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A CEO Grieves

The leader of Forrester Research, George F. Colony carries the weight of loss — of family members, Forrester’s president, and a friend aboard one of the hijacked flights. In a message to employees, Colony offered his perspective on grief.

During this time of devastation and desperation, it’s more difficult than ever to separate life from work, personal from professional. Employees arrive at the office harboring the fear and anxiety planted by the latest episode of Dateline NBC or 60 Minutes and spend their days scanning CNN.com or talking about the calamity with colleagues. Business is far from usual.

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Before demanding a return to workplace normalcy, employers across the nation are recognizing the pervasive terror and anger brought on by the September 11 terrorist attacks and are reaching out to help their employees through this crisis. Some are offering group- and personal-counseling services. Others are granting employees’ requests to work from home. Still others are establishing corporate funds for victims and their families.

The employees of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts were already grappling with the sudden death of the company’s president when disaster struck New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC last week. Founder, chairman, and CEO George F. Colony could feel the anguish in the halls. In addition to calling the company together and enlisting the help of grief counselors, Colony wrote down his thoughts on grieving in the workplace and posted them on the company Web site. Read his words of support and sadness, and tell us what your company is doing to help in Sound Off below.

My View: Thoughts On Grieving

From: George F. Colony, Chairman, CEO, and President, Forrester
Date: September 2001

We convened our research team this morning to talk about how we can help our clients in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy. We set a research agenda that we think will help large companies get through the technology challenges of these times.

But we also talked about grief — how we are grieving and how others are coming to grips with the loss of family, friends, coworkers, customers, and colleagues.

It’s a topic that Forrester and I have been wrestling with recently. My wife Ann lost her parents on Egypt Air 990 in October 1999. Last week, Forrester’s President and COO Bill Bluestein passed away suddenly. And sadly, we just got the news this morning that Dan Lewin, CTO of Akamai, our neighbor in Cambridge, was one of yesterday’s victims.

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I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but I thought I would share with you some of the lessons about grief that have helped Forrester and me over the last several weeks and years. Many of these ideas won’t fit your company, but perhaps there will be some small glimmers that may help you as you work with your employees and yourself to confront tragedy. And my hope is that the attached discussion board will attract better ideas than I can muster. So here they are, in no particular order:

Get grief counseling. When Bill died last week, Forrester’s head of HR said that we should get professional help for those who needed it. I was skeptical at first, but the counselors have been a very big help to many Forresterites. My experience was that they aren’t there to cry with you — they are there to help you understand what’s going on inside you and to give ideas on how the process will run its course.

Take time to remember. This morning when I convened all Forresterites in Cambridge, one of our employees had us all hold hands for a moment of silence. And as we bowed our heads, each of us who knew a victim said his or her name aloud. Very powerful, and a dignified and simple way to honor those we have lost or are missing.

Everyone at his or her own speed. We have experienced many different speeds of grieving. Some want to go back to work immediately, some want to take it slowly. It’s very important that the powers that be in your company give people permission to move at their own pace.

Reach out. The EEOC would probably throw me in jail for suggesting it, but people touching people during these times goes a long way. Holding hands or an arm over someone’s shoulder can be highly cathartic in the right context.

Be patient. Many people will want to go back to “normal.” But we can’t go back — and you should tell your people that. We will go to a “new normal” but we can’t go back to the “old normal” — it’s gone forever.

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Different manifestations. As I noted above, people will grieve at different rates. But their grief will take on different styles as well. Some will manifest grief emotionally, some physically, some with out-of-the-ordinary behavior. As a manager, it’s important that you understand how each member of your team is coming to grips, and be able to connect at that level.

Give lots of time for communing. Build time into the workday for people to hang out and just talk. Give your people permission to drop work and be with each other.

Have a lot of food around. We found last week that we couldn’t eat at times, and then we would be ravenously hungry. Pizza out of the blue or midafternoon cookies help a lot.

Take care of yourself. Don’t neglect yourself. Get sleep, get exercise, and make your own time for communing and reflection. It’s a long-distance run, not a sprint. Conserve your energy.

As I read above, it all feels so “surface” given the scope of what has happened. I’m sure you’ve got many other insights. Check out the discussion board that is included in this My View. I (and all of the Forrester community) would love to hear your voice on this issue.

George