Google CEO Larry Page’s announcement about his vocal cord condition spotlights the struggle many business leaders experience when dealing with illness while also running a company.
Page revealed that he’s been diagnosed with vocal cord paralysis, a rare nerve condition in your throat that affects your ability to speak, which he contracted 14 years ago. More recently, the ailment caused him to miss some important Google events and investor calls.
When the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was beginning to look ill in 2006, no one knew what was wrong with him, and people started to speculate – a nightmarish situation for most business owners. “A company wants to be in control of its own narrative,” says Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and author of Boundaries for Leaders (Harper Business, 2013).
“When you’re not telling the story, then other people will tell it for you.”
Rather than let rumours spread, Page took control. In a Google+ post, he explained the diagnosis, how he got sick and what the future holds for both his health and his involvement at Google. “Thankfully, after some initial recovery I’m fully able to do all I need to at home and at work,” Page wrote. He said the only difference people might notice is that he will be speaking less.
As a leader dealing with a serious illness, you must communicate with your staff and customers, while also taking care of your health, says Cloud. He offers a few strategies for managing sickness at work.
Continue to build trust. It’s important that your employees, investors, clients and anyone else you deal with on a regular basis believe that you have the capacity to continue to lead or that you have a strong plan in place, Cloud says.
That plan may include letting them know which people will be taking over for you, if required. To build trust, first communicate clearly about what’s going on, says Cloud. Then establish credibility over time by following through on the steps you’ve laid out.
When your team sees you continue to fulfill customer orders and pay your employees on time, they’ll have more faith that you can keep the company humming despite your illness.
Show vulnerability, to a point. Your gut reaction might be to be stoic, but employees will embrace you for showing your humanity. Most everyone has had to deal with a sick family member. When you speak with employees about the illness, compare it to the difficulty a family experiences when someone is sick.
“They can identify with that,” says Cloud. At the same time, you might realise you can use your experience to better your company and your relationship with your employees. For example, you may discover that the health-benefits package you’ve been offering isn’t ideal.
Owning up to it and then offering to change it can be an opportunity, says Cloud. Let your employees know that you want to use what you’ve learned through your illness to improve the business.
Communicate regularly and thoughtfully with employees. Employees need to know what their reality is going to look like going forward. But while they need information, planning and structure, “they need that in the proper dosage,” says Cloud. For example, daily emails about your health might be overwhelming.
If you instead say every Friday at 10 a.m. you’ll post an update, then people know when the information is coming and feel more secure. Remember: You’re building a track record for your new reality. As soon as your employees, investors and clients feel that you have established your reliability, Cloud says “they can settle down and go back to work.”