Going down an entirely new path brings about a lot of unknowns. You can go from being at the very top of your game, to being an untested beginner in a new, unfamiliar setting. Change can be scary.
Years ago, having practiced Judo for two decades, I decided to enroll in Aikibudo classes. Whereas I had been an experienced practitioner in one martial art, wearing a black belt on the mats and commanding the kind of deference that usually comes with that level of proficiency, I suddenly found myself a complete beginner in a new martial art, wearing a white belt and bowing in from the second row with all other beginners. I found in the dojo a supportive community, one that made me feel safe and welcome. Still, it took a fair bit of adjusting: new people, new ways of doing things, new skills to master, new status to get used to.
Some months ago, I experienced a similar change in my professional life. Having worked for nearly thirty years in very large organizations with tens of thousands of employees, I decided to join a firm with a 40-year history and about 140 employees. Having been an employee for my entire professional life, I suddenly found myself in the role of entrepreneur—one of a small group of owners together with my new business partners. I’ve had to learn new skills and new ways of doing things, get to know new colleagues, and navigate the considerable differences that exist between a global financial corporation and an owner-operated consulting firm.
“[T]ransition”, according to William Bridges, “is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world…” (Bridges, 2009, p. 5). That quote offers as good and as succinct a description of my journey of the past few months as any that I can think of.
For me, unplugging from my old world was certainly the most difficult aspect of this entire transition. The journey – a lot of which was mental – unfolded over a couple of years, during which I asked myself a lot of questions about what I wanted to do for the next fifteen to twenty years of my life. It involved clarifying what I really loved doing, and what I really didn’t enjoy all that much. It involved letting go of the safety – or perceived safety – of what I was familiar with. It involved letting go, first in my mind, then in reality, of the many trappings of the kinds of roles I held in the latter part of my corporate career.
I came to the conclusion that what really made me happy in my professional life was to build something good, and to help people and teams be the best that they can be.
Throughout my corporate career, I had always considered that my most important contribution as a business leader was to focus on people and culture. “Take care of your employees”, Sir Richard Branson has famoulsy said, “and they’ll take care of your business.” Indeed. I decided that in the next stage of my professional life, I would make it my core business to help organizations become more human, successful, and sustainable by supporting the development of their leaders and teams. And in the process, I would help build a company that I’m really proud of.
The process I’ve described here did not happen all at once. It was gradual and involved many conversations with friends, family, and advisors. It involved self-doubt, questioning, and many hours not finding sleep in the middle of the night. Change is not easy. Letting go is not easy. Or at least, it wasn’t easy for me.
What really helped me, once I had set my mind on a course of action, was to start taking small steps towards my objective: registering for an educational program aligned with my desired goal. Implementing lifestyle choices that would open up, rather than restrict, my options. Reaching out to my network to explore ideas and opportunities. Small steps have a way of adding up. For me, those first small steps eventually proved transformational.
Am I happy I did it? Heck yes!
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions. Making the most of change (3rd ed). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group, 192 pages.