Life After Tragedy

Navigating Through Grief and Change to Find Purpose

Jody LaVoie, CEO and Coach at Widows in The Workplace

In this episode, we hear from a grief and loss expert, whose path of purpose took a sudden turn when her CEO husband was killed at work. Jody LaVoie shares the life lessons she’s learned as she navigated through this abrupt, painful change that impacted her personally, professionally, and as a parent. Her story of resilience is inspiring and offers a unique perspective on managing the reality of constant change.

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About Jody LaVoie



Cummings-Krueger: Welcome everyone to Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. I’m Megan Cummings-Krueger, and today we’re sharing a uniquely personal story of one woman’s journey through sudden and tragic change, and how her story is yet so relevant to all of us as we continue to navigate the cumulative stress and change over the past few years. Where we are is where she’s been, and she shines a light on the journey ahead with her experiences and her perspective.


My guest today is Jody LaVoie, who is a grief and loss expert, widow, mom, and powerhouse widow coach. Through her coaching, she helps widows move from grief, to greatness, and Jody is the former CEO of the nonprofit Female Strong and Young Entrepreneurs Academy Chicago, which the acronym is YEA!


Jody was the Chairman of Aero-Stream, a third-party logistics and SAS provider that was founded by her late husband Steve in 2000. Jody received her Bachelor of Arts from University of Chicago and is the proud mother of three girls and an Italian water dog named Bruno. She currently resides in her hometown of La Grange, Illinois and is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She is also happily a Menttium mentor. So welcome Jody.


LaVoie: Thank you, Megan. I’ve been looking forward to this.


Cummings-Krueger: Excellent, so have I. I want to give just a quick recap to our audience. You endured a unique tragedy that profoundly impacted what followed in your life.


In 2014, your husband Steve, was killed at work by an employee. Steve had been the founder and CEO of the company, and so suddenly you had to step in and take over his responsibilities. You also had three young daughters at home to support through the trauma. Overnight you had an overwhelming reality thrust upon you. Now as you shared, since then, you’ve walked on an unusual personal and professional path, but the learning that came from your experience is relevant to so many of us, especially with what we’ve all been dealing with for the past few years.


And I’ll give one example for our listeners. Here at Menttium, in dealing with all the stress that comes with rapid and repeated change, we’ve seen a real impact, for example, on confidence levels. It resulted in a significant increase in our mentees’ interest in managing imposter syndrome.


As someone who has had to jump into the role of CEO, you had to immediately learn new skills and develop confidence as a leader. My first question would be, would you share what helped you navigate all of this?


LaVoie: Absolutely. Megan, you bit off a lot there, so I’ll take a little chunk of it, and we’ll work through it.


You mentioned suddenly, overnight, I had skills of, I was a stay-at-home mom and now suddenly, I’m needing to run this business. And there were skills I didn’t have. I’d never run a third-party logistics supply chain technology business before. And so very quickly I realized, let’s focus on what I know. Then let’s focus on what I don’t know and how I can get other people who know all these other things to help. Because there was no way I could become an expert in the industry, on the competition, and finances. There were so many things that I wasn’t going to become an expert at.


I think one suggestion for when people find themselves in a new role and they’re overwhelmed is, what don’t you know and how can you outsource? If you can’t pay to outsource it, how do you find people that know what it is you’re trying to learn? If you need to have some legal things that you’re trying to figure out, who do you know in your network that could possibly help you with that?


LinkedIn is a wonderful resource to search for people in your network that have certain titles. Joining organizations was another thing that I did and surrounding myself with other business owners who have been through it and have done it the same, is relevant for all the other industries that are out there.


There are special trade groups for all your listeners. Finding that space that you will find like people that are having similar problems is so important. I went to this group, and it happened to be Young President’s Organization, YPO, and I had this group of six people, and every other month we met, and I would say, all right, I’ve got to sell a business here.


How do I do that? Never done that. And I had people that had who could coach me and help me and have my back, which was great. So, finding people, mentoring through Menttium, and having and finding a mentor for yourself is so important. And there’s those mentors outside of your organization, and then there’s the champions inside your organization. So having one of both is a good thing.


Cummings-Krueger: One of the things that comes to mind about this sudden challenge for you is not just looking at what you know and what you don’t know. How and where did you find the support for accepting what you didn’t know and that you didn’t need to know, because that can really be a challenge for people.


LaVoie: It is a challenge, and I didn’t spend a lot of time on that because I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth for it. I literally said, I’m not going to become an expert in it. I must trust the people that I am allowing to be the expert in that space and know wholeheartedly that they’ve got that.


Because if you don’t trust the people that you’re offloading things on, then that adds a whole other thing in your mindset, and you’re not as able to focus on what it is that you’re good at because you’re worried about what’s going on over here. And so, trust is important.


