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Melissa Shanahan

#248: When You Feel Blindsided: How to Take Better Action

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There are times, as a law firm owner, when something might happen that leaves you feeling blindsided. Stress is at an all-time high, there might be rage, tears, or self-pity, and the fallout can have you spinning. This is a universal phenomenon, especially for business owners, and Melissa is here this week to offer you a new way of approaching those instances that are oftentimes labeled as “bad.”

What do you do when something that feels like an emergency happens in your firm? Whether it’s a key member of your team resigning, receiving a terrible review, or anything else that catches you off guard, most people are prone to kicking into gear and barreling through the best way they know how. However, this is not how you handle emotionally charged situations, especially if you care about the long-term health of your business.

Join Melissa on this episode as she provides you with a guide for when you feel blindsided. You’ll learn how your default approach to handling emergencies might be a short-term solution right now, what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants in emotionally charged situations, and how to embody business-owner maturity.

If you’re a law firm owner, Mastery Group is the way for you to work with Melissa. This program consists of quarterly strategic planning facilitated with guidance and community every step of the way. Join the waitlist right now to grab one of the limited seats when enrollment opens again!

Show Notes:

What You’ll Discover:

• The importance of giving yourself space when you feel blindsided.

• What to do once you’ve come to terms with a fallout in your firm.

• Questions to ask yourself that will produce the most productive outcomes.

• The difference between planning and executing.

• How to handle emergencies in the most responsible way possible.

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Full Episode Transcript:

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I’m Melissa Shanahan, and this is The Law Firm Owner Podcast Episode #248.

Welcome to The Law Firm Owner Podcast, powered by Velocity Work, for owners who want to grow a firm that gives them the life they want. Get crystal clear on where you're going, take planning seriously, and honor your plan like a pro. This is the work that creates Velocity.

Everyone, welcome to this week's episode. I'm so glad you're here. I have something we're going to cover today that happens to all of us. You can't get away from it. It's a universal phenomenon, a common occurrence, especially as business owners.

And so, today we're going to dig into it and get you some help on how to think about it, how to approach it, so that you can handle it with as much grace and ease as possible, and with the best, most ideal outcomes. There are times, as a business owner, that there will be something that happens that you feel blindsided by. Something meaningful that has a bit of a fallout to it, it has an impact on your firm or on your life or on your team's life or on your client’s case; there's something that happens.

And when that thing happens, typically, we fall into a mode of ‘we kick into gear and barrel through the best way we know how.’ While honestly, that ability to kick into gear is something that got you to where you are right now. It's a strategy that you have used in the past, that's worked for you, and that's gotten you through the other side.

But I want to offer today, a different way of approaching those things that oftentimes are labeled by us in the moment as something “bad” that's happened. And when that bad thing happens, we have a bunch of emotion. We feel panicked. We might feel frustrated. We might feel mad. There's a bunch of emotion, and there's a bunch of things to be done. The stress is at an all-time high when these kinds of events happen.

An example of this event is when someone on your team resigns. A key team member puts in their notice and you didn't see it coming. There is a lot of emotion that tends to go with that. There's a lot of fallout. Meaning, there's work to be transferred. There's off boarding to be done in a responsible way. There is searching for and hiring the next person to fill the role for that team member. There's a lot to do.

And on top of that, there's all this emotion and stress ramps. Now, that is a very common thing that, as a business owner, you will have to deal with at some point, if you haven't already. And likely, you'll have to deal with it repeatedly. That's a part of it, it is our business; people come and people go. We try to do things to increase our retention of our team members, of course, but you'll still have this happen, it's inevitable.

Now, when it happens, it's very important to give yourself some space. Because there is this immediate after effect of learning the news, that you experience more emotion than you might later. Depending on the occurrence, there could be tears, there could be rage, there could be selfpity. There can be any number of things.

And you need to give yourself space to experience those emotions, and just allow it to all surface all come up bubbled to the top. You don't need to take any, literally, any action in those moments. Unless, of course, there needs to be something that happens immediately for the security of the firm, or for the safety of team members. There are severe situations like that. I'm not talking about that right now.

