Last week, my husband and I took our oldest son to college for the first time. In the days and weeks leading up to the departure, we were busy - following lists, checking boxes, and doing everything we thought we needed to safely set him up for his new life 1,082 miles away (not that I'm counting). And, like many parents, the good-bye, the transition and the change we are feeling has been MUCH harder than I thought it would be.
Intellectually, I am thrilled for him. He's in an idyllic campus community, in a glorious part of the country that gets 300+ days of sunshine each year, and he is surrounded by students, faculty and administrators who genuinely seem to care about one another. I am excited for all that lies ahead for him - what he'll learn, who he'll meet, and the person he will continue to become. And he is ready. After so much time at home through COVID quarantines, I'm so grateful he is having a normal college experience, and is finally getting a taste of the independence that he is ready for. And yet...
I am hurting. My heart hurts, I have a tendency to hug my husband and other two children for way longer than they are used to (and probably way more than they like!), and pretty much anything can make me cry - kindergarteners walking to school hand-in-hand with their parents, walking by my son's bedroom, and adjusting to the quieter pace around the dinner table.
This experience has caused me to reflect on the way I have traditionally managed change. In short - I love change. I would call myself a change agent. My first professional job was as a strategic consultant - we were literally hired by clients to help create change. I then used those well-honed muscles to enact change in every setting I worked in - start-ups, large corporations, and non-profits. If I saw something that could be improved, I was the first to jump up and volunteer to change it. I loved the thrill of coming up with a plan, getting buy-in for that plan, and then working through the complexities and complications of implementing a plan.
A few examples. When I was stepping down from my role as CEO of Kesem, I intentionally created a 20 page plan that took one year of change management, and included communications touch points with 200+ constituents. When we moved from Chicago to Zurich, Switzerland with a 3 year old, a 15 month old, and a golden retriever, I thought about every aspect of that move - and was completely energized by the complexities and challenges of that change. And as I thought about getting our kids ready for college, I gathered all the best preparation lists out there, sought input from friends and experts, and then curated a long Google doc of everything we needed to teach our children before they left the nest (inspired by a beautiful article by the legendary Kelly Corrigan). The fact that my 11 year old son is now well versed on "when should I seek medical attention from the student health center" is slightly funny, but symbolic of my approach to preparation and change.
But this change feels different. Because even though my mind has mastered the change, my heart and body have not. I was recently reading, "The Spirit of Leadership," published by Bob Anderson, Founder of the Leadership Circle. In the article, he cites that 85% of change efforts in companies do not yield tangible or durable results. That means we have a 85% failure rate with change management. As he digs into the why behind this, he notes that in many cases, "crucial variables are ignored. Usually the more obvious and easy to address aspects of the change are tackled. The more invisible, insidious, emotionally wrenching quadrants of personal and cultural change are often left out of the equation."
That really floored me. And it absolutely felt true with this personal experience. I've been so focused on the tasks and logistics, and unfortunately, that wasn't enough. This was a process where the mind alone couldn't get me through it - I was literally being forced to slow down, and tune into my emotions and the wisdom my body had to share. So yes, the intellectual task is complete (we nailed the move-in project plan, by the way). But I'm learning (once again) that I need to give myself the time and space to process this change - how much I miss my son, how hard it is to not see him at dinner and get a true sense of how his day went, how different our family dynamic feels without him, and how this milestone marks the beginning of a new chapter for our family.
As a leader, particularly one who strives to be a servant leader, it has awakened something in me too. While I was often very comfortable charging ahead, and could serve as an effective "leader in front," I wonder if I allowed enough space for those who needed to process the changes, to ask their questions, and to experience their own emotions. Humbly, I submit that the answer is undoubtedly no. I can reflect on many occasions where I could have slowed down, invited more questions in, and allowed more breathing room for others to process what they were feeling.
Now, in my work as a coach, I am learning to do just that - not only for myself, but with my clients. In fact, much of what coaching involves is talking with clients about changes they'd like to make. But rather than jumping to action with a plan, we explore the emotions that may either help or hinder those changes. I think that's why coaching is so unique, and for many, so effective.
For me, I'm taking the time to process what I'm feeling - for me, that looks like long walks with my dog, talks with friends and family, and writing. And I'm changing how I'm thinking about change.