Forgiveness for yourself to know, I’m not going to be perfect. I’m not going to know all these things, and it’s physically impossible to learn all these things, and that’s okay because you know what? I know other things, and I know those things better than the people over there who know these things. I focused on what I know and be proud of what I know.


Cummings-Krueger: Reaching out for help is something that doesn’t always first spring to mind for a lot of us.


Those relationships, as you say, and building trust are so important. One thing that really stuck with me when we were talking earlier is you also recognized in your instance, all your employees, all your colleagues had gone through the same trauma of that event. With everything you were going through, I thought that the empathy and the understanding of that, I imagine that helped in building those relationships with your colleagues at work.


LaVoie: Absolutely. And I think what a lot of people forget about, or frankly we all never think about, is when tragedies like this happen in the workplace, the first responders are the employees. They’re physically present needing to do medical treatment until somebody comes. That is scary and certainly an indelible thing in their mind for the rest of their lives. And not only for them, but in this case, this was downtown Chicago. They closed the loop. There are other buildings surrounding where other people knew that something awful had happened, and they were even affected. People still come up to me today and remember this story, because their office was across the street, or their husband’s office was right there. There’s just so many connections.


But also, this bond of what my husband had built was so special, and the culture in the organization was so special, that everybody rallied together and there was no way they were going to let the ship go down. They were on the phone to clients the next day, reassuring everybody that we were moving full steam ahead. We’re all here for support. The company is fully up and functioning and we’re here for you. And to have already established a culture like that of care and love, and that was a significant part of who my husband was. And I think that’s beautiful.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. That’s an amazing culture. And to your point, your husband created it and then you were able to step in and continue it, which I imagine was one of the most important things as you were going through all of this.


LaVoie: There was a connection obviously because this was, we have three daughters, but this was our fourth child. We talked about it every day and by that point it had been in existence as a company for fourteen years. Not only had we invested most of our personal finances in the business, but we had friends and family that had invested money in the business and there were employees who’d invested their lives, careers, and their family. So, there was all of this, just so much coming together with that.


Cummings-Krueger: It really takes a village yet again. So, after stepping into that CEO world and steering the ship as you say, within a couple years, you were then able to sell the business, which was its own complicating process, but then you were able to have the space to really take a step back and consider what your own personal passion was. What you realized was you really wanted to help other women. You also shared with me when we were talking, when you jumped into that CEO role, you were the only woman in a leadership role. You had a lot to offer with your perspective, your experiences, and, you had a lot to offer to widows who were walking the same path as you, who were suddenly back in the workforce, dealing with grief of their own and if they were a parent, their children’s grief.


So, in response, you founded your company, Widows in the Workplace, and you created the program Grief to Greatness. You also got your coaching certificate. What I’d love to hear more about is what have you found in the work that you do now, what have been some of the most common challenges for your clients as they’re dealing with grief and change, and what have you found most helpful?


LaVoie: My clients that come to me first are women that are used to having it all together; they’re excelling in their careers; they’re excelling at home. They feel like they have purpose and drive, and then suddenly, they’re hit with grief and all that goes upside down. They don’t really know what to do with it, because they remember, I was this person, now I don’t feel like that person anymore, and what is that, and so they feel like they’re just getting by. They know and are overwhelmed by all these different resources out there. Should I be reading books? Should I join a group? Should I get a coach? Should I have a therapist? You’ve got all this coming at you and it’s just a lot.


One shouldn’t shortchange. Two, when you’ve gone through a loss, your perspective changes. You start to realize; life is short, and we need to really take advantage of every moment we have. And so, was I really spending my time in the way that I want to, to do what I want to do to give back to this world? And so, some of my work with widows is reflecting on that because your life does change.


Cummings-Krueger: Everyone has their own individual journey, but I imagine there are some common emotions to deal with. Obviously, the grief, I imagine it hits their confidence. They don’t feel like they were or are in control. Is there a story that comes to mind for you of a path that someone followed that was just gratifying to watch?


LaVoie: There’s so many, but I’ll start with one. I had a widow client that came to me before her husband had passed away because he had received a terminal diagnosis. Of course, she remained hopeful and was going through all the treatments, but then it got toward the end, and she wanted to set her and her daughter up for success. Having her come to me two weeks before her husband had passed away, I was in awe because how wonderful it was that she knew she needed the support. Then to see where she is now after loss and where her daughter is. How she’s thinking about her career and kind of her next three to five years in her life and how she’s playing that out and how she’s grown internally because she was scared.


