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Cancer Touches Everyone: How a Company's Culture Responds Is the Key

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In my last post, about bringing your "humanity" into the workplace with you, I indicated that I would be following with some really meaty blogs from conversations and interviews with major CEOs. I'm glad to say that this project is underway and I'm excited to share their input with you.

Here's the process I used. I selected CEOs of major companies I admire. Some were taken from the list of CEOs Against Cancer, a partnership project with corporations and The American Cancer Society. I knew they would be wonderful people to survey, as they've already demonstrated their positive concerns for people with major illness. I sent letters inviting them to either fill out a questionnaire or speak with me about how cancer and illness is handled within their company. I only reached out to about 40 and more than 25 percent responded with a willingness to get involved. That was an amazing response.

Only two so far have spoken with me by phone and the rest are responding via email to questions sent to them. These articles will share their responses. The objective is to shed light on the "how to" care for your employees (and/or their loved ones) when they are impacted by cancer or major illness. Sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to encourage them to leave and take care of themselves, rather than to adapt the workplace to engage and accommodate them.

In this first interview, we see examples of humanity and caring as core values at work. It seemed only appropriate to speak with Sherry Lansing first. Sherry was the person the American Cancer Society contacted when they wanted to reach out to a group of CEOs. She had set the gold standard in the compassionate way she ran the companies she was associated with.

A little bit about Sherry: She is the former chair and CEO of Paramount Studios, and when she was the president of production at 20th Century Fox, she was the first woman to head a Hollywood studio. After this amazing career, she created The Sherry Lansing Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to cancer research, education, and "encore career" opportunities. This is where she spends her time and efforts these days.

Sherry is to me an amazing role model for skill, talent, empathy, and genuineness, with the capacity to tie these all into making the world a better place. She is driven to do good and make a difference in the world.

As we spoke, Sherry shared mainly from her "larger company CEO hat." However, she applies the same principals at her foundation.

First, she acknowledged that early diagnosis of illness is key. When people know what their issues are, they can take action.CEO's Against Cancer, while devoted to embracing and helping employees with major illness, also strongly stress the idea of "healthy lifestyle." Their companies provide a plethora of opportunities for such programs at work.

Second, Sherry also acknowledges, however, that once an employee has a diagnosis, there is more to be done. It's not just about action, but also about humanity -- about being empathetic.

Here are many of the comments I gleaned from my conversation with her:

"It's important for a company to be humanitarian in its approach to its employees. That means being compassionate, caring. As long as people can function and work, you keep them on the job as long as possible. When they want to speak and share about their illness (or that of a loved one), you listen. If it's okay with them, you visit and perhaps encourage co-workers to visit them when they are undergoing hospitalization or treatment. When they would rather not share, if they have a desire to keep it secret, you allow and respect that. It's also essential to give individuals the time off they need. There should be no pressure on them. Their responsibility is to take care of themselves. No matter how large or small a company is, caring about your people is imperative.

If someone reaches a point where they are no longer able to function in their position, it's important to take care of them - to provide health insurance and give them a healthy 'package.'

The underlying issue here is that a company should create a 'culture' that has the values we've been discussing -- empathy, genuineness, concern, caring. If the culture is one of compassion, then people have the opportunity to be a part of something."

I was so touched by the time that Sherry spent with me. I told her that what she was sharing was not always what I hear from others. I've heard horror stories from folks that worked in places where people were resentful that someone had too much time off, or that they had to pick up the slack for the person. I've heard of companies where people are "encouraged" to leave because the company culture is "if you can't do the work, you're out of here."

Thank you, Sherry, for being a breath of fresh air. I hope your kindness and generosity of spirit will be a big boost to other companies in the arena of compassion.