Listen to Henry Ford…


untitledToday’s post is more personal than most. It is a story about my son, Brandon, and holds an important lesson for each of us.

As you may recall from an audio post I made to my blog last year, Resilience Is Critical When Facing Challenge, Brandon is adopted. I first met Brandon when he was 15 years old. He reached out to request an interview for a photography project he was doing in school. He had to write the biography of his favorite photographer and, he told me, “I Googled gay photographers, and you’re my favorite.”

During the course of the interview Brandon learned a bit about me, and I learned a bit about him. Most importantly, I learned that he was living in an abusive home environment, and attending a school where he was getting assaulted on a regular basis. Moreover, he didn’t have an adult figure in his life that he could turn to for guidance, and whom he could trust. I offered him the opportunity to stay in touch, and he accepted.

As time went on, I learned that at home Brandon was told that because he is gay, he would never amount to anything, that he would end up living on the streets. School was not much better. Students would stand outside in the morning, praying for him. A teacher once asked whether he was ever going to “get better.” And he was told he would end up as a hairdresser or florist.

When I first began talking with Brandon about his future, he was already committed to moving beyond the “guidance” he was receiving from others; he had identified a one-year photography trade school that he hoped to attend. As a sometime photographer who knows how difficult it is to make a living that way, I encouraged him to think in terms of “both/and.” What would he like to study in addition to photography?

By the time Brandon graduated high school, he had been thrown out of his home, and I had taken him in. He had been accepted into a five year BA/BFA program at The New School in New York City, with plans to major in psychology (BA) and photography (BFA). Midway through his sophomore year, he made the decision to discontinue the photography major, and focus fully on psychology.

The next year he applied for, and was admitted to, a BA/MA program. This program allowed him to take graduate-level courses his junior and senior years, and granted him provisional admission to continue on for his masters degree without going through the traditional GRE and admissions process. His senior year courses would also be credited toward his MA. This fall, Brandon was notified that he was admitted to graduate school at The New School. Last month he completed his BA; while he doesn’t yet have all of his grades for the semester, his final undergraduate GPA will be in the vicinity of 3.9. At the end of this month he begins his final year of the MA program, majoring in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling. And, over the winter break, he has begun training as a professional mediator.

The journey has not been easy for Brandon. If he had believed in the future that others predicted for him, he may never have even reached out to me. But he shut out those voices in favor of his own. And, despite the negativity of so many people in the first eighteen years of his life, Brandon is creating a positive future for himself…one in which he will be helping others to believe in themselves as well.

Brandon hadn’t heard this quote of Henry Ford’s until well along in his journey. Nonetheless, he has shown us all how true it is. “If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t, you are right.”

As you move through the challenges of the new year, think you can!

Comment below.

Don’t Just Leave!


Cirrus clouds and a blank directional sign. with Clipping PATH

Too many change journeys start at an ending. They are about leaving the current situation: a relationship, a job, a career, a shifting market, an outmoded product line or production process.

This post looks at “just leaving” at the personal level. What surprised me in writing it is how many parallels exist at the organizational level. Next week’s entry will address organizations “just leaving.”

As I’ve often posted before, change does require letting go; there is stopping and releasing some of the old to make room for the new. The challenge is this… Many roads might lead you away from where you are. But if you don’t know where you are going, which is the right one to take?

Sometimes it is important to leave before knowing your destination. For whatever reason, the situation is untenable: an abusive partner or boss; bullying from co-workers or classmates that cannot be stopped. Sometimes the choice isn’t yours: a layoff or termination, a divorce announced, a career choice no longer in demand.

When this happens, find the nearest safe way-station in your journey. This may be physical: a shelter, a family member’s home; I have one friend who–upon being laid off–set up “office” in a corner of the local Starbucks the next day; she was there five days a week as she prepared for her journey.

Your situation may require an economic way-station: finding a new job, finding new clients so you can fly solo, going to work for a temp agency.

I have been let go from my job before; I have been dumped by a long-term partner in a relationship before. It isn’t easy! As I reflect back, I remember the counsel of one of my mentors:

Don’t confuse the present with the total. It is a moment, the one you are in now. But in another moment there will be a different present. Each present is real. But none is forever.

Find your way-station. Then use it as the launching pad for your change journey. Know it is not forever.

