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I remember it clearly. I was planning our annual spring break quest to Disney, just me and my 8-year-old. But when my current events question of the day for my strategic communications writing students turned to the evacuation of a cruise ship off the coast of Italy, and then to the canceling of SXSW in Austin, I knew that unprecedented change was upon us. It was hard to decipher exactly what was ahead, but it was clear that our lives and businesses would shift in ways that we never predicted.
Of course, we canceled Mickey. Soon Mickey himself was canceled. Parks and resorts around the world closed, and honestly, you could measure the impact on the world by the impact on Disney. In my estimation, if Mickey was hurting, we were all in a world of hurt.
I quickly realized that the healthy public speaking business that I’d developed over the past several years would be dealt a blow. No more flying out on the client’s dime to stay at nice hotels and speaking to hundreds, even thousands of conference-goers or university students. A pivot to digital wouldn’t be difficult for me with my fully-functioning home studio, but were the brands and organizations I worked with prepared for that pivot?
We all underwent an incredible amount of change. Change that we didn’t see coming, and that caused us to cancel plans—plans for our lives and plans for our work. And the shift was painful. We were thrust into grieving those losses while still in the midst of navigating and pushing through some of the deadliest and most economically devastating times.
I wasn’t ready. None of us were. But when great leaders make it through a crisis, they ask themselves what they learned from it. It’s the roadmap to success for other challenges. Here’s what I learned.
It helps to read the tea leaves
I learned the importance of looking ahead even when we’re in a state of unknown. I centered myself by planning. That can be challenging in a time of change, but I learned that looking at what was happening with other companies in the headlines was a great way to anticipate what could be next.
I also devised contingencies. If I saw that companies weren’t planning big events and canceling the ones on their roster, perhaps I could introduce the idea of virtual speaking opportunities with the technology I had on hand. They might not know exactly how to budget for these experiences, but I could offer an idea.
Indications of shrinking paid speaking opportunities meant it was time to lean into other lines of business more heavily. How could I support other businesses and executives attempting to navigate this unprecedented season? I was no doubt equipped for this very moment in time with my executive, personal, and business coaching services, so I offered my services for free to those in crisis. That helped me take the focus off myself. It built relationships, and inadvertently, it filled my pipeline with potential paying clients who knew how powerful an hour with me could be, sometime down the line.
As the world begins to reopen, we’re entering a new phase of change. Here’s how you can seize the opportunity:
Turn the unexpected into the expected by planning and making contingencies.
Lean into what you know to control your anxiety about the unknown.
Look out for others to gain better perspective on your own situation and avoid falling into the pit of self-pity—and possibly build your business while you’re at it.
Prioritizing mind, body, and soul makes a world of difference
In times of change, it’s very easy to focus all your energy on supporting everyone else but yourself—business, family, even those who may benefit from an assist from you during times like this. I even suggest that as a way to help get through periods of change. But there’s a line.
I was doing it all in the beginning—for everyone but myself. Remember that vacation I canceled to Disney? I literally forgot that I didn’t take the time, which was mine to take. It took my own mentor coach to ask me when I planned to take a vacation for me to realize that I had skimped on myself, and I was paying for it. I was burning the candle on both ends. I wasn’t exercising, getting fresh air, or carving out any time for me as I waded through managing online school for my daughter and keeping tabs on senior parents who couldn’t seem to stay out of Costco. I looked up, and it was July before I actually punched out of work to take the vacation I’d planned in March. It was a huge mistake. How much better would I have been for my family and for my clients if I had taken time off for myself?
This may be a problem we face as Americans more than professionals in some other countries. Culturally, we set our priorities around making money or work and business over family—and then finally, we get around to ourselves. This is a formula for poor mental and physical health. Applied positive psychology suggests that happy people are successful people, not the other way around. So, we have to be intentional about putting our well-being first.
Ultimately, the first huge change we experienced taught me what to take into this next phase:
Self-care isn’t selfish. Taking care of you is actually the most selfless thing you can do for the people and organizations who depend on you most.
Turn your camera off and take the walk. During those meetings where you’re simply listening and not leading, get some physical activity in. If it’s nice out, get some vitamin D. It will help you sleep better at night—among other benefits.
Feed your mind and spirit. How can you take back time to feed your mind and spirit? Listen to music, a TED Talk, a podcast, or an inspirational message that has nothing to do with work. Taking back some time, even once a day, can make all the difference.
Letting go is productive and healthy
What are you holding on to that could be holding you back? At the onset of the pandemic, I learned that I may be holding onto something that was not only holding me back, but was also hampering my daughter’s growth and happiness.
Sometimes we hold onto things because we know them well. They may even have some nostalgic significance. It could even be a deep-rooted tradition. You may have noticed that crisis has a way of revealing so much, and as a leader, it should cause you to re-evaluate.
As it turns out, the school that I graduated from wasn’t serving the needs of my daughter, but I wouldn’t have been able to see that clearly until in-person school was forced into my home. Thanks to a very traceable digital footprint, I was able to see everything the teacher wasn’t doing, and how she was leaning into her unconscious biases to limit my daughter’s growth. I had to make a tough decision to sever ties with the institution where I had better years. I had to let go of the notion that this school needed to continue to be a part of my family’s narrative so that my daughter could thrive despite the pandemic.
I come from a long tradition of private schools, but I was forced to consider other better alternatives—something that would be better for my most precious asset, my daughter. And for that matter, find something better for myself. I had taken on lecturing duties in addition to being a full-time entrepreneur. I called on reinforcements—my sister, another alum of the school and a PhD in education. We literally tag-teamed on keeping the head of school accountable until I could get my daughter out of there. I also hired an online tutor to pick up the slack on my daughter’s education and help with her homework in the evenings. I began a search for the best school for my sweet girl, and before long, she and I were thriving once again with a school with experienced teachers and a commitment to inclusion.
The main lesson from all this that I take into the next season of change:
Get help. Offloading something or getting support can be a routine undertaking and not just a one-time occurrence. Go ahead and hire that online tutor for the kids. Get a virtual assistant. If you’re re-entering the job market, get a career coach. Housekeeping becoming “one more thing” to deal with? Get a housekeeper or assign tasks to older children. Lean into a partner or family member for a little teamwork, and watch what a relief it is to get some of your life back.
Change can be daunting, but engaging the right mindset can help you take the reins back on your life and business. Now, what will you do to take on the next phase of uncertainty?
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