When Andrew Barraclough left his role as a senior brand manager at Reckitt Benckiser to co-found his own design agency with business partner and best friend Andy McLeish, he knew it would be a challenge.
After four years of sleepless nights and no weekends, Pure Realisation Limited was just starting to get its nose off the ground. The pair had built a talented team, moved into new offices and were beginning to plan out the company’s next stage of growth. Then in 2004, tragedy struck.
While honeymooning on the Thai island of Phi Phi, McLeish was killed alongside his wife Natalie during the Boxing Day Tsunami.
Now Vice President for Global Design at FTSE 100 pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, Barraclough says it was the most emotionally challenging period of his career but, in retrospect, taught him some valuable leadership lessons.
"All of a sudden you have this massive black swan event. He was 33. You don’t expect your business partner - who was an amazing, creative guy and an amazing creative director - to die in an event like that.
"But I think what that does teach you is your resilience and ability to stretch is actually amazing. You find that you can stretch further than you thought. When the chips are down and you’ve just got to learn a whole new set of skills and talk to lawyers, accountants and HR experts about a whole field you know nothing about, you just adapt.
"The one thing I’ve taken forward is that we generally underestimate people and don’t give them enough opportunity to stretch and grow. Good people are really resilient; give them the opportunity to flex new muscles and build and they will step up.
"We often avoid the risk of giving people something that we assume will be super stretching or something that you think is way beyond their ability; that’s a self-limiting belief.
"Looking back, it also changed how I think about decisions. At a time like that, when everything is so emotionally charged, you realise that the things you’ve worried about in the past, where you’ve got lost in the weeds, don’t really matter.
"I was making some very values-based decisions about what’s right for the team, who had mortgages to pay and families to support, what’s right for the customers and what’s right for Andrew’s next of kin who now owned half of the organisation that I owned the other half of.
"I would say that changed how I thought about things for the better; if you really think about your true values and make decisions based on those, it stops you focusing on the wrong things and brings more clarity.
"You do come out the other side in a much better place than you ever thought possible. We managed to sell the company and everyone kept their jobs. It took me a couple of years to mentally recover, but I think that hugely traumatic event made me a better person."
Image credit: courtesy of GSK