Just as I was preparing for the Academy of Management conference in Boston in early August, my mother-in-law started to decline. She passed away while I was at the conference, followed in close succession by her husband of 66 years. At the same time, my spouse, Pam, learned that her best friend, who is like a member of our family, has metastatic pancreatic cancer. It’s been a lot to handle all at once.

As I spent time helping to craft obituaries, attending funerals, and preparing chicken soup for our family friend and her partner, I still wanted and needed to attend to running my business. I unearthed an article that I wrote about how to keep a personal crisis from creating professional chaos. While there’s still been more professional chaos than I’m comfortable with having, nonetheless, I am using some of my own suggestions from this article to get back on track.

Here are some strategies that have been helpful:

  1. Writing down my thoughts and feelings, as well as writing out the concerns and questions I don’t have the answers to, and putting them in a box. In a recent presentation, stress expert Modupe Akinola shared research by Pennebaker (1997) that found that writing about stress reduces anxiety, improves health over time, increases a sense of control, and increases positive energy.
  2. When my motivation has been low, I’ve asked friends to virtually co-work and be mutually accountable. We connect by telephone, do a quick check in, and then work simultaneously while leaving the phone line open until one of us needs to move on to something else. If no one is available to co-work, I do a “bookend” call or text, in which I let a friend know what I plan to do for the next 25 minutes, set a timer, and then check back in to confirm that I did what I said I would do. Just as with exercise, where the hardest part is often getting myself to put on my sneakers and leave the house, the human connection works as an effective jump start. It provides the psychological equivalent of getting out onto the porch in my sneakers, after which it is easier for me to continue working on my own.
  3. Keeping social connection has been important, especially during the many days when my partner Pam was in Philadelphia working with her sister to take care of their parents’ affairs. I scheduled regular time to be with people, including walks with friends, and having our oldest son, who lives nearby, over for dinner.
  4. I regularly practice gratitude. In this difficult time, we’ve experienced so much kindness.
    • After being away, we arrived home to learn that our neighbor and his son had mowed our lawn.
    • Another neighbor came over with a loaf of homemade bread and flowers from her garden.
    • My son and I had a family event that we arrived for a day late, and after hearing that we had been at a funeral, the hotel didn’t charge for the extra night.
    • Delta airlines refunded a companion flight for a trip we had to cancel, despite it being against their usual policy.
    • The palliative care nurse who had worked with my father-in-law for a number of months shared these words of comfort with Pam and her sister, “your dad’s care goal was to take care of your mom, and he accomplished that.”
  5. I try to remember my advice that instead of saying, “I’m so upset, I can’t work,” I can remind myself that “work can be a good break from thinking about illness and loss.” And this is true. In fact, I continue to find so much joy in working with my coaching clients.

With these things in mind, I want to fill you in on what the next few months will be like for Leader Academic.

The Associate Deans Roundtable starts soon and is open for registration. Please spread the word by sharing this announcement on social media or with colleagues who could benefit. Those who participated in past Roundtables have found the regular gatherings with peers across disciplines and institutions to be immensely helpful. Details are at this link.

Mid-Career Coaching Group Postponed to Winter 2024: For many months I have been letting people know that I would be offering a coaching group for mid-career faculty members this fall. With so many recent disruptions, I lost much of the planning time I had blocked out. In order to catch up on the planning and be there for Pam as she supports our dear friend, my plan is to postpone the start of the group to winter 2024. I am keeping a list of those who would like to participate, so please let me know if you are interested.

Coaching and Presentations Continue: This newsletter arrives as many of you are already starting back into the academic cycle. My team and I continue to be there to support you in your career goals. I will also be presenting a workshop on Mid-Career Design and Development at Northwestern on September 12.

A new academic year begins and no doubt there will be moments of chaos – hopefully not everything all at once. I hope you find strategies to help keep your professional life moving forward.

Warm regards, Rena