When ‘The Worst That Could Happen’ Does

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Apr 18, 2011

Many HR consultants operate in small, or solo, practices. They are the practice. So when something happens that takes them out of commission—whether personal illness or injury or a tragedy in the family—their business’ viability is threatened. We rarely want to think about “the worst that could happen,” but having contingency plans in place is a good idea, particularly for solo firms.

Leigh Steere is in the second phase of being a small business owner/consultant. She is the co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC, a management research firm/think tank based in Boulder, Colo. “With the partnership, we have the obvious fallback position of the other partner taking over,” she said. But, she added, “small business owners need to plan for catastrophic contingencies whether they are solo-preneurs or partners.”

While Steere said that she has not had anything catastrophic happen in her life, she has had some surprises. She had three children in quick succession—1999, 2000 and 2002. “Before the birth of my first child, I had a very full plate with several active client projects,” she said. Eight weeks before her due date she made arrangements for someone to take over each of her projects in the event she couldn’t complete them. She chose different people for the projects. “While one consultant could absorb one surprise project, they probably couldn’t field and extra 40 to 60 hours of work each week,” she said.

In looking for backup, Steere recommended considering competencies and personality fit. “Some of my clients have very particular preferences and work styles,” she said. “I want to match them as well as possible with a backup person who can work effectively in the client’s environment and effectively with the subject matter.”

Making arrangements for these possible transitions is also important. Ideally, clients should experience these transitions as “business as usual” rather than disruptive.

The Handoffs

Marlene Caroselli served as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and National University while conducting training for Fortune 100 companies and numerous federal agencies. In 1984, she founded the Center for Professional Development, an organization dedicated to helping working adults enhance their professional skills.

Caroselli was running a successful sole-proprietorship with a long client list, when her parents became ill. “As the only unmarried child in the family, I felt I had to move from the West Coast to the East to care for them. I was able to get through a very difficult period by having a cadre of friends and colleagues who could fill in for me as the occasions warranted.”

When her parents’ health required that she be away to care for them, rather than tell the client “I’m sorry, I can’t make that meeting,” she would call upon her already identified backups and tell the client, “I’m sorry I can’t be there; however, (name) can be there. She has filled in for me several times and her evaluations have always been very, very high.” Caroselli said that she found clients to be very receptive to this. “They trusted me and they were more than willing to accept my recommendations,” she said.

Whenever possible, Steere said, make a personal introduction between the client and the potential backup. She had the luxury of doing this in anticipation of the birth of her children. In addition, Caroselli was able to pave the way with clients. That luxury is not always possible, of course, but Steere said she has learned from her experiences and has established contingency plans to address the unexpected.

Contingency Plans

Steere maintains an updated list of client projects with contact information for each as well as a list of people her husband can call for backup help, with instructions for him to call the clients, explain the situation and ask if they want him to arrange a backup person. For single practitioners, she suggests turning to a fellow consulting firm or a friend to make these calls. “Someone—whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a colleague or a friend, needs to know your wishes for your business in the event you become incapacitated.” In fact, she added, having two identified people to do this provides even more security.

These arrangements can be more formal in a partnership situation, she noted. “In our Managing People Better partnership document we have plans for the worst—if someone dies, if someone becomes disabled, et cetera. It’s not fun to think about, but it is essential.”

Contingency plans might involve alternative delivery mechanisms. Marsha Dean Walker, president of M. Dean Walker and Associates, a partnership, provides customized anger management workshops for organizations. “While there is nothing more effective than an actual in-person presentation, we have learned from experience that the best way to manage risk is to create an alternative program. To that end we have created a series of audio and video presentations that readily lend themselves to in-house programs conducted by HR specialists. Each presentation has a working link and is also available on CD.” The same process is used for their radio show. “We have several shows in the can so that, in the unlikely event that we are [unavailable], the show will go on without interruption.”

Taking Care of Yourself

Caroselli noted that one of the things she did not do as effectively as she might have during the difficult time she had caring for her parents was to take care of herself and her own emotional needs. “I wish I had turned to a doctor,” she said. She urged others to consider medical intervention as necessary. “Sometimes we’re so proud of our strength, but it can be false pride.”

Another important point: Be open to the offers of others to step in and assist. Caroselli recalled how surprised and gratified she was during her difficult time to be the recipient of unsolicited assistance from surprising sources. “I literally could not leave my parents alone; their health was that bad. It was impossible, for instance, to go to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions.” Knowing this, an employee of the pharmacy offered to bring pills to her. The bank where she did business also recognized her difficulties, and whenever she had a check to deposit or cash, the teller would “swing by my house and pick up my business and execute it for me.” The local librarian delivered books on tape and picked them up so Caroselli’s mother could occupy her time.

In addition to the formal resources available in many communities to assist with personal or caregiver needs, Caroselli said: “There are remarkably kind people out there willing to assist—even those who are not paid to assist.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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