If circumstances allow, don’t leave until you are prepared. As Phil Cousineau (“The Art of Pilgrimage”) writes, “Being ready mentally, spiritually, and physically makes us lighter on our feet, more adroit at making decisions, and perhaps even helps keep chaos at bay.”

For me, being prepared requires several things. It requires knowing your destination, and knowing it in your heart and gut, not just your head; it means creating your change story. Being prepared means planning the journey once you know the destination. It will most likely be long, and arduous. While you can plan some things, other things cannot be anticipated. How will you know that you are making progress? What milestones will you be looking for? Being prepared means doing what is required mentally, spiritually, and physically so that you can face the challenges–expected and unexpected–that you will face. It means doing whatever you can to lighten your burden as you step out on the road. Being prepared means having the belief in yourself–and in those people and things that will anchor you on your journey–so that you have the courage to take that first step, and then the next, and the next, without turning back.

Every change, whether it be individual, family, organizational, or societal, requires different preparations. Yet if you know the patterns that lie beneath those change journeys they are remarkably consistent. Being prepared means learning the patterns, and how to navigate them.

What do you do to prepare for change? What advice would you give others? Comment below.


What’s Your “Plan B”?


iStock_000009613557SmallHow many times have you heard that question? For me, I am sure the answer is “in the hundreds.” It began as a young boy who wanted to become an architect. And, it has come back any number of times since then in both personal and professional situations.

What’s your Plan B? 

I have now wrestled with this question and the best way to answer it for more than four decades. For me, the wrestle isn’t about “what” my Plan B is, but whether I should have one; for my clients, the wrestle is whether I should recommend that they have one.

Why wouldn’t I have–or recommend–a Plan B? Here is my reasoning. I will illustrate it with my own circuitous career path.

In fourth grade I discovered graph paper. How cool! I could draw rooms, design buildings. Suddenly my perspective went from logic and words (I was good on lined paper, but not an artist) to more creative visual thinking. Architecture became a passion that stayed with my through high school. I had a drawing board mounted under the window in my bedroom, and would spend hours lost in designing. I took mechanical drawing every semester, advancing my skills. The money I earned after school went into buying drafting supplies and books on famous architects. On career day I would visit la local architectural office. I entered competitions. When the time came for college I applied to three architecture schools, and was accepted to one. I had no Plan B. Being an architect was the one career that, in my heart, I wanted to spend my life pursuing.

As it turned out, by my junior year of college I had lost that passion. I no longer wanted to be an architect. I could probably succeed and make a living at it, and I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t feel very good about myself or my work. But by then, I had developed another passion… I was doing youth work on the Onondaga Indian Reservation, and had become very interested in Native American cultures. My new major became cultural anthropology. (“But what are you going to do with that? What”s your Plan B?”)  I continued into grad school with the same focus, thinking I would love to teach anthropology at a college or university.

Midway through the first semester of grad school I received my draft notice. The next four years were spent as an Air Force Basic Military Training Instructor (“drill sergeant”) and earning two masters degrees. My passion for Native American studies morphed to larger issues of social justice, and my focus on higher education shifted from the classroom to administration.

Eight years of various higher education positions led to four years of consulting to higher education and nonprofits. It was during this time as a consultant that I was introduced to the nascent field of change management, and realized that underneath every career shift was a commitment to executing change.

By 1990, AIDS was a growing crisis in America; I became the Deputy Director of Finance and Operations at an AIDS organization providing permanent housing and support services to homeless people with AIDS. They needed to put in place an infrastructure that would help ensure their long-term viability without becoming bureaucratic, and I knew how to do that.

And so the path has twisted and turned, even to today. The thread has always been change. It has taken me inside of organizations, and outside. I have worked independently, and on teams. I have been a residence hall director, a fund raiser, an internal (as well as external) change consultant, a coach, a trainer, a mentor, a trusted adviser.

And, I have never had a Plan B.

I have spent time exploring options. But those explorations have always been just that…where am I being pulled to go next?

Perhaps if I had a Plan B when I made some of these transitions, I would have made them more quickly. But for me, the only way to have a Plan B is to say, “I am good with doing either A or B.” And, if that is the case, then I would not be able to fully invest myself in either one. If Plan A failed (and some of them have), I would never know whether–had I been more fully committed–I could have made it work. And, given that we go into big changes in our lives naive about the difficulties that will inevitably arise, it would be too easy to walk away from the realities of Plan A to begin the uninformed optimism of Plan B.

