November 23, 2020

How Do You Break The NEWS? The Lesson No Leader Has Mastered


When I joined the Open Institute, I was clear about my role and excited at what I would be doing. I had been given my marching orders and I knew that the goals for my role were to strengthen the team’s connectedness – given that the team was now mostly working from home – and to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of all the team members in this new era that we all find ourselves in. I was particularly excited that the framing of my job was in the context of team wellness and not the usual “HR”, which denotes more contractual enforcement than actually managing people’s welfare. 

I rolled up my sleeves and began hunting, gathering and collecting data. I went about meeting the team, measuring their emotional and mental well being to know more about them and their individual work. I started conducting strategy review sessions, dreaming and creating up templates (I like them) as a tool that would help us standardize operations and as an introduction towards evaluating our performance. It was fun because we were working from home, with the occasional physical meetings at the office. In fact, let me admit, I liked the physical meetings more because I could physically meet & connect with people, so getting out was a breather for me. 

Until I lost my breath. 

Before 2018, I considered myself strong, strong enough to deal with matters of death.  I had previously supported friends when they lost their loved ones. I was the person who got things running, took lead on tasks and helped organize for the burial. That was until 2018 when I lost a dear loved one and even though I still had to do the planning work, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t strong. I was weak and the death of my loved one broke me.

Fast forward to 2020.    

With the onset of a global pandemic, the numbers of those infected and those succumbing to death from the disease were constantly rising, and the government in Kenya through the Ministry of Health (MOH) was asking its citizens to adhere to the COVID 19 regulations. At the office, strict guidelines were drafted and measures put up to ensure our physical work environment adhered to the COVID-19 regulations, even as staff continued to work from home. 

And then a text came in on the office Whatsapp group. 

One of our programme managers, Jonah Mngola, informed the team that he was not well, having just tested positive for COVID-19 and acute pneumonia.  The team responded with messages of comfort, wishing him a quick recovery because we cared about him as an integral part of our family. 

In less than a week he was gone.

Everything I knew or had learnt as a leader came crumbling down because no one ever prepares you for this moment. No one ever tells you how to break THE NEWS, no one gives you a script. How do you tell the rest of the team that their colleague is no more without sending an email? What do you say to them when they pick your call in the middle of the day, expecting anything but THE NEWS you are about to share? 

How do you tell them that the man they loved, the man they worked with, the man they had a meeting planned within the week is no more? What do you say or do after you break the news, how long do you stay on the phone, what do you say next? Do you know what answers to give to the questions they will ask? How do you tell them that this disease, this flu like disease has taken one of us and that the numbers they will be seeing today from the government spokesperson will include one of their own?

This was, by far, my toughest assignment as a leader.  I had no script. I had never done this before, but here I was charged with the responsibility of calling each and every staff member to break the news. And as I broke the news, I had to sit and listen and allow my team to have their moment, whilst keeping my head above the water for all of them even though my unresolved trauma of 2018 had been triggered. 

I got to learn from the team the very unique and personal relationships that each of them shared with Jonah as a big brother, as a mentor, as a playmate upon whom many memorable and funny pranks were played. As we held a virtual wake one evening, I got to see that in reality, the OI team members were not just colleagues – they were family. 

It’s going to be a long hard journey as we deal with the loss of Jonah. We have set up a panel of professionals to help us with grief therapy and we continue to check up on each other as best as we can. 

In the meantime, I continue to seek ways to build my own capacity and that of my team leaders, so we know how to go about this, because it’s the news no one wants to break, the one lesson you can never master even with a script. 

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