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How to Deal with Life and Work When Hit With a Personal Loss

Guest: Frank de Jong, a coach at CEO Coaching International. Frank spent 33 years leading customer-centric growth and profit planning strategies for hundreds of business units and companies all over the world. He spent 20 years as an expatriate in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, learning regional business practices, unique market opportunities, and local culture with Emerson Automation Solutions.

Quick Background: Learning to unplug from your company and separate life from business is an essential CEO skill. But how does a leader continue to lead through a loss so catastrophic that it completely upends your responsibilities, your priorities, and your very sense of self?

On today’s show, Frank de Jong discusses what he learned about resilience, fatherhood, friendship, and leadership while coping with the loss of his wife.

Keys to Managing a Personal Loss from Frank de Jong

1. Leverage your support systems.

In March 2006, Frank’s wife died after a long battle with melanoma. He had recently moved his family to Singapore, where he was raising two children and leading a division with 900 employees and a $400 million P&L. His first priority was organizing three funerals: one for his wife’s parents in Australia, another for friends and family in England, and another in Singapore.

“It was work that was necessary to do,” Frank remembers. “But it was certainly depleting. It was really, really hard. The first thing that was clear to me was how do you surround yourself with great people? I had people by my side and then they stuck with me and they did a lot. Friends that really knew you and knew how to engage you and knew when to just simply listen and when to support in a more direct way. I learned it’s okay to ask for help, even to ask for professional help. We all need support at times in our lives. And I certainly did. I got support from my kids and we did things like art therapy together. You realize pretty quick that feelings aren’t linear. Sometimes you have a good day, then you have a bad day. You go through all that the first year.”

Frank also realized that in order to maximize the resources available to him — including his own time and energy — he needed to focus on his top two priorities.

“I focused on my family and my career,” he says. “And I was very intentional about that. My career meant a lot to me. It kind of gave me that escape. It gave me that opportunity to connect to people, to drive a business. It gave me pleasure. Gave me a sense of purpose. And then my family, we started to think about, there were four. Now there’s three. What does the new three look like? What are the rituals and our identity around being three when it was four, while we respect that it was four? We didn’t always get it right. But we tried very hard to start a new journey with the three of us. That’s what it was: an intentional way so that you can do what you have to do and begin the healing process, but also carry on with life.”

2. Embrace the new you.

As a CEO, you’re never just one thing. You’re a leader, a mentor, a negotiator, a competitor, a friend, a parent, a spouse. And because you’re used to performing at a high level in your business, you put high expectations on your ability to perform these other roles as well. The loss of his wife forced Frank to reevaluate all of the roles in his life, while also accepting some challenging new responsibilities that reshaped how others saw him and how he saw himself.

“At the beginning, you do become ‘Frank the widower,'” he says, “and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that label. I kind of accepted that and I kind of lived that way. If I got an hour, I would go play rugby in Singapore with my friends. If the kids had a sleepover, I became masterful at dealing with other couples. It was a new role I had to take on. You also realized that your new identity changes over time. I found out, who were your friends? And it wasn’t that they didn’t want to be your friends anymore, but they move on because they’re couples and you’re not. And that was hard. I branched into different things and I started to focus on myself. Where do I wanna be? And who am I now? What’s my identity being a single dad? And I started to rally around that.”

Perhaps the best way for all CEOs to learn from Frank’s experience is to become more open to change by choice, so that you have the emotional tools to adapt when you have to. Be curious. Try new sports and hobbies outside of the office. Run towards opportunities to reinvent your business. Try on some new hats and throw out old ones that don’t fit anymore. Incorporate daily learning and self-improvement into your routine. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is the only way to realize your true potential and experience everything that you can be.

3. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.

The times when our loved ones need us the most are often the times when it’s hardest to know how to communicate. We’ve all experienced those awkward silences around a person who’s dealing with the death of a loved one, an unexpected job loss, a divorce, or a substance abuse problem. Frank found that when our words do fail us, sometimes just showing up and being there for other people is enough.

“When you have loss or if someone else has a loss, how do people around you work with you?” asks Frank. “And I think those acts of kindness at the beginning — it just can be little things. People would drop off food or would ask if they could take the kids to the water park. Just those acts of kindness. And I encourage anybody out there, if they have someone in their life that has a loss, to think about that. Just proactively say, ‘Hey, do you wanna come over for dinner?’ The person may really appreciate that contact with you and your friends. I remember, again, little things like a little pat on the back, like it’s going to be okay. People around you who know they can’t fix it. But you can do those little things and you can listen. I think if you do get that opportunity where a person who’s had loss can communicate with you, that’s a super intimate opportunity for you to listen and to allow them to express how they’re feeling. And if they can do that and become vulnerable, what a gift that is for the person who has experienced a loss. And actually it’s a huge gift for you.”

Fostering a positive environment for mental and emotional health is an essential part of your company’s culture. CEOs and members of their leadership teams have to become more comfortable having emotional conversations with employees. As Frank said, it’s the small gestures that can mean so much, whether that’s buying flowers for someone who’s grieving or giving an overworked team a long weekend after they’ve pushed through a BIG milestone.

At the same time, a person who’s hurting doesn’t want everyone in the office to just see “Frank the widower.” Frank’s company was compassionate about his loss while also giving him the same professional challenges and responsibilities on a daily basis.

“I appreciated that the management team had confidence in me,” Frank says. “I appreciated that they gave me the time, but then at the same time, they didn’t treat me differently. And when there was a planning session and I was presenting, the gloves were off, whether it was me or anybody else. And I liked that.”

4. Rediscover your confidence.

As businesses and the global economy continue to deal with some unprecedented challenges, we’ve been talking to our CEO coaching clients about how to grow through roadblocks and turn negatives into positives. The kind of loss that Frank experienced is a lot harder to spin into something constructive. But with the benefit of 16 years of hindsight, Frank says that on the other side of that loss were realizations about his character and fortitude that continue to shape the kind of husband, father, executive, and now coach that he is today.

“If you’re an executive running a business, have confidence that you can manage through it,” Frank says. “I learned that in business you can surround yourself with great people, find yourself, gain trust through strong relationships, allow that little hint of vulnerability, and you can drive a business forward. And you can deal with things and you’ll have that confidence and that resiliency to know that you can get there.”

In good times and bad, the CEO’s confidence is one of the most important resources that any company has. Focus that confidence into an actionable plan, and as you give yourself time to make peace with your loss, your company will have everything it needs to keep Making BIG Happen.

Frank explains, “When we think about CEO Coaching International and the philosophy around, What do you want? What are the things you have to do to get what you want? What could get in the way? And how do you hold yourself accountable? Those four BIG questions. Without knowing at the time, I lived through that. It’s a little murkier where I was with my personal situation. But the general direction: this is where I wanna be. Put those things in place to get there.”

Top Takeaways

1. Reach out to people who can help you manage a loss, and be there for people when they need you to do the same.

2. Rediscover who you are by letting your feelings in and letting them lead you to new experiences.

3. Manage the transition with clear planning for both your life and business.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 67.8% during their time as a client, nearly four times the U.S. average and a revenue CAGR of 25.5%, more than twice the U.S. average.

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