Big changes are tough. There is no guarantee of success. That is why I always begin, for myself, with an exploration of what is in my heart…what is my passion? That is why I always urge the same reflection for both personal and professional clients. If you are not passionate about the intent of your change, how will you ever complete the journey? I have been laid off, fired, and had a nonprofit that I attempted to start fail to get the funding that it needed; in each case, I can say that I put everything that I had into success.

I have also had incredible successes. I have turned around a stagnant annual giving program, established a living learning program, and supported major strategic shifts that make a difference in people’s lives both within the corporate and the nonprofit worlds. I have continued to engage in issues of social justice. I have helped individuals successfully navigate some of the most difficult personal life-changing events one could imagine. I have taught, coached, and mentored students, change practitioners, and organizational leaders. Along the way, the changes that I have been engaged in have touched tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of lives. And I still have no Plan B.

When my clients ask me if they should have a Plan B, I tell them quite honestly that I can’t answer the question for them. I help them to understand the reasons I do not. I point out how uncertain a Plan A tough change is, and the fact that there is no such thing as “this change cannot fail;” every change can fail. I help them understand the reality of a difficult change journey. And, I assist them in determining whether developing a Plan B is right for them.

Sometimes, when the realities of change sink in they revert to an immediate Plan B…and don’t proceed with the change. Sometimes, they develop a Plan B (which they may or may not ever call on). And sometimes, like me, they dive headfirst into Plan A and leave the idea of creating a Plan B behind.

How do you answer this question for yourself? Do you have a Plan B? Do you recommend that others do? What am I not seeing that would make it an easier one to answer, or is it really as personal a decision as I make it out to be? Please comment below.



At the End of Your Change Journey…


iStock_000005289966Small“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

T.S. Eliot

There is great power in metaphors, analogies, and stories…ways of communicating that move deeply inside of us, rather than just firing neurons in our brains. One of the greatest teachers of this message was Joseph Campbell.

There are several important things that I have learned about change journeys from Campbell over the years; in this post I share a few of those lessons with you.

If you look at the T.S. Eliot quote above, the message is really quite simple… New things come out of the old. Some thing or things have to end for others to begin. Starting a transformational journey, whether at the personal, organizational, or even the societal level, means letting go of something that has served as an anchor in the past. Beginnings can’t happen without endings.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey provides a powerfully wise road map to what your transformational journey is (and/or will be) like.

First, it is important to know that there are really two journeys needed if you are to achieve your desired outcomes. There is the outer journey: the new facilities, the new strategy, the new technology, the new processes, the new products, the new comp plan; you get the idea. (At the individual level, it may be the new career choice, the new relationship, the new home, etc.) But, there is also the inner journey: the new way of thinking about customers, or products, or line workers, or peers; the new way of seeing yourself and your role in relation to others; and, there are new ways of behaving as a result of the new ways of thinking.

The hero cannot make the journey successfully to the end without addressing both the inner and the outer.

The next important lesson that Campbell offers is the answer to the question, Who is the hero? 

As someone who has been a change practitioner all of his life, the unfortunate truth is that all too often those in this profession (change agents, mentors, trusted advisers, counselors, therapists, etc.) see ourselves as the heroes. We are not. We are simply the guides. We may do our jobs well, or poorly. We may offer exquisite guidance and profound insights, or we may mislead those who are taking the journey. We may walk alongside them, or serve as Sherpas carrying the weight of guide and counselor, but we are not the heroes. Hopefully, we apply every bit of wisdom we have; we offer the truth even when it is uncomfortable; we support the decisions, even when we disagree; we learn and grow; and we share our deepening wisdom with others so that our profession continues to advance. But, none of that makes us heroes of the change journey.

The heroes are those who make the journey, from the front line to the C-suite.

This is the next lesson that Joseph Campbell offers. The heroes are those who make the journey. Leaders are not heroes because they make the right decisions. They are not heroes because they send others to execute them. They only become heroes when they themselves take the inner and the outer journey. As my mentor Daryl Conner says, “Leaders can’t transform their organizations unless they are willing to transform themselves.”

This means that every change is personal. If the organization is facing conflict or imbalance in the marketplace, but the leadership is not taking it personally, significant change is not going to succeed. If the changes that are being faced are business imperatives and the C-suite is equipped with golden parachutes, be careful. If they are not personally feeling the heat, it is time to bring in new leadership for the change.

