Click to Print

How One Entrepreneur Overcame Unthinkable Tragedy

August 9, 2013
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/227753

No company or CEO can prepare for the kind of tragedy I found myself faced with two years ago.

Susan Brockert had been with my business for fifteen years and had worked in just about every department. She was thoughtful, kind and always full of joy. Most of all, she was like family.

In May 2011, during an annual celebratory staff trip to Kona, Hawaii, the unthinkable happened. Coworkers heard screams from Susan's hotel room, but by the time security broke down the door, it was too late. Susan had been brutally beaten to death by her boyfriend.

Once the police finished interviewing witnesses to Susan's murder, all I could think was, "How am I going to tell the rest of the company?" and, "How am I going to tell Susan's family?"

At 3:30 a.m., I called our vice president of human resources back in Washington state. She and a colleague were at Susan's mother's doorstep by 7 a.m. and arranged for a pastor to join them. Susan's children were off to school and out of respect for the family, we kept things quiet until they got home and could talk to their grandmother.

We gathered all 66 employees who were with us on the trip early that morning. Sharing what had happened was the worst thing I've ever had to do. After that, we arranged a massive conference call including all 550 of our employees in 33 offices across the country. And I did the worst thing I've ever had to do all over again.

Over nearly 30 years in business, I've learned the only way to divulge sensitive information -- whether it's client-related or something as horrific as losing an employee -- is through open and honest communication.

To downplay bad news or continually provide excuses for mistakes only makes the situation worse. By starting with the truth, you're able to have honest conversations that put you on the path to recovery much faster.

I’ve come to realize it's how you pick up the pieces that define you and what your company stands for.

Related: How to Lead With Grace Through Tragedy

I knew Susan's friends and colleagues at BDA were experiencing the same feelings of sadness, anger and disbelief that had been tearing me apart. Grief turned into motivation as we launched Susan's Rock, a branch of the BDA Cares Foundation dedicated to the prevention of violence against women and children. BDA has made a commitment to stand alongside survivors and their families until this epidemic is stopped. We will be their rock.

For our "Rock the Needle" fundraising event, employees earn the rare opportunity to climb the Space Needle's staircase as a showing of strength. Donations we've collected helped subsidize the first Susan's House in Arizona and Susan's Youth Center, which will open this October at the largest domestic violence shelter in the state of Washington.

Losing Susan made me reconsider an opportunity I had been presented with a few months prior to her death. ABC had approached me about participating in their series Secret Millionaire. Initially, I turned them down -- uncomfortable with the thought of publicizing the charitable efforts our company had been involved in over the years. But what happened in Hawaii changed my outlook and I went back to ABC. All of a sudden, it wasn't about me or whether I wanted to do the show. It was about telling Susan's story to help others escape the cycle of domestic abuse.

I've learned a lot about domestic abuse in the past two years. It's more common than I ever imagined, affecting one in four U.S. women. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault each year.

The Secret Millionaire episode will air this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. The show provides a platform to bring to light the prevalence of domestic violence while honoring Susan's memory.

It also reinforces how I'd always felt about facing tough circumstances in life or in business: You don't survive by being passive. You can't tiptoe around the real issues, wait out the storm or run away. Growth occurs when you make a habit of acknowledging reality and pressing forward into it. Even when it terrifies you. Even when it hurts.

There's a phrase we use a lot at BDA that sums this up: "Run into it."

When events seem devastating, run into the devastation and find a way to come out stronger. The steps to take in the face of a setback -- large or small -- are to communicate, educate and motivate.

Whatever issue your company may be confronting, it's important to examine all of the facts. There may be information you've overlooked or a perspective you haven't considered. Approaching the situation with an open mind and learning as much as possible from as many people as you can will lead to better business decisions.

Before you can rally your staff, take stock of your company culture and values. How does your leadership team react when a disagreement arises, a client's expectations are mismanaged or a great but daunting opportunity is in your path?

When I think about my BDA family, I see a group of people who, no matter the situation, are willing to run into it. And that brings me great comfort.

Related: How to Stay Calm in a Crisis