It’s scary, right? Her husband was about to die, and it was overwhelming. Like, I must be able to pay the bills, and I want to be a good mom, and I’m scared I’m going to let something fall apart. To really see her stand tall, come into her own, be strong, and set boundaries for herself, especially at work where she was getting taken advantage of a bit and caving a little bit to some of that, and that stopped. Because she realized, those are not commitments that I’m willing to make because that is affecting me personally, my family personally, my mental health personally. So, I was proud of her for drawing those boundaries, because that’s not easy for a lot of people to do, even outside of grief.


Cummings-Krueger: That is such a hard skill and so often can make such a big difference in our life. As I listen to you, it’s so holistic what you go through. So much of this is having just by force, almost having to pause, and as you say, see what you value, see what’s important to you. I think in addition to all that you went through with the loss of your husband, you also survived breast cancer twice, congratulations. But that also brings a lot of perspective as far as what is important to us. I know it’s hard to think about who we were before because it is such a learning curve and it’s such a learning experience. What would you share with our listeners as far as things that became important to you and things that did not?


LaVoie: I’m going to start at the beginning of what you started to say, because there was a lot that I realized about myself, and how much I changed in this process. The woman that I became, and the mother that I became for a mother of three daughters, the way my daughters viewed me was so different after I lost my husband. They view their mom as a strong, powerful woman. And I would use the bad with an “A” word as well. And frankly, that makes me proud to have my girls think of their mom that way. Although they were proud of me before, they would have never said that. Having your children see you do things that are outside of your comfort zone and stand up to people that I wouldn’t have before to make new relationships.


I didn’t have a business network. I didn’t even have a LinkedIn, so I had to establish all of this. So, they’re proud of that and proud as they share that with their friends and their friends are like, wow, that’s what your mom’s doing? It makes me proud as a person, but proud as a mom and proud as a mom who’s raising daughters today because that’s not easy. It’s hard to be a kid today, it really is. I don’t have boys, so I really can’t speak to that, but I can speak to how hard it’s to having daughters.


Cummings-Krueger: I really appreciate that. I know when we were talking earlier, one of the things you shared, and I thought it was such an insightful point, which was, you’re dealing with your grief, you’re also dealing with your girl’s grief, and part of the essence of that is suddenly, the world doesn’t feel as safe. You were dealing with this several years ago, and now I think every one of us in the States is feeling that similar way. What did you find helpful? Was it just the act of talking about it and facing reality? What did you find was helpful for yourself, but also as a parent?


LaVoie: You ask great questions because they’re so loaded, and I love that.


First, when this happened with my husband, what was most important, and this was a space that my husband came from, was this person had a mental illness. And that’s really sad and that’s what led to this. So, I think having an understanding a little bit of where that came from was helpful.


My husband had that background. He was a dedicated patient for psychoanalysis for many years. That was the language we used at home. We talked about our feelings at home. So having that pre-established was helpful and most of us had already had therapists, which was helpful.


You also talk about being afraid in today’s world. It is scary and I don’t want to walk around afraid. This happened to me and my family, and I refuse to adjust my life and my daughters don’t adjust their lives and I don’t want them to be scared.


It goes beyond personal safety. I want them to stand up for themselves. I want them to speak up. I want them to try new things. I want them to be comfortable in their own skin and I want them to own their story. Those are all things that apply to all of us, not just kids, but as a passion of mine to raise confident young women and support women in the workplace. So those are just important skills to have that are hard to find.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. I find myself thinking about, it’s not a situation you would’ve ever asked for, but what came out of it was amazing role modeling that you were doing for your girls as you were working through it.


LaVoie: I would like to say how that was planned, Megan. Some of it’s like, I guess I’m just going to do this and then you look back and you’re like, thank goodness I made that choice. There were so many times where I’m like, really? This is the seventh thing that happened today. I’m like, okay, bring it on. Because I’m just going to keep knocking them down. At some point, you must find humor when life gets a little rough, because otherwise life is too rough. So, finding a little laughter and humor is good.


Cummings-Krueger: Humor is such a great coping skill. I found humor and animal videos are helpful.


LaVoie: I’ve heard that there’s so many cute cat videos out there.


Cummings-Krueger: When you think about where you are today, what habits or best practices do you think really helped contribute to your success?


LaVoie: The number one most important thing, and I’m a little obsessed with this, is sleep. I am neurotic about my sleep because sleep affects everything that you do. Your mental capacity the next day, your physical state, your health, your ability to have patience with your kids, your excitement, everything. So, at any rate, I am very cognizant about sleep and wake times.


At the same time, I have a wind down routine thirty minutes before I go to bed. The phone is not by my bed at all. It is in a cabinet on do not disturb. I have no clocks in my room. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and go, it’s two o’clock, I’ve got four more hours to sleep. So, no clocks. If your phone’s over there, you can’t look at it.


I keep my room cool. I listen to a meditation before I go to bed, just a 10-minute audio meditation, and that is the very last thing I do. I’m all ready for bed. I put that in and then I know that when it’s done, I go right to sleep. So, sleep is super important.


