Taking photos of volcanos in action must be scary. That’s probably part of why they do it. Changing careers for many of us might be the scariest thing we ever do, or, more likely, contemplate doing but never actually do.
I threw myself into the internet to glean a bit of inspiration for this post. Not literally, we can’t actually throw ourselves into the internet… yet. Online research is fine but some sort of Tron-like immersion within the ethereal plains of the worldwide web seems impractical and risk-prone. If you think you have a problem now spending a lot of time ON the internet, just wait until you can spend a lot of time IN the internet.
I found one article about career transition and it used the metaphor of the software upgrade: Career 2.0. I think that’s part of the problem. Going from career 1.0 to 2.0 is blunt and quite a leap. Why not take an incremental leaf from Apple’s upgrade strategy and have career 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc rather than one substantive chasm-leaping transition straight to 2.0 when it’s thrust upon you? I know it’s a freakin’ pain every three days when those upgrade messages splash themselves across your screen or interrupt your other activities. Maybe this software upgrade imagery doesn’t stretch too far with career upgrades? For a start software can “live in the cloud,” whereas your job cannot. That said, I do have a guy on fiverr.com who does all my illustrations for me.
The term seems to have a bit of baggage and mixed perceptions too. One Forbes article seemed in favour of transitioning to something more in line with your values after slaving away for a while, having built up your CV, garnered some experience and contacts, and built up some reserves just in case it all goes south. (I don’t know why “in case it all goes south” is an expression for something going horribly wrong? I’m from the south. It’s awesome. If you want horrible, I’d go west). With a positive outlook, Forbes proffered some tips that I’ll share shortly.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR), on the other hand, took a dim view of career transitions. Their first article was about having to explain it when someone called you out on it, as if it would be an embarrassing blip. I know we could all use some tips on explaining gaps in the timelines of our CVs when potential employers ask about our unrevealed years in prison or that time we faked our own death. Any employer who claims to want to employ someone with problem solving skills, initiative and learning flexibility should realise that career transitioning is an absolute finishing school for that sort of thing. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, unless you ever get interviewed for a job as a reporter for the Harvard Business Review, in which case, you have been warned.
Let’s get back to those tips from Forbes. If anyone knows about career transition tips for mere employees, it’s the media outlet that relies on their listings of the 500 richest people on the planet in the same voyeuristic way that Sports Illustrated relies on their swimsuit issue. Now, I was primarily drawn to the Forbes article as their first example was that of a Navy Captain who became a circus manager. Possibly not that much of a lateral shift but definitely the adult version of running away to join the circus. Their key tips: know the underlying reason why, get fit, do it in stages, find a mentor, prepare for setbacks, volunteer or moonlight first, have some ‘rainy day’ money set aside, and do something every day to move towards what you’re after.
I MC’d an HR conference a while back where one of the speakers demonstrated a very useful technique I’ll call ‘Timelining’. You scribble an X/Y axis on a sheet of landscape paper – the bigger the better. The horizontal axis (X – c’mon team) is time, so mark out the years of your career. The vertical axis (Y) is satisfaction on a scale you’ll have to imagine yourself. You then mark out the various highs and lows and milestones on three timelines – career, personal and relationships. The second part is self-analysis – when were the sweet spots of mutually-intersecting highs and, vice versa, the lows? Then you ask yourself for both, why, what was happening in each type of scenario? I was coaching a forty year old man once with this activity and he had the epiphany that he hated working indoors. It had never occurred to him, then he transitioned on a dime and now he never met a grapevine he didn’t like. It’s a great technique – google a book called ‘Taking Charge’ by Chris Johnson.
I’m not going to completely dismiss HBR’s advice. How can I ignore phrases like “compelling narrative” or “professional reinventors”? If working for a living doesn’t pan out for me and I end up a crazy old guy in a shed, I’ll be an inventor working on my compelling narrative. And a time machine.
It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself.
You know when you’re in a conversation and the person you think you’re in a conversation with is having a different conversation, even though you’re both speaking with each other, and at some eventual point, one of you realises before the other that you’re talking at cross purposes? At that point, you have to either stop talking and backtrack, or you have to interrupt them. You know that look in their eyes just before they get what’s been happening, that confused, almost pained expression? Remember that face. That’s the face of change.
I recently needed to visit a firm that dealt in air conditioners. I was told it was in William Pickering Drive. I didn’t bother getting any more specific details such as the name of the firm or the actual street number. I drove along and saw in the distance a big red sign saying “34C” and a much smaller black and white sign saying “Climate Control.” In a brief conversational exchange with someone in passing in the reception area, I glibly commented that “34C” was a clever name for a firm dealing in climate control, although probably a tad warm for my tastes. I wouldn’t say what followed was a heated exchange (pun intended) but there was certainly escalated confusion, as I was sure the name of the company that dealt in climate control was “34C” whereas the reality and the other person’s perspective was that the company was called “Climate Control” and “34C” was their street number.
At some eventual point, the other person realised what had been going on and interrupted me. The few moments either side of that was the conversational equivalent of when you’re sitting in a chair and leaning back and you get to a point and you don’t know if you’re going to fall or stop yourself falling. I’m sure there was a confused and almost pained expression on my face – the face of change.
The theme of this issue of Employment Today is ‘Managing Change.’ It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself. Research shows that worrying about losing your job causes greater ill health than actually losing your job. Sarah Burgard from the University of Michigan has shown that job insecurity (fear) causes more illness than the eventual reality of unemployment.
