How to Survive a Professional and Personal Crisis: Three Ways to Emerge Happy, Healthy and Whole

July 10, 2018

Lisa Michele Vallee-Smith

In her role as CEO of Airfoil Group, Lisa is responsible for account innovation, strategic planning, and talent development. The agency provides services to measure, inform and accelerate clients’ marketing communications, digital, social media and brand strategy programs. Over the past 18 years, Lisa has led Airfoil to become one of the nation’s signature technology public relations firm. The agency is known for its long-standing work for Microsoft, as well as its campaigns for dozens of tech start-ups.

Late in the summer of 2014, I was whirling my way through life as the owner of an established public relations firm, a mother of two teenage boys and the wife of my high-school sweetheart. It was a busy existence filled with busy days, busy nights and busy weekends – and for the most part, it was successful on all fronts.  

Over the course of two weeks, everything changed. That version of my life – the life of my business, the lives of my employees, and the lives of my family members -- came to a crashing halt. I was dealt a cruel double whammy: My business lost its largest account – one that represented nearly 40 percent of the firm’s annual revenue – and my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

In the ensuing days, I prepared to manage a financial crisis while simultaneously getting my husband and family through six months of hard-core chemotherapy. While my world had turned upside-down, my busy lifestyle had prepared me to sustain a level of energy and forward motion that helped me navigate the unchartered waters of a true crisis. As a woman business owner, it was challenging enough to manage the demands of business, clients and family on a daily basis. Doing it all under the extreme pressure of daunting life-or-death circumstances gave a whole new meaning to the term “Superwoman.”  

I’m proud to say I survived and even thrived. The experience inspired me to spend more time ministering to others in business, my community, and to other women dealing with similar double whammies. Here are my three best practices for emerging from a crisis happy, healthy and whole:

  1. Go into it with the expectation that it will be way worse than you think. The 40-percent revenue hit came with just 30 days’ notice. I needed to downsize fast. We’d always had a crisis plan for losing this piece of business, which for nearly 14 years had grown to become our largest account. It floated the cash flow of the business. I executed that crisis plan, but it wasn’t enough. A couple months later, we needed to do another small downsizing, cutting the staff to the bone and slashing our operating budget in every way possible. It was a devastating blow to many wonderful staff members, and the aftershocks of the financial plan were numerous and long-lasting. In retrospect, the negative toll on culture and reputation was far worse and far more persistent than anticipated; it took nearly three years to fully recover. I could have and should have anticipated this, and although several people close to me in the business tried to warn me, I didn’t take heed. Meanwhile, on the family front, my husband Jeff began treatment. Even though it was stage 4 cancer, I expected his physical and emotional strength would carry the day. I’d heard the horror stories of people going through chemo, but seeing it up close and personal was different in the worst way. As with my business, I should have expected and planned for the worst. I didn’t, and that’s where the next best practice came in.

  2. Create a support system that can help you take care of yourself. I still carry with me the list of 16 unwitting but willing members of my support system. On the advice of my therapist, I literally and formally asked a group of personal and professional contacts to help me for an undetermined period of time. Because I was a successful businessperson, most people may have thought that came easily for me. Sure, I could ask a potential client for a million-dollar budget, but when it came to asking people to give me their time, energy and empathy, I was a scared whimpering church mouse. It was incredibly hard. Like most women, I’d rarely asked for help on any level. True desperation and a commitment to doing my best as a CEO and mom forced me to make those asks, build that list and use it! This group of people, some of whom I’d not previously had a terribly close relationship with, covered for me in business meetings. They made up excuses for my not being able to travel for business. They protected me from negative forces in my life. They made food. They distracted me in the best possible way. Their individual and collective efforts got Jeff and me through six months of hell. Just as importantly, they also helped me envision a life on the other side of business loss and personal trauma.

  3. Give yourself up to God, or whatever your spiritual or religious equivalent is. I grew up believing in God, but my husband was far more skeptical. In the early days of crisis, Jeff surprised me when he literally threw his evolutionary theory books on the floor of our study. He proclaimed that not only had he regretted fighting and arguing the existence of God, but that he was heretofore embracing God. Not the same God as mine, but the one that mattered to him. From that day forward, we marched to the beat of our own individual and collective divine beings. We prayed a lot. I became religiously religious, and Jeff was a willing participant. Our belief in a higher power and the existence of life after death still serves us today, and we find ourselves praying at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I think that religion and spirituality might be the product of the world’s greatest copywriters and creative geniuses. And if that’s the case, so be it. Who cares? That shit works!

Today, I still live in uncertainty. How long will Jeff’s remission last? When will the next big account tank? But now, I have a new attitude when it comes to facing serious challenges: bring it on. I have my three best practices, and they’re proven and repeatable. This Superwoman is going to get through it.