What happens when your leader gets sick?

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No one wants to communicate bad news. But what happens when your leader gets sick?…

When Toronto mayor Rob Ford recently revealed he had cancer, he did more than change the face of the upcoming Oct. 27/14 Toronto mayoral race. He also changed the rules for politicians and company leaders reporting their own illness.

Now, everyone needs to be more frank.

Generally speaking, Americans politicians have tended to be quite open-mouthed about their health. Or, at least about the health of their elected officials. Whenever the US president has a medical, the world knows about it. Remember the polyps of Ronald Reagan and George Bush? Remember Bill Clinton’s heart disease?

But corporate leaders generally haven’t been so self-revealing. Think, for a moment, about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and the secrecy surrounding his pancreatic cancer. At the very least, he was non-transparent. And it’s possible he deliberately misled his shareholders and his employees. Not cool.

Here are some guidelines for corporate leaders who have to tell the world they’ve become sick:

1. Before announcing anything to anybody, have a clear succession plan in place. Even if you fear that the change may have to be permanent, you’re wiser starting with a temporary solution — someone stepping in while you take a medical leave. This will allow your board to sign off quickly and quietly — especially if the job goes to the #2 person in your company. This plan of action will make you look like a leader in control (even if your health is spinning out of control) and will help stabilize your company.

2. Depending on the size and influence of your company, issue a press release or hold a press conference. If you’re a public company, you’ll have to do this before you tell employees because it will likely affect stock prices. (If you’re private, tell employees first. See step 3, below.)  If you’re able to attend the press conference yourself, this will reduce concerns about how sick you are. Have a communications official or PR person handle the conference and strictly limit how many questions you answer. If you’re too sick to speak, having a medical professional deliver the message (as Rob Ford did) is a good idea.

3. Tell your employees as quickly as possible. Employees are usually the last to know big news about their companies, and they are understandably aggrieved by this. As soon as you’ve made the public announcement then plan something just for employees. If your health permits, perhaps you can answer their questions in an open forum. Let them know how your decisions are going to help safeguard their jobs.

In this day and age, don’t think you can hide a major illness simply by not talking about it. It’s hard to keep big secrets, well, secret. Instead of having to do spin and damage control, treat your employees and your shareholders with respect. Get in front of the news and have a plan of action for dealing with the issues people are going to want to talk about.

If I had to give you an example of someone who did it perfectly, I’d cite the 2010 example of Hugh Martin, then  CEO of Pacific Biosciences. His meeting with employees began: “I want to tell you is that I have a form of cancer called multiple myeloma.” Talk about full disclosure.

Read here to learn how Martin’s deliberate approach helped keep his company on track. He may have resigned two years later, and the company has been shaken by federal research budget cuts. But the good news? His health doesn’t appear to have played a role in any of this.

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