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When Grief Grips the Bottom Line

“When Grief Grips the Bottom Line”

Kathy Reehling’s personal tragedy becomes a company problem.

It was the stricken look on Kathy Reehling’s face as she wandered into the boardroom that set alarm bells ringing. President and founder of Crew Technical Services, an information-technology company in Indianapolis, Reehling had just learned her sister and 8-year-old nephew had been killed in a car accident — the sibling with whom she’d bought her first Plymouth Volaré, shared a wedding dress, marched beside in college band and reveled in the triumphs of launching a business.

After a week’s leave from her company, Reehling returned to work. Yet in the tight-knit company, employees felt compelled to say something consoling, forcing the leader to constantly relive her loss. "Notes, at least, were the kindest route because it erased the awkwardness every time I saw an employee for the first time after the funeral," Reehling says. After two months, she tucked her Kleenex box on a shelf. Grieving accomplished — or so she thought.

Six months after the deaths, she began snapping at minor irritations. "It was easy for my employees to understand when I was sad. It was a lot harder for them to understand why I was angry. Many were worried that I was mad at them, and they avoided me," she explains. Her management team pulled back, afraid to challenge her for fear she’d shoot the messenger.

Then the outbursts became more public: Reehling lost her cool with a physician client and spouted her real feelings about his business, which eventually started the wheels toward shutting down the medical-management division. Then she popped off during a meeting with her biggest client, pharmaceutical-manufacturing giant Eli Lilly & Co. "I seized every miff as a chance to blow steam," she admits.

The Eli Lilly incident struck fear in employees, who began whispering the company could go down the tubes. "We were never in danger of that," Reehling maintains. But the company was stymied by internal turmoil that stunted growth. Fed up, a five-person employee group, including the receptionist to high-level managers, confronted her: "You’re not yourself. You’re alienating people because you’re angry Kandy died."

The words caused a mixed reaction, says Reehling: "It’s terrible to be so vital to the company that I have to always put my best foot forward; I couldn’t baby myself like other employees could … But on the other hand, it was wonderful. If I hadn’t had the support and the responsibility, I easily could have spiraled into months of feeling sorry for myself."

Reehling sought a professional counselor and called a company meeting on turf where she held no intrinsic power. After the business details, Reehling quietly admitted her struggles, apologized for her behavior and requested the group level with her if they saw further signs of displaced anger. "I need for you not to be scared of me," she pleaded.

In the end, Reehling believes her grief probably brought the management team closer together. Since then, Crew Technical Services is growing faster than predicted. In 1997 Crew had sales of $3.6 million. That grew to $11 million in 1998, which, in turn, grew to $29.2 million in 1999.

"Grief changes you," Reehling says today, "in ways a lot of us never want to admit."

Writer: Julie Sturgeon