I'm talking about an amicable… It's a resignation, you didn't see it coming, and it just feels almost insurmountable what you have to overcome, in order to feel like things are going to flow again the way that they should flow in your firm. Getting to the place that you really process emotion to the best of your ability, so that you can get to a place of acceptance is important.

Now many of you are moving at a pace that makes that very difficult. For instance, somewhat recently, I had a client who, a key team member, put in a resignation, and they were in court for two days straight. Like, there's no processing emotion with that. You are on, you're focused.

When they came out of that I sent a text message and said, “Hey, how's it going? I saw that this person resigned, and it was a key team member.” And that was the first moment that they really let go and considered how they felt.

They just did a check-in with themselves. And then, it all started to bubble; as it should have, right? It brings it all to the surface. And the faster it comes to the surface, the quicker and more responsibly we can deal with the things that need to be dealt with moving forward.

Once you've given it a day or two, and you've really come to terms with it, then now we can get to work in a way that might not feel natural to you. And that's what I'm going to lay out here.

The first thing you want to do is to put a meeting on the calendar. If it's by yourself, it's by yourself, but I highly recommend doing it with someone who can help you think through what's going to need to happen as you move forward. But put a meeting on the calendar, to give some space to do the deep thinking, the deep work, and to map out all the things that need to be addressed.

This meeting needs to happen as soon as possible. So, once you go to actually put it on the calendar, look for the soonest possible window that you can hold this meeting. And that may mean that it pushes something out; this rises up above, in terms of priority. So, pushing something out, that makes sense. Really think it through, what you're doing, but find space very soon for this meeting.

At this meeting, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to get to the crux of what needs to be done. What will be most productive for you to focus on in the coming days and weeks. So, the questions that I like to ask are:

Okay, when you think about what's in front of you… what feels like a gray area, or there are big question marks around, or that feels really hard… get a brain dump out. And so, this is something that we do for private clients, we have something called… at the moment, internally, we call it “emergency track.”

When something is going on for a private client that's big, and it's meaningful to step in and support them in this way, to facilitate this process, this is one of the things that we do in that “emergency track.” This is one of the things that we do. And so, when I ask these questions, all this stuff surfaces.

My job is to write down and capture the big headlines of what they are spitting out. I'll write as much and as fast as I can, and make sure that I really do capture everything that they are concerned with in that moment.

Now, as you're doing this for yourself, you can ask yourself those same questions and just free write, just brain dump. If you are working with someone else in this meeting, they can do it. You can have a whiteboard where you're writing down these things. But get it out of your head and onto paper, so that you can look at these things one by one and make some decisions.

Once you have them out of your head and onto paper, or on a board or whatever, you're going to look at them one by one, and you are going to write out sub-bullets of things that need to happen in order for that thing, that you initially got out of your head, to be taken care of.

For instance, if offboarding properly is one of the concerns, you need to make a list, right then and there, of all the things that you need to do to ensure that you do offboard properly. And if you have questions, you write down the specific questions that you have about a specific element of offboarding.

And the reason I'm saying specific so much, and I really mean it, is because your brain, sometimes when there's fear or when there's uncertainty, it will kick into a mode that's very vague. So, it'll say, “I don't know how to offboard.” Well, that's not true. You know some things, right?

There might be a few things that you do not know, note those things specifically. And then get out of your head all of the things that you do know about offboarding that needs to be done. Do you have a checklist? If not, now's a really great time to create one, in this meeting; creating that checklist for offboarding.

Maybe, in your checklist, highlighting things that need to be figured out, that you're not 100% certain on but you can get those answers. The reason for that, when it breaks down to look at this granularly, is it starts to eliminate the question marks in your brain.

And when you start to eliminate the question marks in your brain, your body starts to calm down. It doesn't mean you're pumped or stoked or happy, but your body starts to calm down, which means your stress can decrease a bit. So, get specific with this.

At the end, when you're thinking through one of the elements that feels gray, fuzzy, you're not sure how to move forward, once you really break this down then you can make a list of action items that you need to do.

For instance, with this offboarding checklist, maybe there's a step that you do don't exactly know how to do. It's your first time doing it, for example. So, removing somebody from your group disability plan... I don't know, I'm thinking of something that might not be totally straightforward... so you're going to have to look into that. There's an action item in there for you, to dig in, make a phone call, figure this out.

