Aloha mai kākou. A new month, a new talk story.
Near the end of October, Doug asked if I’d tackle organizational change as a Ho‘ohana topic, and since then, all through this past month I’ve wondered what I’d say about it.
Reflecting back on those times in my own career that change would shatter the regularity of my world, (and there were a lot of instances to reflect on,) I came to this conclusion: At the time it was happening, things were usually pretty tough, but after all the dust had settled and my work-life continued, I would always look back and feel things had been for the best. I was always glad that we had done it—whatever the “it” had happened to be. There was always some victory we’d come away with, and I’d always felt like a survivor emerging from the rubble. Or from the post-its ”
I can clearly remember one such feeling of victorious emergence in early 2000, when all the countless hours of preparing for Y2K and the turn of the millennium left us smiling and giddy with relief as the clock turned and no catastrophe struck. However in our particular organization, that relief was short-lived. A few short months later, we’d learn that we were losing our leader to another company, someone beloved in our entire organization, and highly regarded as one of our last remaining founders and patriarchs. I was his assistant, and I thought of him as a mentor. I felt like my world had turned dark and cold. I felt numb and completely inadequate.
I huddled with my director of human resources and our training manager, and we came up with a plan for transitional meetings that would be held with the entire staff, starting with our management team and then cascading through the ranks. However we were at a loss in what we’d actually say to them: all we knew with any certainty, was that there were things to be said. There were a lot of people who had a need to say them, and so we had to come up with a way to let that happen.
We held our meetings in small groups, and in the middle of the conference table we set a bunch of pencils and stacks of the 3”x5” sized post-it notes. As we talked about the organizational change that was to come, people were encouraged to get out any thoughts they had at all: if they didn’t want to voice them out loud, they could just write them on a post-it note, and let those thoughts be silently expressed in writing. If they wanted us to read them, and know about them, they could leave the post-its on the table. If not, they could peel them away and take them back.
At the end of the first meeting I held with the managers, I took the post-its that remained on the table, and transferred them to one wall above my office desk, for there were words there that I felt needed to be respected for their honesty. Like many, I was still feeling my own sense of loss, and displaying them was the only thing I could think of doing to somehow begin healing. I didn’t quite know what else to do.
I did know I promised to read them, and I did. Four years later, pack-rat that I am, I still have them. This is a sampling of what they say:
I am proud of him, and I have to make sure I tell him.
We are still here, and we are still strong. I know we are.
Why does having aloha for another person have to hurt?
If I put myself in his shoes, I don’t feel so bad about him leaving us.
We’ll be okay, we have each other, and we have this place.
Sometimes change rocks. It’ll be cool. We were getting lazy anyway.
Imagine what all the shifting around can mean for us: new chances, new leaders born.
This sucks, and I hate change. (but thanks for listening.)
Ho‘omau. (Let’s continue, persist, and persevere.)
This isn’t our first challenge, and it won’t be the last. Let’s get on with it.
When can we put the sacred cows out to pasture?
Hey I know what I’m here for, so just let me do my job.
We have our vision, and we have our mission: we’re good.
He wouldn’t leave if he didn’t trust us to keep going without him. I think we’re ready.
There are lots more. They had multiplied over time: people would come into my office and add another to the wall when they thought of something else. Those post-its helped me heal and get on with what was expected of me: leading and managing well. They woke me up, and stirred me to action. The words on the newer post-its changed: venting and emotion gave way to subtle suggestions and new ideas. Ho‘ohana returned: we tackled the constancy of our lives with passion and intention.
One by one, the post-its fluttered to the ground because they lost their stickiness. I’d pick them up, put them to rest in my bottom desk drawer, and we went back to work.
What has your experience been with surviving organizational change? Or are you in one of those times you find yourself wishing for change, and for newness? What is it that grounds you, and keeps you centered and focused?
Let’s talk story.