, making it to both of my brothers' weddings, milestones, and holidays. She was able to see our King St. studio which was a big deal for us both. She sat in one of the low leather chairs in my office, surrounded by boxes to be unpacked and art to be hung, and closed her eyes, soaking in the reality that we'd made it there. Yes, the space was small, the first floor of an old Charleston single with a significant lean and lots of work to be done. But relative to everywhere else we'd been, it was huge, and on King Street, even if it was upper King. Queue the juxtaposition of professional gain and personal loss.

Honestly, cancer is such a mind fuck. Excuse my french, but it's true. Despite what we all knew would happen, we still had this hope that maybe we'd get a miracle. Things still felt so miraculously good even when the hair was lost and skin started to change. I don't know. I can't explain it, she'd just always seem to bounce back. I know now how hard she worked to hide the pain and the information she'd been given. And then one day in April 2022, I was driving a U-Haul truck, in the "do whatever it takes" mode of getting an install done, when I got the call from my dad. It was time. Our team was spread pretty thin that day and I frantically tried to make it work but my sweet client assured me they would be fine and we'd reschedule later. I was on a flight within an hour. The week that I was in Maryland as she passed was the most surreal, slow burn trauma I've ever experienced. I sent an email to clients, most of whom already knew, frequently asking, telling me they were thinking about her and praying for her, explaining that the time had come and I'd be out of the studio for a little while. My new and dutiful Project Manager, Haley, was up to the task and stepped in in a way that I am so grateful for and everyone was extremely kind. I spent that week at home holding her hand, administering medication, waiting and watching with my precious family as we all did what anyone who knows us would expect. We were in go mode. In folded up moments we let the emotions through the cracks, but I think we all new that if those cracks were to burst we wouldn't get through the way we wanted and needed to. We were present and alert and I remember every single heartbreaking second so clearly. We said our final goodbyes on April 23, 2022, two years and three months after her three-month prognosis, and almost exactly a month shy of her 62nd birthday.

Not long after she passed, my dad's mom, my grandma Doris, who had been in hospice, died in June and the year ended with another loss; my mom's mom, my grandma Martha, died in November.

I lost two whole generations of women all at once. And even though I'm a grown woman myself, the hole they leave as my greatest supporters, inspiration and wisdom is unfathomably vast. So that's my personal story for the past two years, culminating in force as 2022 came to an end.

Now for the professional side of things. I haven't even gotten to my point, so I'm going to keep this quick. We went from a team of three to a team of six, doubled our project load, launched several exclusive, private label products, began development on several more, and ended the year securing something we can't quite share yet, but are so close! In short- this year was huge professionally and full of gains. Now I am not going to say "and you'd never know what I was going through." No, no. It was known. My struggle was definitely apparent. And of course it was, I'm human and this is all crazy. So how did I get through it? How am I getting through it? Well I can't say I've done everything right, but here are some lessons that I've learned about leading, staying afloat, and not completely losing it professionally when you're going through hard times personally.

Stay Honest

I'm not saying you have to share every detail with every person, but trying to keep up a happy face when you really cannot isn't good for anyone. Be honest with yourself about your limits, priorities and what you need to take care of yourself. Almost always, these times will pass, so understand that taking care of yourself now sets you up for success when the dust settles (second to the fact that you are human and deserve care!). Be honest with people you're working with as well. Be it clients or your team, remember that you are allowed to take some space. I find it super helpful to put parameters on this so that clients or those that you are responsible to know what to expect. This garners confidence while also establishing that you're taking some time. Being proactive is also a must if possible. Something like this works well:

Hello (clients, co-workers, whoever),

I'm writing to let you know that due to (recent loss, diagnosis, personal circumstance), I will be taking leave from (this date to that date). To ensure we're staying on track, you can expect to be contacted by (your backup) with current updates and next steps. (Backup) can be reached at (contact, maybe add their hours as well); please do not hesitate to reach out to them with any questions.

I look forward to picking things up when I return and appreciate your understanding during this time.