So, what can canny employers do to prevent, or at least mitigate, any harm caused by potential change, actual change or the perception of the risks of possible change in the minds of the employees to which the changes happen? Let’s look to Hollywood for some answers.
With the synchronisation in recent years of movie release dates around the world and the tsunami of streaming and downloading or movies, a lot of our friends are seeing a lot of movies before we do. And, good friends that they are, they’d love nothing more to share their experience with us and encourage us to see their recommended films. The term “Spoiler Alert” has thus fallen into common usage as our good friends give us notice if anything they are about to say might ruin a critical story point or narrative twist.
This is the lesson from Hollywood for employers – DO THE OPPOSITE!
Provide spoilers at each and every stage that you can and repeat them more often than you think is necessary. The less uncertainty the better when it comes to managing change. It’s the uncertainty that causes the problems and damages the relationships and the mental and physical health. Change isn’t going to stop – both the change you’re deliberately and proactively provoking and the never-ending stream of reactive changes in today’s economy and workplaces. That’s the reality and will continue to be so. What you can control to a greater degree is the level of uncertainty. So, sprinkle out those spoilers like salt on takeaway French fries (way more than a normal person thinks is necessary.)
I’m performing in the NZ International Comedy Festival this year in a show called ‘The Grin Reaper.’ While it’s an hour of stand-up, its theme is about how to live longer, based on a great book on longevity studies called ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Buettner. Learning some life lessons from those who’ve lived the longest, they’ve distilled the research down into nine key things you can do to add ten quality years to your life. ‘Having purpose’ was one. ‘Wine at 5’ was another so that’s good news. A couple of others related to ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘handling stress.’ That’s where change presents itself. Managed badly, change can literally affect the quality and quantity of our years. Managed well, it can enhance both. Also, you should totally watch the movie ‘The Sixth Sense.’ It’s not so much about longevity but definitely about spoilers.
I like hearing about people who are looking for a place to live near their work. That’s just so… optimistic. Another symptom of optimism is New Year’s resolutions. It’s March and after three months is a pretty good time to step back and see how we’re tracking towards success with our New Year’s resolutions. (The other two best times are after an entire year and on January 2nd.) This annual process for many of us in our personal lives is curiously analogous to the more formal goal setting processes that occur in our workplaces. In our workplaces, we’re trying to increase sales by 3% or decrease costs by 5% or reduce staff turnover by half, whereas our personal goals might be to lose 10 kilograms. You don’t often see an employer come up with that kind of workplace weightloss goal. (Unless the goal is for the department to lose 95 kilograms and we call those kilograms ‘Barry.’)
What I like about New Year’s resolutions and workplace goal setting is that, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, they are, at the very least, an attempt to be proactive and take some degree of control rather than bounce around the random pinball machine that is the modern international economy. This perception of control or influence over our own futures is a fundamental human need. And I’m assuming that for most of you, most of your employees are some pretty fundamental humans.
Your human brain receives over eleven thousand signals from your senses every day. Of those, you’ll consciously process only about forty of them. The rest get dealt with by our good old and efficient subconscious. Our primal instincts prefer ‘same old same old.’ Sameness isn’t threatening. New things could be threatening. From a rational perspective, change, progress and innovation have no doubt been fantastic for the collective society but nevertheless the first thing our individual subconscious brains instinctively care about is not dying. It is old fashioned and emotional that way. Changes, which could contain potential threats, stimulate a physiological stress response, even if your suggested departmental reorganisation isn’t literally life-threatening. It takes time for us mere humans to work through and determine that the change may not only be unthreatening but potentially advantageous. Unfortunately while we’re still slaves to the feelings of stress caused by the emotional response to a perceived threat, the rational bits of our brain play second fiddle. This is normally occurring at the same time that leaders are explaining rationally why the change is happening. Sound familiar?
There’s the old and feeble joke that change is inevitable except from Council carpark payment machines. Change is constant and the pace of change is increasing. Look it up using your smartphone which was superseded about six weeks after you bought it. If change is perceived as external and happening to us then that contributes to a sense of powerlessness which increases feelings of helplessness and pessimism. Hardly conducive to a cooperative or productive workplace environment.
So often, leaders with change projects focus on the tasks – get prices, evaluate vendors, install hardware – and the steps that are people-oriented still tend to be about tasks – training for example. Early and often, these leaders of change need to plan and implement steps to help people deal with the natural cycle of emotional reaction to the prospect of change. Too many times I’ve asked managers how they’re dealing with how people are reacting to the change process and been answered, “Communication.” I ask how that’s going and get answered, “Its done,” accompanied by a wave of a printout of an email or three. One-way linear broadcast communication is not dealing with people’s emotional reaction to change and it never will be.
Nikolas Westerhoff’s recent article in ‘Scientific American’ cited research that shows that older people find it harder to change and deal with change due to brain chemistry. That’s disturbing but not as disturbing as them defining “older” as “over thirty.” Young people may be able to handle change but if you’ve ever witnessed them at a cash register, they struggle to make change. (OK, enough old-man defensiveness. Sorry kids.)
Another key step for leaders of change is to create a shared sense of urgency. Getting back to our New Year’s resolutions, losing weight because you ‘should’ is vague, unmotivating and unlikely to drive anyone to success. Losing weight to fit into a wedding dress by June (for some) could generate a sense of urgency. (Yes I am a guy and if I want to fit into a wedding dress, that’s my business. Don’t judge me – I’m over 30!)