Change sucks. Not the kind of change you planned for and now it’s here. The kind of change you didn’t see coming and it disrupts your normal. You are expected, known, beloved normal. I know maybe two people who will tell you they love that kind of change. Either it’s true there’s a really weird, really small splinter group of people in the world who actually embrace uncontrolled change or this same splinter group of people is lying. I say they lie. But even if they don’t, they have to be talking about unexpected changes for good. Like the meh boyfriend deciding to move to Italy. Or being offered the job of your dreams and you get to move to Italy.
Not the unexpected change you know could have decent eventual outcomes but only after a lot of work you really don’t want to do. Not the change you know will make your work more difficult. Not the change you want to undo but can’t. Not the change that takes the foundation of how you’ve always lead the people who depend on you and turns it on its head.
Change is hard.
Before I became executive director at my current organization, I’d been there two years in a department director position. There were two other directors I worked the most closely with and we’d become close, both personally and professionally. We trusted each other’s judgment, we respected each other and we were good joint decision makers. We had compatible personalities and liked each other. Apart from work, we went on annual girls’ weekends. We were friends in addition to being one of the best teams ever. We were the proverbial well-oiled machine.
This is working, let’s not change it.
After I took the executive leadership role, we continued to grow steadily as we developed new programs and grew the senior management team. We were able to hire more employees and serve more people. The original core three of us had worked our butts off to establish a bigger footprint in our community. We had been successful. It never occurred to me our three-person force for good would ever not exist.
It didn’t occur to me until one-third of us closed the door to my office one day and told me she was leaving for a different position. I literally couldn’t talk. It was awful. I cried, then I stopped crying, then we talked, then I said I understood, then I didn’t say I felt betrayed, hurt and a little scared.
It’s easy to be more comfortable with the known and expected, the things that don’t change. So much of life, whether it’s work or personal, has a certain built-in rhythm. We sleep during particular hours. We have morning routines and evening routines. My mornings have a kind of ritual from when I get up to when I leave for work. After work I go to the gym unless it’s Thursday. Thursday is my night to cook for our neighborhood supper club. The rhythms of my life.
The rhythms at work are different but there are still distinct. Schedules change, tasks and meetings vary, and any given day will bring an unexpected adventure. But even when calm turns into chaos, routine turns into “nope, we have to deal with this now”, we know those things are going to happen. Its predictable in its own way. And the bones of who we are and what we do remain constant. The people and the infrastructure we’ve built ensure we know what we’re doing until this thing you didn’t see coming rocks your world.
What if the worst thing happens?
When one-third of us resigned, I knew in my heart things would never be as good as they had been. The kind of synchrony we had couldn’t be replicated. There would be fall out. How could I close the gap? Could I close the gap? Oh. my. god. This was the litany running through my head.
I was afraid of what was to come. I have made myself crazy more than once waiting on the worst thing. It took a long time to learn to separate fear from reality when change hits me like a tidal wave, meaning without my permission and beyond my control. Although instinctively I wanted to go hide for a while, some decisions had to be made. I was still expected to lead. I was still expected to be a good leader. We promoted a fully capable mid level manager who was ready to take on more. As she learned the position, nothing exploded and nobody went screaming into the night. Our team became different, not worse.
The worst thing didn’t happen.
Change can gradually become your non-enemy. The other third of our original trio retired a few years ago. The entire organization held its breath. Nobody thought we would actually implode the day after she retired, never to exist again, but we were fighting the feeling that life as we knew it was over. The irony is life as we knew it was over. It’s what change does. It, well, changes things. The super irony was, we were fine.
We missed her like crazy. There was anxiety to get past. The waiting game…will the new guy be OK? Will he want to change everything? Is he as nice as he seemed in the interviews? Yes. No. Yes. Look at us. Working our way through change. Even me.
Maybe I’ve been giving this change thing too much power. Can change be good?
We opened an art reuse retail store five years ago as a social enterprise to support our mission. We sell donated art and crafting materials and supplies, new and gently used, at deeply discounted prices. We employ people with and without disabilities. We have two store managers, one who has been there from day one and the other four years. The work of the store is to both supplement the bottom line of the larger organization and to provide employment and employment training for people with disabilities.
Our managers came without experience in the world of disability and yet their immediate embrace of equality, accommodation, independence, respect and support was instant and remarkable. I have unending admiration for them both.
I found out the other day we’re losing 1.5 of them. One is moving on to a different job. One is cutting back to have more time for personal life. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel betrayed or angry or hurt. I felt so grateful for what they have given, so proud of what I know they will do in these new chapters. I’m a little anxious about this change, but I know at least three things. The worst thing won’t happen. I will be watching for the good changes coming. I will learn from this change and without a doubt will be better for it.
Change sucks until it doesn’t. The only way to get to “it doesn’t” is to let go of the fear. Maybe you even embrace it eventually. Maybe, like me, you never love it but you learn to ride its wave. Big gnarly change may always piss you off a little, but in the end, you have to know who’s gonna win. It’s you.
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