Perhaps your change is at the end. You–or you and your organization–are at a new beginning. Joseph Campbell offers up one more lesson to consider.

The ultimate aim of the quest, if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.

What has been your experience with the Hero’s Journey? What are the most important lessons you have learned. Please share your insights below.

Balance Is More Than Not Falling Down



Be open to action, and to reflection.

Be open to holding on, and to letting go.

Be open to knowing, and to not knowing.

Be open to doing, and to not doing.

In 2007 I took a Himalayan pilgrimage. Over the eight months before I left, I invested in preparing myself for the experience. While those preparations began in the gym, I soon realized that this journey would require more than physical training; it would require mental and spiritual preparation as well.

One day early in my preparations I met a friend for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. When the check came, I opened my fortune cookie. It read,

Balance is more than not falling down. 

Wherever you are on your change journey, there is an important lesson here. It is a lesson that applies in so many ways that one could probably blog about it for months. (As my son says, “No worries.” I am just going to highlight a few of them, and move on to another topic next week. I trust you to draw from your own experiences to add to the lessons that I am offering here.)

Just as my pilgrimage required me to call on my physical, spiritual, and mental energy, each change journey makes its own unique energetic demands on us. It may challenge long-held beliefs and practices. It may require us to re-frame our relationship to others, or to work, or to religious or spiritual or political beliefs. Whatever the change, it is likely that successfully completing the journey will not be possible with one shift; rather, multiple shifts will be required.

Perhaps you are still committed to that New Year’s resolution that resulted in a new gym membership. While the gym may be an important element in loosing weight and developing the body that you want, it cannot be the only one if you are to succeed. Doing so may also require you to change your relationship to your body: how you see it, what you expect of it, and/or how you treat it. That’s why I have never understood those people who walk out of the gym and light up a cigarette, or the ones who spend their entire workout telling their buddies about how much they drank over the weekend. It’s not just about the workout.

Balance is more than not falling down.

“Play to your strengths.” There is one theory of change that suggests this is exactly the way to go; build on strengths rather than focus on weaknesses. Another suggests that you should focus on your vulnerabilities, or they will undermine your success; manage them as risks, or risk failing.

Who is right?

In my experience, both are. When the going gets tough, we each tend to play to our strong suit. Perhaps you’re known for making decisions, or taking action, or planning, or anticipating problems, or… And, sometimes your strong suit is exactly what is needed at that point in time.

But sometimes, what is needed is the opposite; sometimes what is needed is your weakness. Perhaps you are strong on reflecting, on finding the solution through a long and deep contemplative process; but circumstances warrant quick decisions and action. Maybe you are known for holding on to things that have had meaning in the past, sustaining traditions or heirlooms, or beliefs; but circumstances call for letting go of these things before the door closes on the opportunity to complete the change.

Balance is more than not falling down. 

Do you know your strengths, and your vulnerabilities? Do you consciously choose when to call on each?

Are you at the action gym, or the reflection gym, or the decision gym, becoming the ever-more-masterful exerciser of your strengths? Or, are you at the action gym, or the reflection gym, or the decision gym, working on your vulnerabilities to bring them more into balance with your strengths?

Balance is more than not falling down. 

Balance is leveraging your strengths, and strengthening your weaknesses. It is knowing the full range of resources that you have available to you, and calling on each when appropriate.

Balance is being open to action, and to reflection. Balance is being open to holding on, and to letting go. Balance is being open to knowing, and to not knowing. Balance is being open to doing, and to not doing.

Balance is more than not falling down. 

What is your experience with balance–or the lack of it–when approaching change?

It’s Your Choice.


It’s yiStock_000003622913Smallour choice. 

How do I choose?

I don’t have a choice.

When it comes to choice, all too often we approach the situation with a fundamental misperception.

We think “choice” means selecting between good or bad, right or wrong, easy or difficult.

Sometimes it does.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes choice is between bad and bad, between right and right, between difficult and difficult. In the Old Testament we have the story of Abraham being commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. In the more recent past, we have the work of fiction, Sophie’s Choice, in which Sophie is forced to select which of her children is gassed to death in the concentration camp. Choices are not always good, or easy. But, there is still a choice.

