I did not intend to draw out this series. Yet, I also realize that this topic is resonating and there was some additional information that I want to give you. I know that I have not addressed an important point, so I thought it would be useful to run through an actual scenario for you and share some additional personal experience. When I talk about leading while leaving, I want you to know my story. It lends credibility to what I’m asking you to consider.
This will lead us to the grief cycle – no, don’t get all depressed. I don’t know why that word ‘grief’ bothers me so much. Maybe it’s because it makes me think of emotion so heavy that a person feels like they simply can’t go on. At the same time, I know it can be that heavy and maybe that’s how it impacts you. Before we talk about that though, I want to share some of my experience.
Back at the end of 2017, it became clear that changes were coming. This wasn’t the first time. I’ve been through several corporate upheavals in my career and this one was different. This wasn’t the first time there was trouble. I went through a bankruptcy reorganization with a previous employer, constant rumors and eventual sale of one of the businesses where I worked, continuous attempts by companies to acquire parts of the business that employed me, and one very large failed attempt by another large company to buy the entire company I was working for (which resulted in a “poison pill” purchase of a large aluminium company in Canada to stave off acquisition) and a myriad of reorganizations in between that constantly threatened the status quo. But this time, I knew there was more potential to dramatically alter my life.
I went to work for my employer, Rio Tinto, back in 1996. We were living in Casper, WY when I had the opportunity to move our family to Gillette, WY. For those who don’t know, Gillette is a small town in northeastern Wyoming between the Black Hills of South Dakota (where you will find Mt. Rushmore) and the Big Horn mountains outside of Sheridan, WY. We were in Gillette for nine years and it was a great place to raise our two boys. We made great friends there and loved it. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this, but when I told people in Casper that we were moving to Gillette, I heard things like this:
- “Oh, that’s a very cliquish community”
- “Everyone is going to know everything about you; gossip is a real problem there”
- “It’s very hard to connect in Gillette if you are an outsider”
- “Your children will have difficulty making friends there”
- “If your kids play sports, they will have to be the best-of-the-best to actually get to play in organized sporting events”
- “The coaches in pee wee football “draft” their eight-year-olds and you would think you were competing in the NCAA South Eastern Conference”
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
Everyone had a reason for why this was not going to be an easy move for us. Well, I’m glad to say we didn’t listen…and only one of those things was true: the coaches in pee wee football were a bit over-the-top and there was always some backroom trading of sky-gazing, distracted, eight-year-old talent to form the team with the greatest potential for taking the all-important pee wee league championship. In a room full of adolescents who derive more satisfaction from body humor than trophies, it was ridiculous and emphasized how many people have their identity tied up in performance. But the rest was outright fabrications. Don’t believe everything you hear.
I had various roles in Gillette and through a period of time, experienced some success and took on increasing levels of responsibility. This led to an opportunity to relocate to Salt Lake City where I would take a more senior level role in a regional shared services operation. Remember all those things people told us about moving to Gillette? It started again when we told people we were moving to Salt Lake City:
- “Oh that’s a very cliquish community”
- “Everyone will know everything about you because all of the Mormons gossip about their neighbors”
- “It’s very hard to connect in Salt Lake City if you weren’t born there”
- “If you aren’t a Mormon, then your children won’t have any friends to play with”
- “You will be excluded from neighborhood get-togethers and the neighbors will pretend you don’t exist if you aren’t Mormon”
And on and on it went. I actually had a coworker who moved away from Salt Lake City because of this. And he had moved to Salt Lake City from overseas! He interpreted everything that happened to him and his family through this lens. If anything went wrong, if the neighbor frowned, if someone said something unkind to one of his children, they were convinced it was because they weren’t Mormons.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The flip side of believing what you hear is that you can turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Were there some people who experienced great difficulty or possibly some religious bias because they weren’t Mormon? Of course. But I will tell you that Ginger and I did not expect that…nor did we experience that. It might have been really frustrating to those who were trying to demonstrate bias and we were just oblivious to it. Just kept coming to the parties they didn’t want us to attend! Ha!
And guess what? Most of our neighbors were Mormons. And we loved them. And I think they loved us too – at least they acted like it! Our children played together. We knew their families. Laughed with them and cried with them. Did life with them.
And did we experience moments of bias as a result of not being Mormons? Probably. Did I notice? If I did, it was momentary. I chose to believe that it would be fine and it was. That also was a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can decide that you will use this lens when handling the difficulty of whatever situation you face.
It was exciting in Salt Lake City. The city was obviously significantly larger than Gillette (which only had 24,000 people) and the climate was much more pleasant in the winter. My wife hates the cold! So this was far less brutal than the Gillette winters were. And I truly loved the people I was working with.
I am fortunate to say that during most of my 23 years with Rio Tinto, many managers in my group were great leaders. Many team members and peers were great leaders. These are men and women who I respect and they were able to contribute to my growth as a leader. It wasn’t formal mentoring, and for a large company, it was surprising how informal it was. There wasn’t great succession planning, but they gave me insight into ways I could learn to lead successfully.
