Candace Sweigart wrote for the December edition of The Leadership Advisor. You will enjoy her perspective and practical advice.
Early this year Phil Eastman and Lorene Rasmussen approached me about writing the last newsletter of the year for the Leadership Advisors. Knowing that I had recently given birth to my firstborn son, and that I was embarking on a major career change, they suggested that I write on the topic of change. I responded with, “Of course! What an honor. And I’m sure that I will have a lot to write about at the end of the year.” I had no idea how true that statement would be, with a newly walking toddler and a small business, also in its infancy, both of which are on my mind as I write.
I tell people I meet that I had two babies this year: a baby business and a baby boy. I hoped, when I agreed to write on this topic, I would be at the top of my “change mountain” and able to look down with great wisdom upon everything I had learned this year. The truth is, I am still very much in the throes of my change journey. For this reason, my musings are survival techniques that are helping me this very moment.
So much has been written about change. There are countless advice columns and bulleted lists of the steps you should follow to successfully deal with change. So, to write something novel is a daunting task. We all know change is inevitable and we witness the evidence not only in our environment, but our daily lives constantly, as well. And, we know that given the right toolset, fortitude and attitude, we will rise out of the change mire as an even better person and leader than when we first began.
But what do we do when we are knee deep in huge change in our lives? Whether we are dealing with professional obstacles or personal life upheaval, change is so hard. It is a source of enormous stress and it challenges us at every step.
As I’ve nearly survived my first year both as an entrepreneur and as Mom to an ever-changing infant, I can say there are definitely some key survival strategies that have helped me in my journey
1. Embrace the chaos
One of the main reasons I fear and do everything in my power to avoid inevitable change is that it is not neat and tidy. Change often introduces new ground that I’ve never covered before. As a mom, I couldn’t believe how I was living life “by the hour” with a newborn and how much chaos was introduced. No matter how many books I read prior to the arrival of my son, there was no way I could truly prepare for the way this change would create chaos. I remember reflecting to my closest friend that it was difficult to even find the time to brush my teeth because so much was going on. And sleep? Forget it.
At the same time, as I begin investing more time and resources into my business I noticed a similar pattern forming. There was so much to think about, so many decisions that need to be made, and so many “firsts” in the early days of becoming an entrepreneur. After trying for months to get both my infant child and my infant business to “fit into my plan,” I eventually had a bit of a minor breakdown in which I just submitted to all of the chaos. And as I did, I learned that there were a lot of really great things happening in the midst of change. Simply admitting that you are in flux and submitting to it a bit can provide relief and perspective.
2. Prioritization is key
As a new business owner, I find so many things vying for my constant attention on a daily basis. Sometimes my action items have their own action items, and everyone who walks through my door with a need is a priority. When in a constant state of flux, I find myself having difficulty identifying which things should be done first and often get overwhelmed. In an attempt to bring some order into the situation, I started creating lists and attempting to organize myself as much as possible. I quickly learned that I was just documenting what I already knew. I had lots to do, but wasn’t taking time to clearly identify what really needed to be done.
In our culture, we pride ourselves on being “perfectionists,” on pushing ourselves past our boundaries and working hard to complete everything on our plate, even when it is unreasonable. Often in a change environment, there will be far more tasks and work needed than can be completed. If everything is a top priority, nothing is, and we are far less effective. One of my greatest tools right now is the ability to look at my work realistically and prioritize the work that really needs to get done. Understanding my priorities helps take a bit of the pressure off when I just can’t complete everything that is asked of me.
3. Over communicate
Early on in my career, I experienced organizational change for the first time when the firm I was working for went through a major merger. It was a very stressful time for the company and caused many changes to the business, as we knew it. What was really interesting to me was that management stopped communicating, both with each other and with the employees. We stopped having regular meetings; we stopped hearing what was going on, and even stopped talking to each other. I was amazed to see a company that was formerly great to work for turn into a place I didn’t enjoy. My coworkers were the same people, but overcome with fear and stress, they stopped communicating.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen the same pattern repeated. When change becomes intense, people stop talking. Contrary to natural inclination, this is a time where strong listening and communication skills are needed more than ever. Change is frightening and uncomfortable, and one of the best survival techniques is to keep the lines of communication wide open. We are social creatures and so much stress and misunderstanding can be eliminated by effectively communicating. In leadership roles, we don’t want to burden our employees with bad news during change, but the absence of communication causes misunderstandings and fear in an already difficult situation.
4. Assemble a support team
One of the best resources to me over the past year has been both mothers and small business owners who have already blazed the trail I’m currently on. Many times, I have asked them for advice and to act as a sounding board as I work through challenging decisions and issues. Wisdom from someone who has already successfully made it through similar change can be an oasis during stressful times. It was only three days after I had my son that I felt an incredible connection to all of the men and women who had gone through new parenthood before me. Their words and advice of “sleep when the baby sleeps,” and “they grow so fast, so cherish it” meant so much to a newly struggling mom.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve been able to avoid traps and issues because my colleagues have been there to give advice and point me in the right direction. Great change can be lonely, but there are many great resources waiting on the sidelines to help if you reach out and ask. Support during change is the best survival technique, yet it is often one of the tools that I neglect to call upon the most.
5. Give yourself a break
When we are setting out to do great things, to build great businesses, to raise great human beings, it is so easy to take the stumbles and pitfalls to heart and become defeated. I’ve learned over the past year that I will fail. I will fail daily. The best way to cope with it is to embrace it, and give myself a break. I have set the bar high. I want to be the very best mother the earth has ever known, while simultaneously building a strong, thriving, and successful business. So, when I see myself forgetting to pay attention to important details, or accidentally sending my son with a coat in the chilly winter months, it is easy for me to be critical.
Out of sheer necessity, I’ve realized that the only way to surviving change is to be good to myself and allow plenty of space for mistakes. Better yet, these mistakes are actually signs that I’m doing the right things. One of the biggest reasons I fear change is the vulnerability it causes. It places me in a situation where I’m not set up to succeed. I’m going to have to toil and struggle to reach my goals in the midst of transformation, but it is easy to forget that mistakes are often what actually lead to success. In a changing environment, I cannot be perfect, but I can be perfectly adaptive. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of a smile and easygoing attitude when things don’t go just so.
As I reflect on the changes of 2012 and the potential changes of 2013, it is with great anticipation and confidence that I continue my journey. It may not always be pretty, and the struggle can sometimes seem insurmountable, but it is worthwhile and enriching. I know, like the many that have gone before me, I too one day will be standing at the top of my “change mountain” looking back on the wonderful growth that came during these moments. Assuredly, I will even reminisce fondly a bit about these great times of change. In the meantime, I know there are at least 25 high priority items in my inbox and a diaper that needs changing.