That's what I mean by “action items.” “Okay, we have this list that we need to carry out, but what do I need to do in order to be able to carry this out smoothly?” That's your next steps. So, each of the things, going back to what I was saying, you get out of your head and onto paper. All the things that you are concerned about, that feel gray, fuzzy, whatever. And you break down all the things that need to be done in order for that to not be gray and fuzzy. That's your job.

And when you can take a moment, and take a pause, to have a meeting like this, not only does it get you organized, but moving. Taking the right action steps to handle this in a way that will really serve the firm and it won't waste any time. And oftentimes, we waste time by being busy. What I'm suggesting here is that you push pause.

When I when I think about this meeting, for me, it almost feels like going into the meeting, we’re pushing a button that's powering down the whole world, and we are going to make a plan. And then, power back the world and we'll go out there. I don't know why that vision is in my head, but it kind of feels funny; I can hear the sound.

You walk in and, “(Boooph) Okay, let's make a plan. And then, you turn the world back on when you leave, and you're ready to enter back into that world prepared, ready to go, very clear on what your next steps are, and you can go from there. It's so much healthier.

Now, I'm using the example of losing a key employee, but this could be anything in your firm. I can just hear people saying right now, “Well, yeah, but…” I hear “buts.” That if I was in conversation with you I would be able to have the conversation with you. I'm telling you right now, it wouldn't veer from what I've given you today. Principally speaking, it wouldn't veer. It doesn't matter what you're dealing with.

Because the alternative of not, first of all, allowing yourself to be pissed, be sad, be whatever you need to be… Have emotions, we are human. We can't just stuff those down and keep trucking. You will hit a wall at some point, so just let yourself feel whatever you're going to feel.

Let yourself process it, come to terms with it, and then put a meeting on the calendar right after that. To be able to power down the world, make a plan, and then go power back up the world, enter into it, and start doing and acting in alignment with what is best for your firm.

Again, the reason that it feels important to have this episode is because we don't do this by default. People will fire off things and do things haphazardly that they know need to be done. They'll pull triggers… and what I mean by that… Okay, let's just stick with the employee example, if someone resigns that you felt blindsided by.

Oftentimes, you all, and me too, we're running so hard, that it is very difficult to make yourself stop and get organized. It's like we just do things on the fly in an effort to get this thing to come together in a way that's tolerable and helps our firm keep making revenue. But that's not the long game. And that's not the most responsible way to handle it.

The mature thing to do, business owner maturity, the mature thing to do is to stop, take stock, figure out what needs to be done, put things on the calendar, assign things, delegate things, figure out your action items to get your questions answered, and then execute.

This is no different than when we talk about execution with anything else. You make a plan, and then you honor your plan. You make a plan, and then you execute. You make a plan, and then you implement. Those are two different phases of work.

And most of the time, people try to blend them both and it makes things very inefficient. You'll forget things, things are happening on the fly, it's disorganized, there's chaos, and people around you feel it. That is not a way to operate. There is a different way, there is a better way.

And so, I have talked about that plenty on my podcasts. I'm sure I'll be talking about it in the future on my podcast, because it's so important to separate those two things, between planning and then executing. And this is no different.

Honestly, play this out for a second. I'm sticking with the example of the employee that has blindsided you with a resignation. Think about the difference with the end game, the results that you're trying to create. Which is to offboard responsibly, to bring in someone else into that role that is a great fit, and to get them onboarded and trained really well, so that they can integrate into the firm.

Now, if you are flying by the seat of your pants, you bet your bottom dollar that everybody feels that. The person being offboarded might feel that; which, kind of, who cares, right? But they will, that's just true. And the person coming in, or the interviewees, the candidates for the job, they'll feel it. They'll feel your chaos, they'll feel your messiness, they'll feel your lack of preparation. Even if they still want to work for you, make no mistake, they can feel it.

Now, it's very different when you make this plan and you sort of chart out the things that need to happen, you think through it thoroughly, and then you go, then you take action. Candidates can feel that too, and so can the person you're offboarding. There's not a sense of dartingess. There's not a sense of flying by the seat of your pants.

