“Life happens.” It’s a cheesy quip we throw around, a tidy little phrase used to lament a missed taxi, a sudden rainstorm, the dog’s untidy mess on the carpet. But life, specifically our personal life, is at times much more devastating, much more paralyzing, than these mild annoyances and can disrupt many aspects of our day-to-day, including work. Those of us who have been in the workforce for several years have become masters at separating personal disruption from professional success, striving to move forward in our careers despite what may be happening at home. But what happens when this balancing act comes crashing down? When a loved one dies, when divorce looms on the horizon, when one’s health is in jeopardy? When “life happens”?
In the past, it was generally understood that personal struggles should be kept out of the workplace. Not only does personal talk detract from time working, but admitting to these struggles can expose vulnerability and diminish one’s authority. To be successful, leaders were required to broadcast strength at work even if they were hurting personally. However, there has been a shift in this thinking in the last few years, and even the most successful businesspeople have talked openly of their private struggles. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, has spoken honestly about his and his wife’s miscarriages. Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo, candidly described her brutal battle with chemotherapy in the months after beginning as CEO of Autodesk. Even Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, recently revealed his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and his decision to begin treatment. These public confessions, instead of conveying weakness, actually revealed a more human, relatable side to these public figures. They, like us, bleed. These titans of industry recognized that the acknowledgment of their personal challenges was needed and necessary in order for them to continue their work.
This shifting trend is especially relevant for those of us navigating the workforce, whether we are taking our next step into a new career or establishing ourselves in an industry. Rather than neatly compartmentalizing one’s career and one’s personal life, it is important to recognize how the two intertwine to shape and influence each other. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A strong support network of family and friends can encourage success on the job, and connecting with co-workers can lead to long-lasting relationships outside of the office. Yet the opposite is also true. Personal tragedy can undoubtedly bleed into one’s working life, and emotional, mental, and even physical stress can do away with any kind of work productivity. So what to do when life can no longer be confined to home? When we are dealing with our own personal struggles while trying to maintain a career? There is no one right answer, but many professionals, especially the two people below, have figured out their own ways of facing the vagaries of life while still being able to succeed at work.
Ben Greenzweig, current CEO and co-founder of Momentum Events, is one man who has endured a tumultuous, painful journey in both his personal and professional life and survived to tell the tale. In 2012, after he resigned from a toxic work environment to start his own conference business, his former employer sued him for millions in a lawsuit that would take four agonizing years to complete. Enduring the continuous assassination of his character in the courtroom while simultaneously attempting to launch his business became a dangerous balancing act that took a heavy financial, physical, and mental toll.
“I handled it in self-destructive ways. I began self-medicating, I stopped eating, and I internalized everything. Any energy I had went to my family. It was a tremendous loss of physical and mental health.”
Despite a favorable outcome in the trial and the relieved, albeit weary, excitement in finally being able to get Momentum off the ground, life was not done with Ben yet. Only 10 weeks after canceling a celebratory dinner with complaints of a headache, Ben’s business partner died suddenly of an extremely rare brain cancer, leaving an already battered Ben in a violent maelstrom of chaos and pain. He didn’t have the luxury to think as he commenced “battlefront triage,” working to take care of not only his business partner’s grieving family but also his clients and employees. He describes that time as “marching through hell,” where the only thing he could do was find ways to keep moving forward.
Even after stabilizing the business and taking on a new business partner, Ben dealt with a severe bout of depression. Five years of devastating turmoil had made a lasting impact, and it was time for him to address his mental health.
“I was at rock bottom mentally,” Ben says. “I was dealing with the vertigo of those five years, and I needed some time for myself.”
Ben re-prioritized his schedule and, with the full support of his new partner, was able to take the time needed for self-introspection, emerging with a better mental balance and a clear idea of what he wanted to do next. He became dedicated to breaking the stigmas surrounding mental health and identifying barriers to treatment. Now, Ben talks openly about his battle with depression and his larger story with the hope that he can reach people in need. As someone to whom life has dealt some of the most devastating blows, he encourages others to be vulnerable and honest and to seek help when it is needed.
“None of this would have been possible without the love and support of my business partner. He understood, as best as one can who doesn’t suffer from a mental illness, my struggle and just wanted me to get healthier. Mental health needs to be treated as any other disease. You can’t fix it yourself. Understanding that really changes how you approach the issue and I’m working to shed light on that,” Ben explains.
Though his own story is very different from Ben’s, Clint Lautenschleger is another successful executive who has dealt with the struggle to balance personal catastrophe with career development. Back in 2014, only a couple of years after Clint and his ex-wife divorced, his ex-wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a very brief remission in 2015, the cancer made an aggressive return, and his ex-wife passed away soon after.
“The two worst days of my life,” Clint says, “were the day my wife and I decided to get a divorce and the morning after she died when I had to tell my kids they no longer had a mother.”
To continue working in the midst of such pain would be difficult in any industry, but that difficulty is exacerbated when one’s role requires significant levels of human interaction. As Vice President of Human Resources and Talent Management at the time, Clint was constantly in front of employees and had to find a way to continue performing in the midst of his grief. What helped, he says, was the empathy he received from coworkers.
“They respected me and trusted me to not let my work falter. At the same time, they also allowed me to talk at work if I was down.”
Enduring the tumultuous years of his divorce and ex-wife’s death was not easy, but Clint’s coworkers, in addition to an extremely supportive family, helped him in more ways than one.
“Going through that has really changed how I’ve treated people. I’ve become more understanding. You never really know what someone is going through in their personal life,” he says.
Clint also learned the importance of being open about his experiences. Whereas before he rarely talked about his struggles with anybody, over time he realized that being honest about what he was going through was the best path to healing. He advises those who are going through similar personal struggles to embrace vulnerability and not be afraid to share with others, whether they be a family member or a good friend at work.
Additionally, Clint explains that in the midst of personal tragedy, one has to decide what is truly important and act accordingly. Is it work? Family? A balance of both?
“For me, I couldn’t check out of work and I had to keep my family strong,” Clint explains. “So I did what I needed to do to make that happen.” Luckily, Clint had the support at work and at home to make sure that neither his career nor his family fell by the wayside.
His last piece of advice was quite simple:
“Continue to do things that give you joy. If you stop doing that, the issues are only exacerbated. Don’t be afraid to be happy.”
Clint and Ben’s stories are simply snapshots of the wider reality all of us in the workforce face. We endure pain, tragedy, and unspeakable loss but still find a way to get out of bed in the morning. It is not easy. But hopefully, it is comforting to remember that we are not alone in this balancing act and that work does not have to be a hostile environment separate from personal struggle.
And for those of us who regularly interface with people in the workforce, whether in the executive search industry or otherwise, may we be continually cognizant of and sensitive to the complexities of an individual’s personal journey and recognize how our work can and should positively impact not only their professional goals but also all aspects of their life.