Advice for the new
For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been jetting here and there, facilitating big change work (more about that soon!) in New York and Geneva. It’s been an orchestration of airports, hotels, meetings, and people, with stolen in-transit calls to keep the plates spinning at home. This week, we’re doing a little time-travelling—what advice would we share with our new-to-the-work selves of five or ten years ago?
How do we balance and renew during busy spells? How do we protect and renew our energy and optimism when, as facilitators, we ‘spend’ a lot of it? How can we enter every room like the burst of fresh air we aspire to be—especially when logistics might wear us down?
Our operations manager Jen and I missed the flight from New York to Halifax, and wound up in that mess of a running down the hall, rebooking, an unplanned hotel. What a finish to a whirlwind trip where so much is at stake: exciting new work with exciting new (to us) organizations. Big-profile names, sprawling committees, high-calibre passion and talent, established bureaucracies—such a rich canvas for change.
There’s a flow to these busy spells of facilitation. Every trip brings us to a new place, new rooms, new people—patched-together by the odd, in-between space of airplanes. Tuesday and I come from Nova Scotia and Ohio respectively, and wind up in a tunnel of strike-while-the-iron-is-hot deadlines—part sheer enthusiasm, part being on-site—and the hustle of running events.
If the trips away are an intensive immersion into career, coming home renews our energies. The work reduces in importance, as it should. My little humans and my wife and friends are close again. My priorities are healthier and more properly aligned. The sleep and rhythm is better. My favourite play and food and woods are with me again. I have a dog to walk, kids’ soccer to coach, and dinners to cook. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Tuesday is kicking around horse barns and swim meets, and it’s grounding for both of us.
As Tuesday calls the unique exhaustion and stimulation of our work: It’s so much human beings and more human beings and more human beings with all their human-beingness.
We laugh about that, but boy—humanbeingness is a heck of a domain to try and nudge one way or another. Our work is constant navigation. Individual personalities, quirks, and needs, and then a distinct set of collective personalities, quirks, and needs. Then we’ve got the dynamic how people and collectives use and misuse power. When you’re trying to pull apart an entrenched status quo that no longer serves (and perhaps never did), you need to be almost relentlessly alert. We constantly check for logic and rationality, honing our gut instincts and responding.
You can’t just tell a human being at point A—or a group of human beings at point A—to go to point B. Change would be easy if all we needed was our pointer finger gesturing Go That Way, Over There. As emotional beings—often territorial, attached, irrational, defensive, and fear-led—facilitators need to help people be better together so they can reach a consensus on the persistent attraction and worthiness of moving together to point B.
Today, after yet another epic trip, we’re reflecting—time-travelling—to imagine the advice we’d share with our selves of five or ten years ago, when we were just starting out in our practice of leading change.
Be prepared for waves.
There will be periods where you’ll be incredibly busy, and then times when you’ll be less so. Enjoy quiet spells. Use that time to reflect, working on yourself and your organization—of your thoughts, your offering, your business, your practice.
Don’t panic. Don’t scramble to fill the void with a bunch of sub-optimal gigs that don’t represent how you want to spend your time. Use the quiet to galvanize your commitment to your ideal client organizations, your ideal approach, and your ideal growth.
Let go of what you think is right.
Turn up to serve the reality of the circumstance more than your own fixed process or concept of support. This work requires us to repeatedly shed everything we’ve been taught. Things I Know may feel like it gives you stability and safety, but knowledge is an illusion.
Models and methodologies have to evolve and change with new information and contexts—and often, we are so attached to our way of seeing things that we don’t recognize when new information is staring us right in the face. The business of facilitating change is the business of slippery fish. Hold on too tight to anything and it’ll get away from you. Just because you sorted out one client doesn’t mean you’ll be able to sort out the next in the same way. Knowing how things went doesn’t mean you know how things should go.
The business of facilitating change is the business of slippery fish. Hold on too tight and it’ll get away from you.
Be prepared to step up and deliver even when you’re tired.
You’ll step into a room feeling totally drained by a client. Or perhaps your kid was just crying on the phone. When we were new to this, we were both a little naive about how it should feel—exciting, inspiring, empowered. As soon as you understand that the stress of travel, business ownership, professional development, and expectations is always at the surface, you’ll get better at performing well no matter what.
Self-care, absolutely—feed, rest, and water yourself so you’re not weak. Bring your running shoes in your suitcase. But allow yourself to acknowledge the performance of this work. Let it feel how it feels. Besides—showing up lacklustre will not make you feel any less stressed and strained, or any better about missing that soccer game at home. If you’re going to do the work, you may as well feel proud about the time you put in. Be easier on yourself. Allow the way a room sees you in the work to be the way you see yourself in the work.
As experienced as you may be, don’t make assumptions.
We are pattern-seeking creatures—especially in the business of observing the movement and influence of people in groups. The moment you think you understand what’s happening and how power works, remind yourself you may have it all wrong. Banish certainty and welcome surprise. As long as we have the humility to be constantly surprised and curious, then there’s always something new in the work. If you think I’ve got this too often, consider that you may be in typical (predictable, tired, not change-ready) territory. To be uncertain is to grow.
Your work is not who you are.
Don’t hang your whole identity on the work. It’s not all of who you are. There will always be another day, another room in need of the fresh air you can bring.
Even when people have consensus, motivation, and the will to change, it takes a lot of energy to navigate those dynamics and lead change. When we’re far from home, exhausted by running from one gate to the next, it can be challenging for facilitators to protect their balance, vitality, mindset, and groundedness and lead every new room like it’s brand-new. This is what we’d tell ourselves, if we had a time machine. What would you tell yourself about how to show up? What have you learned?