And even if you have a “positive vibe” around flying by the seat of your pants, people still feel it. It's not the vibe you want to create in your firm. It's not how you want to operate, because that way of operating is inefficient. And inefficiency is a problem inside of firms.

It doesn't mean you have to be robotic and like machines. But operating in a way where, over time, the net loss, the net waste that's happening because of the way that we're operating flying by the seat of our pants, is ridiculous. So, we don't do it. We take steps to be organized. And this is no different.

Now, if I turn away for a moment, from the example that I've been using with the employee, this could be anything. It could be a terrible review that you got from… maybe someone that wasn't even a client, but claims to be your client. Make no mistake, you feel all kinds of emotion when that happens. There is a bit of processing, and letting yourself be pissed and have self-pity and just grappling with it.

You come to terms with it. And then, that is when you set something on the schedule, to think through what are all the things that feel gray, that feel fuzzy, that I don't know how to handle, I don't know what to do, I don't know; whatever, all the question marks.

You get all that out of your head, and then one by one you think through: What would have to be true for this to not be a question mark anymore? What do I need to know so that this isn't gray or fuzzy? What needs to be done so that there are no question marks here?

And when you get all that out of your head and onto paper, onto a whiteboard, whatever, then you can work with it. Then you can see very clearly, “Okay, these things I can do right now.” Then plug them into your calendar to be done, or delegate them.

And then there's some things that you don't know exactly what to do, so the next step would be… fill in the blank. “I need to go look in this private Facebook group that I'm a member of, where I know people have posted about the same problem before. I'm going to go search for those posts. I'm going to see what everybody said, and see if there's something I can glean there that'll be really helpful for my situation.”

That's the kind of stuff. It kicks you into modes of action that are productive. And not just single thoughts that you took action on in between meetings, and in between this and that, and running. No, this is you sitting down and being deliberate.

Sure, this might seem like common sense. But when there's a situation that's emotionally charged, for you, this is not the first thought. This is not the first thought at all. And that's why it can be really helpful to have something to go to, or to deploy, when you find yourself in the situation. And so, maybe bookmark this podcast for that; like, this could be a guide.

This is why we kick into gear in a very specific way when something is going wrong for a private client. When someone has resigned that's really meaningful, when there is a terrible client review… that is not even a client, when there's a medical emergency for someone at the firm. Especially when they're affecting production, and so the firm feels under stress because of it.

We kick into gear in this way and we help facilitate the thinking. Ee give them space to process, then we put a meeting on the calendar, and we run the meeting. We pull out of their heads ‘this is what needs to happen.’ And that's what a true partner is. That's what a true partner should do. And so, we're committed to being a partner even when it all hits the fan.

And when it does hit the fan you do have to pause. You have to be intentional. You have to reflect. You have to think. You cannot think and act at the same time. There's the quote from Yogi Berra, “You can't think and hit at the same time.” That's the same thing; you can't think, and plan, and have executive functioning, and be taking a bunch of action at the same time. Those are two different things.

When emotions are running high, when something has blindsided you or your firm, this is so important. More important than just the day to day; although I think this is important all the time. Planning, and then execute on your plan, those are two separate things. But it's especially important when emotions are running high.

Yet, that's when it's the hardest to remember to do this. So, I hope that this episode can serve as something you come back to whenever you hit something that blindsides you in your firm, in your life too. This works no matter what.

But I see it all the time with law firm owners, because as a business owner you will experience this, it's inevitable. And so, to have a tool in your back pocket where you think, “Okay, this is going to happen at some point in the future,” or maybe you're going through right now. “And when it happens, I know that I have something to lean on, that will help get me to a point where I can begin to take action from a better place.”

Alright, everybody, thank you so much for tuning in. I will see you here next Tuesday.

Hey, you may not know this, but there's a free guide for a process I teach called Monday Map/Friday Wrap. If you go to, it's all yours. It's about how to plan your time and honor your plans. So, that week over week, more work that moves the needle is getting done in less time. Go to to get your free copy.

Thank you for listening to The Law Firm Owner Podcast. If you're ready to get clearer on your vision, data, and mindset, then head over to where you can plug in to Quarterly Strategic Planning, with accountability and coaching in between. This is the work that creates Velocity.

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