Find Great Leaders And Connect With Them
That was also a choice. I want you to remember this point today (an element that I also mentioned in the last episode): you are surrounded by choice. You get to make the most of your situation each and every day. Maybe you are learning everything that makes for bad leadership experience. Or learning how to avoid a disastrous outcome. It might not always be positive. It might be the things you don’t want to replicate.
Regardless, you are surrounded with learning opportunities no matter how much you love or hate your role or your circumstance. Don’t forget this. It’s no one’s job to make sure you benefit from where you find yourself. That responsibility belongs solely to you. Whether you are in a role or with a company for four months, four years, or four decades, it’s up to you to learn from your time there.
I had no intention of leaving Rio. In the roles that I had in Shared Services, I found real satisfaction and meaning. It felt like I could make a difference and I reveled in the joy of that feeling. Until it all came undone. Like all large companies in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a heavy emphasis on outsourcing.
Practice What You Preach
I won’t bore you with the details, but Rio decided at a high level to undertake significant outsourcing initiatives in many areas of Shared Services. We moved to Salt Lake City in 2005 and by 2007, the end was clearly in sight. This was not my plan and it was not my choice. So I did exactly what I recommended in the previous episodes: I worked to do my best to ensure a good outcome for Rio even though it would mean outsourcing my own job.
Thankfully, my reputation preceded me, those methods worked, and I was picked up by another part of the organization. This time, I was working in the Commercial team. I was still a part of Rio Tinto and focused on operations in Salt Lake City. I worked with a great group and I was thankful for the new lease on my career. But that’s all it was: a lease…with an unknown expiration.
I literally worked for more than 10 years with a dark cloud hanging over my head wondering if this would be the last year. Remember, as I shared earlier, the vision that was imparted as a young man was that of working for one company until retiring. Whether you subscribe to that philosophy or not, it shaped some of my expectations and desires. Now I didn’t go to work every day hating my job or despairing over my future; I just had a very constant and real knowledge that this was all very fragile – more fragile than I wanted.
You Don’t Always Get What You Want
And this was the reality. The business was going to change. Sometimes you can be a part of that change and sometimes change means you are going to be excluded. In hindsight, I realize that there were some things that I could have done differently that would have positioned me for greater success.
One thing that I want you to think about: many of you focus on building relational equity. I think it makes sense. Being well connected in your organization is important. The unfortunate mistake that you can make is thinking that it’s sufficient.
Expand Your Networks
You should always be looking to expand your networks. And not just inside. Expand outside too. Engage strategically – think about the people you can impact positively with your talents, your role, your team. Open your eyes not just to those above you, because their positions are precarious. Especially, the higher they are in the organization.
More than once, I took a step back and saw that those who I thought would be a help in my career progression. And you know what? They were gone. They were no longer with the company, in an unrelated group function or business unit, or in another part of the world where the opportunities were limited.
I never thought about it like “Boy, I need to hitch my wagon to that horse!”, but I found that it’s very easy, especially in large organizations and over a long period of time, to find others have moved on. And if you chose to tie your horse to that wagon, your opportunity may have vanished as well. Some knew you and your work very well. In order for that relational equity to be beneficial, you have to maintain contact.
I mentioned this in Episode 077, The Question You Should Never Ask When Meeting Someone New, which by the way, is one of the most popular episodes on the Leader to Leader podcast, so check it out if you haven’t already. And it’s worth repeating here.
David Burkus in his book Friend of a Friend has some great research on networking. One of the things he found makes this peculiar point: when you are looking for a new role, it’s likely not your closest and most regular network contacts that are going to help you. It’s not because they don’t want to. If they could, they already would have done it.
Renewing Cool Connections
David recommends that you reach out to the ones that are a bit cool. Network contacts that you haven’t spoken with for a while. He said that these contacts are the ones most likely to benefit you at this stage. This is why you have to continue broadening and refreshing your network while not relying on that network as being your golden ticket.
So I’ll finish this story next week and I’ll walk you through the five stages of grief in the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle. The reason why I want you to come back for that episode is this: you might not have experienced one bit of trauma from a dramatic career change; however, I’m certain others around you have.
It’s important for you to recognize where folks are at in this cycle so you can understand how to help them through it. Your job as a leader is to bring your best effort in assisting them to a healthy perspective of this type of dramatic change. You have the opportunity to make a lasting impact when you manage this correctly with your team.
It’s easy to look past, and maybe even seems a little too touchy-feely, and you are a fool if you don’t take the time to understand a very basic human condition and response to trauma. People live for, and die over, their jobs. Their identity is often intricately tied to their work. You aren’t the company psychologist and no one expects you to be a mental health expert.
At the same time, you owe it to yourself, your colleagues, and your team to understand the state of their well being and help them through this challenging time. Don’t miss it.
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
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