As a startup founder, your team is your most valuable asset. Yet in the day-to-day of building a company, it’s easy to forget they’re also individuals—ones with families, loved ones, and lives outside of work. And when serious events happen in their personal lives, you need to be ready to support them fully. Or risk losing them forever.
Whether it’s a death in the family or a new addition to it, how you treat your team members during pivotal life moments will dictate how they feel about you, the quality of their work, and whether they stick with you long term.
It’s never easy dealing with life and death. Yet after facing both of these situations multiple times in the past year at Close, we’ve developed a few guidelines about how to best support team members during these drastic changes to their personal lives.
Want my best advice on hiring and managing great teams? Download a free copy of my Sales Hiring Playbook, which contains lots of advice specifically when building a sales team, but also applies to leading people in any other role.
First and foremost, you have to be selfless
Whether your teammate is dealing with tragedy or celebration, I guarantee they’re feeling stressed, pressured, and anxious. And the last thing you want to do right now is add to that.
They already know others are going to have to cover for them. They’re nervous about how this news is going to impact their job and their relationship with you. And if the first thing you do is mirror those fears, it’s going to create a rift they might never forget or forgive you for.
Instead, you need to put everything aside. Your needs. Your timeline. Your milestones. And think about the human being in front of you. What does this moment mean for them? Are they excited? Nervous? Sad?
Approach the situation from a completely selfless place and ask them questions to fully understand what’s going on:
- What does this mean for you?
- How do you feel?
- Can we help?
These major life events can either destroy relationships or strengthen them. And the more you ease their anxiety when they first come to you, the more connected they’re going to feel to you and their job.
Listen to their wants and needs
Once you’re both calm, it’s time to have an open and transparent conversation about what this means.
Forget the short-term stress and focus on the bigger picture. Listen to their questions, concerns, and comments and write them down. Let them speak and don’t judge or interject. What do they need to get through this in the most positive way possible? How would they ideally want the next few days, weeks, or months to play out?
Your body language matters more than ever right now. And the best way to get your body language and tonality right is by getting yourself into a state where you actually feel the way you want them to perceive you. When you're leading a team, one of the most important skills you need to build is to be able to manage your own emotional states: Be calm, relaxed, and supportive. You can say all the right things, but if your body says differently, they’ll know it. Show that you’re taking them seriously and only want to support them during this critical moment.
Create a game plan together
If you haven’t dealt with these situations before, it can be difficult to know where to start. But instead of getting overwhelmed with all the unknowns, start with what you do know.
Let’s say a teammate is having a child. Start with the due date and work backwards. Ask them what their partner thinks and needs. What do they want from you during the weeks before and after? What will this new addition to their family mean for them work- and lifestyle-wise?
Have an open and honest dialogue with them about what will work. But don’t feel pressured to have all the answers right away. If you don’t know how things will work, just tell them:
“You’re very important to us. We haven’t had to deal with this situation in the past. So let me talk to some people and come back to you in a few days and we’ll figure out the rest of the game plan.”
It’s important that you not only think about the needs of your teammate right now, but the needs of all the stakeholders involved. This could be their manager or direct reports, coworkers, or even clients and customers.
Especially in a startup, these major life events can affect a lot of different people. And you need to make sure you take the time to understand who those people are, and how you’re going to notify, consult, and support them as well.
Tell them to take more time than they expect
It’s only natural for people to be overly optimistic about how much time they need to take off. But coming back too soon after an event like this can be just as disrupting as taking extra time off. If not more.
If someone in your life dies and you come back to work after just a day or two, you’re not going to be fully present and ready to really engage with your work.
As you work with your teammate to create a plan, be adamant that they include a buffer into their timeline. Again, forget about the short-term stress and your needs, and instead focus on the long-term benefits to your team.
When you tell a teammate to book extra time off, everyone on your team knows when they’ll be away. It’s on the calendar and you can prepare and plan around those dates. And even if they don’t need all that time off and come back early, it will never be a problem.
However, the opposite is never true. If someone only takes the minimum amount of time off, there’s a good chance they’ll need more. And either they come back before they’re ready and do poor work, or they ask for more time off at the last minute, adding a ton of unnecessary stress to the rest of your team.
Your teammate might resist taking more time off. But it’s better to have them be conservative from a personal standpoint and take the time they need than conservative from a professional standpoint and take the bare minimum.
How you handle tragedy and celebration can make or break your team
You should always aim to treat your team and everyone around you with respect, compassion, and understanding. But especially when it comes to real life and death scenarios.
Your team isn’t just a cog or a piece of software. They’re human beings that often take their work life home, and from time-to-time, bring their home life to work.
How you handle these situations will determine how they feel about you. If you take the time to really support them, listen to them, and show that you’re thinking about your relationship with them in decades, not weeks. They’re going to remember it. And long-term, they’re going to feel better about you and do the best work for you.
Want more advice on building and leading high-performing startup teams? Check out my Sales Hiring Playbook, which contains a lot of advice specifically for hiring and managing sales people, but is also relevant for hiring people in any other role in a startup.