What happens when you give up control in the workplace?

In our professional lives, most of us want to come across as being totally in control  – all the time. As a result, we are working longer hours, working through holidays and worse, working through sickness.

But what happens when you are forced to give up control?

In this special guest post, Rachael Lonergan tells us the top 5 things she learned when she gave up control.

In late 2008 I was diagnosed with an early stage but aggressive breast cancer. Because of my young age and the nature of the pathology, the decision was made pretty quickly that I’d be following an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ treatment path of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Strangely, being told I had cancer was not the most difficult moment. Nor was it especially stressful being advised what the treatment regime would consist of. The moment that is most seared into my brain was when my softly spoken (but brilliant) breast surgeon inquired of me ‘Rachael, would you call yourself a controlling person?’.

I laughed. He didn’t.

He then said to me ‘This year (2009) you need to give us control. We’re going to tell you where to go, when to be there and what to do. The goal…that we save your life. But you’ll have to let us do our job’. At that moment I could feel my heart racing because I knew that above anything else that was going to be my biggest challenge…giving up control.

Leaving aside the issues of home, health and family (so, so much more important) when you consider yourself a somewhat important cog in the wheel of corporate life, and all of a sudden you’re struck down with illness or a disability or any other reason that disrupts your working life, it’s a scary thing. You wonder how people will perceive your situation (‘Is she going to die?’), how to keep your career afloat while you’re incapacitated by treatment (guess who’s not getting that promotion!), how your new look (no hair, puffy steroid face, catheter imbedded in chest) is going to go down at that new business lunch…all of those things that you normally have some control over are suddenly all up in the air. So not only are you actively handing control of your actual life over to a bunch of strangers (who happen to be amazing doctors, nurses and allied health professionals), but that one area of your life where you hope to always demonstrate some level of professional control (your career), is effectively lost to you, even if only for a period of time.

All sounds pretty gloomy right? Well sure, but I try to find the silver lining in these types of situations and here are 5 key lessons that being forced to lose control, taught me.

Lesson Number One : You are irreplaceable

You know that old adage that if you got hit by a bus tomorrow no one would notice? Or on the flipside that if you got hit by that bus that everything would go to hell in a handbasket? And we all know the advertising business is a dog eat dog fight club right?

I was terrified about telling my boss and colleagues about my illness. I thought it would be the end of my career. Most businesses can’t keep your role open indefinitely so on a practical level, they have to think about what this means for them, as much as what this means to you.

I needn’t have worried. My boss at the time put my needs first and offered me whatever assistance I needed and a commitment to be flexible around my absences from the office. Everyone responded with concern for me more than how it impacted on themselves. Once the shock of the news wore off, between us we devised a plan that included having people step up into new roles and co-opting resource from another part of the company…a lateral application of existing employee skills, rather than rush into replacing me. At no time was I made to feel guilty or like they wanted to get rid of me.

Now I’ve heard some horror stories…but that wasn’t my experience. The lesson is that yes, your job and your tasks might be easily re-allocated, but in the end, people value you. They value YOU as a human being and everything you bring to that role, is irreplaceable in their lives, so in the event of a crisis, they will be decent and kind and work with you to find solutions.

If you don’t think your company would do that for you, that is something worth thinking about.

Lesson Number Two: Accepting help is a sign of inner strength

When you’re being treated for a chronic illness, friends, family, often acquaintances you barely know will say to you ‘How can I help?’. And the natural inclination is to respond ‘Nothing thanks, I’m fine. I don’t need anything’. First, you need to recognise you’re lying, and secondly, let go of your foolish pride and accept the help being offered.

After my surgeries and during chemo, I wasn’t able to change the sheets on my bed, or carry groceries or mow my teeny tiny lawn. So did I let people help me? No I did not.

So the bed didn’t get made and I never had any groceries in the house and my lawn became a jungle. And this made a depressing situation worse which of course had implications to my attitude during treatment and my relationships with others.

People want to help. It makes them feel good. Let them.

