The Only Constant
After two decades of That Corporate Life, I think I've seen just about every kind of change that can occur within a company. Here is a short list: changing and consolidating buildings and locations; hiring sprees; massive layoffs; going through rounds of funding; going public; changing leadership at the Board Level; changing leadership at the Executive and Management Levels; buying other companies; being bought by other companies...it's been busy! Then, there are the personal changes that you carry within you into your workplace: breakups of romantic and platonic relationships; moving to a new home; pregnancy and having children; elder care and the loss of dear friends and family members...it's been busy, and sometimes overwhelming. Here are things I've learned about navigating through periods of significant change:
It's all a Wave
The most challenging changes are usually those that are unexpected or unwanted: the massive layoff, a loved one's illness, a restructuring that changes job duties in an undesired way, etc...Although none of us would ever say out loud that we expect to go through life without any major challenges, a lot of us react with heavy resistance when those challenges show up. In those instances, I find that it is important to greet the change as though you are standing on the beach awaiting the arrival of a huge wave. You know the wave is coming, and you know that it can't be avoided. All you can do is accept that it will hit, it will probably be a bit unpleasant when it does, but the hit will be followed by a period of respite as it recedes.
Look Through The Wave
Challenging days or weeks do not usually become challenging months or years without your participation. E.g. Let's say your company has recently been acquired, resulting in the departure of many of your favorite coworkers. It would be normal in this kind of circumstance to greet the experience with more than a little fear, resentment, gossip and snippy IM exchanges. But by acting from these emotions, you end up forgoing what little control you have in a situation like this.
Acting from negative emotions reinforces the idea that this change is something "bad" that "happened to you." Few experiences in life are that black and white, so they should all be treated accordingly. Instead, try to envision a good result on the other side of the wave. Are there opportunities to advance? Have you met someone at the new company that could help you learn the ropes? Is this the "final straw" you needed to find motivation to start your own business, or go back to nursing school? Does this fuel you to advance, so that you can be the kind of leader to handle things differently?
Watch Your Whine
It can be very tempting to commiserate with others when your company is going through a lot of change. While a little of this can actually be a good thing, it is easy to fall into a trap of reinforcing each other's negativity. What people *really* need in periods of significant change is vision, support and optimism. Consider whether you can be a non-cloying voice of optimism for your colleagues. Consider phrases like "This is an overwhelming period of time for a lot of people, but it should level off after the end of the quarter," or "This seems insurmountable, but we've overcome similar challenges in the past," or "I can see that you guys are burning out, so I'm working with HR to grant everyone an extra personal day." Emotions and energy are contagious.
Ask For Help
Especially when going through a period of time where the workload is greatly increased, it can be hard to step back and say "Woah, I am not thriving here. I need support." The best way to make a request like this to your manager is to (a) quantify the burden; and (b) have a few options available. If your manager really understands the burden, it can help her if she needs to "make your case" to HR or other team members. E.g. If you took on a new Sales Territory and it doubled your work, it's easy to see the challenge. Quantifying the burden also helps buffer against any perception that your stress or burnout is a personal weakness. By quantifying, I don't mean to imply that you must have a number, only that you must be able to define the source of your stress in an articulate (and ideally, impartial) manner. Be creative when it comes to options. Although it is easy to say, "I just need a week off," your problems may be there when you return, making this relief short-lived. Maybe what you really need is more administrative support, to shed a time-consuming but unproductive regular meeting or project, or to build more breaks into your daily schedule.
Actively Manage Your Stress Level
The key word here is "actively." This means that you should make an effort, preferably, every day, to minimize your stress level, ideally in a healthy way. We all instinctively know what makes us feel better about our lives. For me, it's getting outside, doing yin yoga in front of the fireplace, calling someone I love, meeting a friend for coffee, taking a hike in the forest, swimming, and creating screenplays, paintings and illustrations. Some of the things I do to minimize stress are even smaller, like replacing caffeine from coffee with green tea and getting to bed a few minutes earlier. Consider setting alarms and reminders throughout your day to ensure that you are coming up for air. This is not a drill. I once worked with a wonderful man who had a heart attack at work during a period of extreme workplace change.
Remember That It is OK To Be Human
As I write this, I'm up to my ears training for a new role I "inherited" after my company was acquired. Our companies were fully integrated about a week ago. This means that one week ago, I could practically do my job with my eyes closed - the processes, people, forms, and tools were familiar and comfortable. Today, I am relearning even the most basic functions of my job, like how to edit a contract in new software.
I have had ALL the feelings about this, especially since this change comes less than 2 months after the death of my Dad, who was not only a wonderful father but also my #1 career adviser! Every time I feel disheartened, I just remind myself that I'm not a cyborg, but a human being and that my emotions are valid. You can be frustrated, sad, scared, or even heartbroken and still be a wonderful leader, coworker and employee. Practice phrases like, "I'm struggling with this, but maybe it will be easier after a decent night's sleep," or "It's alright that the meeting didn't go very well, I'm having a day where I'm feeling really sad. One bad meeting doesn't have to ruin our project."
Remember That Everyone Else Is Human Too
I've worked with a CEO who struggled with a drinking problem, a CFO whose marriage was falling apart, an Executive who was having a workplace affair, countless leaders who were balancing their job with elder care and the loss of parents. One of my favorite coworkers spent six months of weekends fixing up her departed mother-in-law's house for sale. Dozens of coworkers have balanced child-care responsibilities and children's school and sport schedules with full time jobs. Many coworkers have managed a serious illness while I worked with them.
A coworker once expressed to me that she though our CEO was stand-offish, but when I had chatted with him at company parties, he was a doting and concerned father, just hoping to point his children into the right direction, all while managing a travel schedule that would rival any working flight attendant and a demanding workload. From top to bottom, trust that the people around you know what it means to struggle with change at work. Most of them would love to help you and guide you, even the ones that may seem "stand-offish." You may be surprised if you walk into a leader's office and just say, "I'm not handling this change very well and I'm struggling with solutions. Can I have your advice?"
Freshen Up Your Workspace
I'm a huge proponent of the idea that your physical environment is a manifestation of your inner life. If you have had a huge change at the workplace, it can be really helpful to have a spring cleaning of your work environment. It can help a lot to give yourself a physical fresh start even if you are still struggling to give yourself an emotional fresh start. Sometimes even something as simple as a new notebook or coffee cup can give you a much needed boost of enthusiasm, focus and drive.
I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!