Slow Down

If you're like me, this feels exactly the opposite of what these circumstances require, but I am here to tell you that the more frantic and manic you get about making sure things are ok/done, the more crazy you'll actually make things. Allow yourself the head space, the physical space, and the time, even if it's just an hour, to get a cup of coffee, sit down, and map out what needs to get done in the period of time you plan on being on leave. And I think it goes without saying, but you will need to allow yourself some leave if you're experiencing loss. Do not think you can power through. I am a power-througher, but I can tell you, no one will appreciate you more for trying to keep going when what you really need is a break. And taking the time to get clear on what is needed to do this is paramount. In most cases, you have time to pause and do this, so do not rush around like crazy trying to do all the things. Make a list or road map of the things and get ready to hand them off.

Back It Up

*Preface: This is for small teams, which I can speak to with experience. If you're a mid-sized team, your back-up may be multiple people. If you're single-handedly running the show, this could be a great time to bring on an assistant- more on that next.

I know this can be the hardest part- getting someone else on your team up to speed so that they can step in for you in the interim, when your head may be spinning and moral is low. My advice here is to make sure that everything that has to be done from a process standpoint is covered. For example, Haley was a rockstar at electrical walk-throughs and other on-site construction meetings that we'd usually tag-team. She was also a great liaison for me as she knew I wasn't really in any shape to be talking to clients but could absolutely help her when she needed it. She was a great gatekeeper and had a clear understanding of our priorities during this time. If you have this kind of back up in your business, it's important to equip them with:

Priorities : If you're able, have a meeting before your leave, or if you find yourself in an emergency situation, try to carve out time at some point to establish what can't slip through the cracks and what can be put on hold. For us, we kept all things construction timeline going and put a several week pause on creative. This is mostly due to the fact that at the immediate time of my mom's passing, our team was myself, Haley, my PM who'd been with me for only about a month, and Lacey, our social media coordinator and photographer, who was just coming back from maternity leave. We didn't have studio support or a junior designer at the time, so this just made sense and naturally, everyone was more than understanding. If anyone is not- let them go. It blew my mind to discover I did have a few of these and it couldn't have been easier to say goodbye.

Contacts : Anyone they need to know and know how to contact, make sure they have that info. Ideally, this information is already centralized, and this is a good reason to audit your contacts, log-ins, and any other commonly used data regularly.

Schedule : Take a second to review the schedule together for the obvious reasons, but also to stay aligned on when you really will not be available and be aware of when you may want to keep an ear out for SOS calls. Haley knew when all the funerals, visitations, flights and other key events were and really had my back during those times. If you're up for scheduling some check-in's it's not a bad idea and to be honest, having them on the books was extremely helpful escape for me.

Secure the Cash

For small businesses, cash flow can be a tricky thing. Assuredly, you're always aware of what this looks like for you and what your needs are as business owner, but times of crisis are especially important. Assuming you're probably your own CFO, be aware of what your accounts receivable look like to cover costs at this time, especially if it could extended. Depending on your fee structure, billing structure, etc., it could be worth it to look into quick funding options with low interest rates and no penalties on early pay-back to bridge any gaps and have one less thing to worry about. There are so many great podcast episodes on this (my go-to is Luann Nigara's A Well-Designed Business) and financial advisors are certainly encouraged, but as someone who's always run their business on a cash basis and never considered financing before (mostly because I was scared!), I can tell you that there are good options that can really help if you find yourself not able to produce billable work for an extended amount of time but know you'll be billing significantly when you return.

Get All the Help

This sounds so obvious and means so many things, but it's easy to get overwhelmed and lose touch with what you need. It may mean bringing on some part time assistance (if you're worried about scaling that financially, see above and raise those rates). It may mean (definitely means) therapy. It may mean medication. It may mean sending your kids to a friends house for some extended play time so that you can just take care of you- whatever that means. I'm the kind of person who is prone to believe that more help = more people to "train" = more risk of things going wrong during the learning curve. No, no, no. This is about so much more, and is a whole other post on scaling and succeeding and growth. This isn't a time to push away or not seek whatever help you need. If you're in loss, it's likely that there are some volunteers waiting in the wings, so give them something to do. Don't get in a car crash on your drive through this storm. In other words, don't make things harder for yourself than they need to be- it will only prolong healing and recovery.

You may not have a "2022" year of your own, but I do know that we'll all face tough times personally while trying to keep it together professionally. And as small business owners, it can definitely feel like it all rests on our shoulders. I hope this post will encourage you to bolster your support, evaluate your systems, finances and overall self-care so that whether you're faced with some gentle waves or hurricane gale force, you can get through the other side, allowing yourself the support and space to feel, heal and thrive.

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