Weathering the Storm

Have you ever found yourself caught in a really bad storm?  I weathered a terrible one a few years back – it was even worse than the year I ran the store that got flooded, held up, and had the receiving room condemned!

The weather had started out sunny – I was wrapping up a two-year project rolling out new computer hardware and software to 500 stores. It was a great assignment – for three weeks of each month I spent Monday-Thursday facilitating offsite training for groups of store managers, and Friday back at the office project managing the implementation, and catching up with the other eight members of my team about their responsibilities. The fourth week of each month, I visited the regional training centers and checked in with the trainers, observing, coaching, and troubleshooting equipment problems. It used all my strongest skills at that time and I loved it! Even when the company announced a huge reorganization that eliminated my job, I didn’t panic. I had some input into my new role and my new director said there was nothing there that couldn’t wait until I finished the last six weeks of the project. During those six weeks, I checked in with him on Fridays and nothing seemed to be changing.

On my first day back, I sat down with my supervisor to discuss my new job description only to discover, as we reviewed it point by point, that while I had been finishing my project, he had reassigned all of my responsibilities to other managers in the department. When we finished, and there was nothing left on the page, I asked “So, what’s my role?” He gave me a blank look and said he’d have to let me know.

For weeks, I had an empty office – just a desk, a computer, and a phone – no staff (they had all been reassigned), and no responsibilities. Every morning, I went in to work, checked in with him, and he had nothing for me to do. Oh, I wasn’t bored – I found things to do.  I wrapped up the loose ends on my project. Whatever I ended up doing, I knew I’d be working with a different business model, so I called my friends who had migrated to that model earlier and picked their brains about their transitions, and figured out a learning plan that would allow me to be ready for whatever work would come my way. But it’s daunting to come in every day and know that you are overhead, not revenue. And I have to feel like I am making a difference every day so I was miserable.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only one. The merger had affected the whole organization. Having some free time on my hands, I checked in with my internal network and discovered that many of them were experiencing the same disorientation. (William Bridges calls this “the pause” – Kurt Lewin calls it “unfrozen.”)

Then I hit on an idea that helped us adjust: I called it the Brown Bag Lunch. Every couple of weeks, I reserved a conference room for a “noon meeting” and invited a group of my friends to bring their lunch and talk about what they were working on and what was new in their department. Sometimes we learned about subsequent consequences of the reorganization or that a department was now responsible for work that someone else had owned before. Sometimes we discovered that two VPs had assigned the same project to two different members of our lunch group. (After speculating on whether the VPs weren’t talking to each other, or were just competing, my colleagues eventually just gave up on speculation and worked together on the project.) Inevitably, someone talked about the sense of loss or frustration that they felt, but it never seemed to turn into a gripe session and, maybe because the group was all women, no one tried to solve anyone else’s problems for them. (Sorry if this seems like a stereotype, fellas, but there’s a reason it’s a stereotype!)

Eventually I found an untapped niche where I could leverage my strengths (luckily my supervisor agreed, although I think he was just happy that I stopped coming by his office every morning), the rest of the organization froze into a new state, and the Brown Bag Lunches didn’t seem as necessary to any of us anymore. But years later, people still spontaneously reminded me how those lunches had helped them navigate the change.

I remembered this when I was talking to a young woman in my department a few years after that. She felt disempowered because she was a the only new mother on our team. I suggested that she might find it helpful to talk with someone else who was going through what she was experiencing. She connected with a woman in another department who had two small children and I could see that it made a big difference.

Several years ago two of my friends from grad school and I made a point of getting together regularly and talking about how we wanted to apply our degrees. One of them got a new job, the other one got her dream job in Africa, and I got a promotion that let me apply my degree more extensively for a while.

Now I’m part of a group of women who meet every couple of weeks. We talk about what we find frustrating, what’s holding us back, and what we’re finding helpful. Knowing that other women – successful women that I admire for doing challenging work – are thinking and feeling the same things that I am gives me permission to accept where I am and not feel like I need to have the perfect plan before I move forward.

Sometimes talking with a group of like-minded friends is all you need to get through the bad times.

What groups help you weather the storms?

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