Be specific about what you need and when you need the help. Accepting help frees you up to focus on your most important objective (in my case, surviving cancer). You owe it to yourself to accept help and you will be more effective as a result.

Lesson Number Three: Respect expertise (You don’t know everything)

In the ad world we’re trained to present a confident exterior and to always be an expert on whatever category the client we’re trying to impress sits within. And then you get cancer and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by people with 12+ years of the highest levels of science based training, not to mention the over educated nurses, radiologists, physios, dietitians and psychologists that come on board to help treat one little cancer patient. What do you know about cancer compared to these people? Zilch. So don’t attempt to tell experts in their field how to do their jobs. Listen to them instead.

I remember one of the oncology nurses explaining to me that I would lose my hair on day 13 after my first chemo. I scoffed and said there was no way she could possibly be that precise. Day 12 came and I had a full, luxurious head of hair. The next day, day 13, and all of a sudden my hair was falling out in fistfuls.

Its true. There are people out there who know more than you do. Be honest with your clients that you will never have as much knowledge as they will in their chosen field. Admitting that shows respect and honesty. No decent client will admonish you for demonstrating those qualities.

Lesson Number Four: Let it go

The advertising business has a lot of drama in it. Deadlines get missed, copy goes wrong, deals get gazumped, clients decide to implement their same tired media plan instead of embrace your brilliant strategy…

You must try to prevent these incidents. But if you cannot, you must let these things go.

As a young planner I would take it very personally when a client would reject a recommendation or a media owner wouldn’t give me that deal I wanted. But today, with a very clear understanding of what ‘life and death’ actually means, I let it go.

There is always another deal. You have the opportunity to make it even better. One ad not meeting deadlines will not break a campaign. And we have owned channels at our disposal to bridge the gap if we need to. And none of it is personal. It’s business. I don’t lose my confidence over making a mistake. I learn from it and move on.

My friend Zena, is an ex-client who was one of my toughest. She put me through the wringer and forced me to lift my standards. But we were always able to separate the work, from the personal. And we remain firm friends today. And we never talk about the deadlines that were missed or the deals that weren’t made because in the bigger scheme of things, these things don’t matter. We did a lot of bloody good work together. So we let all that go.

Lesson Number Five: Curiosity is more valuable than control

As a career person, you rarely have enough time. As a person being treated for a serious illness, all you’ve got is time. In between the rush of appointments and scans and infusions…there’s a lot of time. Curiosity will make this time productive, whereas the need to control will only bring frustration.

Because I was spending most of my time at home, I took another look at that Twitter account that I’d set up as a work experiment, but had been laying dormant for the better part of a year. And I started to talk to people. And they would talk to me. All sorts of people and topics that I would never usually encounter suddenly became part of my social world. I developed new friendships, became an advocate for causes that I am passionate about, and made direct connections with some of the World’s great thinkers. I was even name checked in a John Birmingham novel (he has my character maimed in an assassination attempt!) after I helped him find an obscure photographic reference…all from the comfort of my arm chair.

This period also meant that I ‘got’ the purpose and potential of social and digital media in a way I really didn’t have time for beforehand. I could see the magic happening in front of me. And this has strengthened my ability to deliver to my client’s strategic needs more than just about any other ‘education’ I’ve undertaken.

A bonus sixth lesson: Get insured

Most of you reading this will be under insured in the event you are not able to work for a period of time. During my illness I was able to access income protection that lived within my retirement fund and this allowed me to keep paying my mortgage. But it certainly did not pay for all my expenses and there was a costly waiting period. Had I taken the advice of a financial planner only a couple of years earlier (like most people…I put off dealing with it) I would have had the benefit of a lump sum payout plus extra income during my forced time out. Check your insurance coverage people!

The lessons are:
  1. YOU are irreplaceable
  2. Accepting help is a sign of inner strength
  3. Respect expertise
  4. Let it go
  5. Curiosity is more valuable than control
  6. Get insured!

What about you? Have you experienced a change in circumstances that changed the way you viewed your career or your approach to problem solving?

I’d love to hear your ‘lessons’!