My friend wanted to tell me about something that was happening at his work. Let’s call him James.

He is responsible for delivering a significant project and had a talented team of colleagues from across the business working on it. One team member, let’s call her Emma, worked in another division and although she was the most junior person on the project, she was responsible for delivering a key part of it. James was getting a little concerned about progress and decided to call her to see if all was well.

He described to me how Emma began to cry within a second of him asking if she was ok. This was not a tearful snuffle; this was a full-on emotional release. He told me how the sound of her sobbing will stay with him for a long time.

Nothing in work should make people feel like this.

The project was time critical and vital for the organisation to get right. It had reached an important milestone, and Emma held the key to it progressing. Emma knew this too and felt the weight of responsibility. She had been asking for help, but she felt unsupported, overwhelmed and unable to do any of her other work, in respect of which others were now complaining.

James tried to reassure her. He told her that none of this was her fault and that he would deal with it. He asked her to do one thing which was to email or call him every day, so that he knew she was doing ok.

James then told me about three conversations he had with colleagues about Emma.

He spoke first to the HR business partner for her division. He told James that it was a line management issue and that managers should follow the well-being policy. He also said however that it was an important project and some stress was inevitable. Maybe Emma could take a little break once the project was finished.

James then spoke to her line manager, who was more than a little grumpy that Emma had spoken to James. He said “if she feels overloaded, she should speak to me.” He also said that it was a stressful project for everyone and that he couldn’t make exceptions for one person and not do it for everyone. James asked him to speak to Emma today to see what could be done. When James checked with Emma two days later, she had not heard from anyone.

Unhappy with both these responses, James decided to speak to his Executive colleague (and peer) who ran the division where Emma and her line manager worked. James told her that he had spoken to HR and the line manager, but that he was unconvinced they were gripped of the need to help Emma. He said he was very worried for her well-being and just talking to her might be helpful. The response was non-committal and she reiterated that there was a well-being policy, and that she had confidence in the line manager. Perhaps Emma had over-reacted.

James knew of course that he was stepping on toes, but in his words “Emma needed someone to do something now, even just to talk to her, and if they won’t, I will.”

James reminded Emma to let him know each day how she was feeling and what action was being taken to support her. James promised he would step in again if nothing happened within a couple of days.

Shortly after Emma was given the support she needed, she completed her tasks and the project progressed well.

Reflecting on the story I know it may divide opinion, but I believe James did exactly the right thing. We must never put convention or policy in the way of doing the right thing for someone in distress.

Leadership is not easy and there isn’t a playbook. James may have runkled a few relationships, but choosing not to act would have made him part of the problem. And, for goodness sake, what is the point of having a well-being policy if it means we can ignore someone literally crying out for help?

James told me that he may not have acted in this way a few years ago. Instead, he would have deferred to convention, showed sympathy, but not pushed for action. I noted with him that none of us become leaders by appointment. We become leaders by our actions.

James is a friend and I love him dearly, but I respect him more than ever. For some it might appear to be a minor moment in the rough and tumble of corporate life, but for me this is a defining example of how we all need to be. Emma, I suspect, will never forget what James did for her, and one day she will do the same for people that she can help. This is how we make our difference.

Let those who feel the breath of sadness sit down next to you.

Take care. Paul xx