Journaling is another thing that I really picked up when my husband passed away. I’d never done it before, and I didn’t know how to do it. I’m a type A person, so I wanted to do it right. How do you do that? I took a journaling class, with this amazing writer, journalist person. But every morning I journal for ten minutes and just write what I’m thinking. I have also incorporated one thing that I’m proud of that I did the day before and I write three things that I’m grateful for. Starting your day with gratitude in your heart and in your mind is important. I could go on forever, but those are my top ones.


Cummings-Krueger: They’re wonderful and I love those specific examples.


The first one you were talking about, the term I’ve been hearing more and more because it is becoming a real crisis in this country. We’re not getting enough sleep and you have what sounds like excellent sleep etiquette is what they call it, and what a difference that makes. But also, the journaling and taking that moment intentionally in the beginning of your day and centering with that gratitude, I imagine really does set the tone for your day.


LaVoie: It does. I heard this tip from somebody because sometimes we all struggle. Okay, yesterday I was thankful for my cat and today I’m thankful for my cat. I know I’m thankful for my cat, but what are new things to be thankful for? And once you start to say, wow, I’ve hit fifty, you can be somewhat challenged and being challenged is good in that regard.


Cummings-Krueger: Yes, I love that framing. Being challenged is good, and that’s something we lose track of. One other question I’d like to ask, when you think about the leader that you are today, the leader that you became, because a lot of the listeners that we have on this podcast are either early leaders or they’re at a pivot point right now.


What advice would you like to give leaders who may be starting out or maybe dealing with some imposter syndrome?


LaVoie: First, I think it’s important to understand where imposter syndrome comes from, and it can hit all of us. And then there’s what do you do with it? This pertains to everyone, but imposter syndrome can hit us a lot when we’re questioning our abilities. Part of that is we’re scared of getting criticized.


Nobody likes to get criticized. We see it in social media, it happens all the time. And that makes us take a step back and play a little small sometimes, and that is not good. So, what happens when we’re starting to question ourselves? There’s that voice in your head telling you, you’re not good enough to do this; you’re not smart enough to do that; are you really going to say that? And so, unhooking from that and being able to say, wait a minute, that’s not real.


Somebody taught me, and this is a Marie Forleo thing, the Pause Principle. Which basically says, when you’ve got these words in your head, take a breath, and really reflect on is that really? And then there’s another person, Byron Katie, who has four questions that are awesome. I don’t know if you know them, but pertaining to this whole imposter syndrome one, you ask yourself, is that true? Is it really true that I’m not smart enough? Well, probably not. Second, how do you know it’s true? And third, what do you do or what action do you take? For example, I’m not smart enough, so therefore I’m not going to raise my hand in this meeting because I don’t feel capable or whatever it is. And then the fourth thing is, who would you be without that? If I wasn’t thinking, you’re not smart enough, I might be running that meeting over there. I love those four questions from Byron Katie.


Cummings-Krueger: I love them too. I’m making a note right now. Those were great.


And there is such a power in reframing, right? Even the word you used as far as unhooking, there are certain words that allow us to detach a little bit and follow a process.


I want to end with a favorite quote or motto that you have and maybe those shift over time, depending on what phase you’re in, but I’d love to know what you have found inspirational in the past.


LaVoie: I love this question because I go back to my mother, and she always told me I can do anything I set my mind to. I firmly believe that. I believed that then, which allowed me to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done. And today I instill that in my kids. If you have the right mindset that you can run a company, that you can’t get promoted, that you can stand up in front of that group and do a TED talk, then you can do it. James Clear says something about that. You set a goal and you already act like you are that person. It’s the same principle of you set your mind to something, you can do it, you act like that person, even though you’re not there yet. You’re functioning that way and I love that.


Cummings-Krueger: I do too. Jody, I could talk to you all day. I would love to pick your brain for twenty-four hours, but I do need to let you go. But I want to thank you for such an open and insightful conversation on how it is possible to navigate through sudden, in your case, tragic change.


Your story of ultimate, and as you say, hard one at times success, is truly inspiring. I imagine sometimes it may not feel that way to you, but it really is an inspiring story and it’s clear what a difference you’ve already made to so many. Your willingness to share what you’ve learned to help others, it’s a wonderful example of mentoring mentality.


LaVoie: Thank you. I’ve loved my experience with Menttium. My last mentee, I loved her. She was amazing, and she’s just changed and grown so much. I can’t wait to have another one.


Cummings-Krueger: That’s wonderful, we love hearing that. I also want to thank all our listeners who are joining this Menttium Matters podcast.


If you enjoy this episode, please feel free to share it with your friends and colleagues. And if you’re interested in additional resources, you can find our show notes on the Menttium website. We look forward to having you join us for our next episode.