Daryl Conner, one of my change mentors, tells the story of Andy Mochan, the Piper Alpha oil rig worker who jumped 150 feet into burning oil in the North Sea after the rig had exploded. When interviewed on Nightline, Andy stated that he had chosen probable death over certain death. Andy made a choice–not an easy one by any stretch of the imagination–and lived to tell his story. 166 of his fellow workers on the rig died.

Daryl uses this story as a metaphor for the resolve that we each need when we are facing difficult changes. In executing your change, it is likely that there will be choices that are easy to make along the way. These are the “god/bad,” “right/wrong” kind. But there will also be antagonizingly difficult choices to be made..ones for which you are ill-prepared, for which you want more time and/or information, ones for which you shudder at the possible consequences of any decision you make. These, too, are choices.

My grandparents taught me how to play Pinochle when I was very young. I have forgotten and re-learned the game more than once over the years. But there is one lesson that I learned back then and have never forgotten.

We don’t get to choose the hand we are dealt. We always have a choice about how we play it.

What is your experience with choice during change?

All Change Is Different. All Change Is the Same.


glass-facesChange is an optical illusion. Each of us looks at it and sees it through a different lens. For one person, moving the office coffee pot is a major change; for another it is only a minor disruption, adapted to before the end of the day. For one person, starting a new job is an exciting–perhaps even appealing–challenge. For another, it is life’s worst nightmare.

Why is it that all change is different? And if that is the case, how can it be that all change is the same?

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I use Daryl Conner’s definition of change as “a disruption in expectations.” Let’s apply this to the example of starting a new job. Personally, I have held at least 18 different positions doing at least a dozen different types of work in 8 different industries. Clearly, for me, starting a new job is exciting. It gives me the opportunity to take all that I have learned and apply it in a new context; to face new challenges; to learn new things; to develop new skills; and to meet new people. And, as I look at my decision to leave jobs, it has been when I have accomplished what I set out to do, when I have moved from addressing the challenges for which I was hired to maintaining the status quo.

At the other end of the continuum is a man I met a few years ago. “Bill” went to work for an employer directly out of college. Decades later he retired from the same employer, in the same department as he started. Within two years, unable to adapt to retirement, he became a consultant. You guessed it; he consults to his former employer.

Clearly, for Bill and me, the act of starting a new job has very different meaning; it is a very different change.

If that is the case, how can all changes be the same?

What those of us who have immersed ourselves in the field of change have learned is this. While the nature of the disruptions to expectations may be countless, the patterns of human response are consistent and they are predictable.  It doesn’t matter whether the change is inconsequential or transformational. It doesn’t matter whether the change is perceived as positive or as negative. It doesn’t matter whether the change is at the deeply personal level, is a change at work, or is societal in nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Tampa, or Topeka, or Tokyo. All of these factors may affect the nature of the change, and even the outward reaction to it. What they do not affect is the predictability of the response patterns.

This deep understanding of change provides strong guidance on how to successfully navigate any change. Let me just highlight a few.

  1. Understand how difficult the change journey will be as seen through the eyes of those who have to travel it. is it a major or minor disruption? Do they perceive it is a positive or negative change? Does it require changes in behavior, or does it go deeper, requiring different ways of thinking as well? Understanding the difficulty will allow you to appropriately calibrate the response.
  2. Prepare for change. Learn the patterns. Know, for example, that even if the change is seen as positive, if it is a major change, the time will come when strong resistance will surface. (Just think of the journey from dating, to commitment, to marriage, to building and sustaining a long-term relationship.) If you understand that  then you will recognize that your doubts, your questioning, those very specific problems you encounter are not signs of something being wrong, but are a part of the inevitable cycle of change. With that understanding, you are able to respond differently.
  3. Knowing the patterns allows you to also prepare for–and thus execute–any specific change differently. Given that change is driven by a loss of control, for example, how, when, and to what degree are you able to return a sense of control for those who are being disrupted?

Underlying each of my Change Mentor posts is the application of this understanding. It guides how I approach each aspect of each disruptive change in my life. It doesn’t turn “change” into “unchange;” it is still disruptive. But knowing what to expect does lessen the level of disruption and provides clear guidance on shaping the path forward. It helps me never feel like a victim of change, even when it comes from the outside and I see it as negative.

Change is inevitable. Every change is different. Every change is the same.

Join the conversation… Share one of your biggest “Aha’s” or lessons learned about change. Do you think that there are underlying patterns in our response to change, regardless of the nature of the change? Add your comments below.