There are a number of key points in my life when I’ve felt lost, metaphorically speaking. The most memorable was when I had my first child, but the most significant, in the context of sharing my insights with you here, is when I first started managing people. My hope today is to share my story with you so you may benefit from what I’ve learnt from this disorientation. As I look back at these experiences, I know they formed me. However, I took my career change the long way around and now better understand and consciously recognise the methods I used (and continue to use for myself and with clients in my coaching and training), to get myself back on track when I lose my way.
If you are new to managing people, considering a career change, or just feel stuck in your current role, reading my story and considering my suggested methods for finding your way will help.
Lost in Overcommitment
It was the early 2000s and I was working for Diageo Australia. Up until this point I’d been promoted each year since my first role there in 1997. Having started as a sales cadet, I moved on to a key account management role, then a brand ambassador role and was working in a trade marketing role when the change happened. My counterpart, who was the field sales manager of the on premise team at the time, left to pursue a secondment at our Bondi head office. As a result of his departure I was asked to manage the field sales team. Importantly, I was also required to continue to manage my trade marketing responsibilities.
As the newest member of the management team, I grabbed this opportunity and dived in to my new responsibilities without giving it much thought. While I felt nervous about the fact that I would now be managing a team made up of people who were older than me and had recently been my peers, I agreed to take on the role of managing a 5 person field sales team. I was familiar with the clients, the promotions and what was required of the team (having worked in this role myself a few years earlier), but what I wasn’t ready for was the emotional energy required to manage people. I also learnt the value of really knowing thyself as a tool to effectively lead and manage people, but I’ll get to that when I share my methods for getting back on track.
Needless to say, I lost my way. Work consumed me, I had barely any time to see my friends, my to do list was unmanageable and I wasn’t even able to return all of the phone messages left for me each day because I had such a high volume of work.
In retrospect, it was not so much the fact that I was expected to manage a team that caused my disorientation. It was the fact that I had allowed myself to get into a situation where I was accountable for the duties of two full time roles, had 5 direct reports and was expected to be in field with the team. Oh, and did I mention that both of these roles also required me to play an active role in the State’s leadership team, as one of 10 individuals who oversaw the P&L performance of the Victorian and Tasmanian region?
Lost in Redundancy
How I managed to make my way through this will form my tips below.
In the mean time, life went on, I had my first child in 2005 and returned to work after 12 months maternity leave. As a side note, during my maternity leave I found myself having an emergency C-section and was hurled violently into sleep deprivation and the highs and lows that come with the incredible experience of having your first child.
Motherhood changed me and it was at this point when I realised I couldn’t have it all (e.g. a big job, children and any normal sense of balance) and so I began to think about how I would navigate a change in career direction. Successfully constructing this scenario also led to my next significant disorientation, when I again lost my way. While on maternity leave with my second child in 2008 I quietly began part time studies to complete my Diploma of Secondary Education at Monash University. I’d decided I was to become a teacher, because it was the only way I thought I could get school holidays off from work! Instagram was only just starting and DIY websites were few and far between (I reference this as there are MUCH clearer pathways for alternative careers now than there were when I was considering a career change). Seriously though, I did really enjoy coaching and training my 5 direct reports (who were now part of the trade marketing team, a function I’d led since 2003, for the Vic/Tas and national Coles business) and thought teaching would be somewhat like this, with school holidays off!
It was with 6 weeks to go before I was to return from 12 months maternity leave wth my second child that I was offered and chose a redundancy from Diageo Australia. After an 11 year tenure, and with two young children in my care, I welcomed the opportunity to take a career sabbatical and continue the second year of the part time studies I had commenced the year before, while on maternity leave.
What I had not predicted was the loss of identity and the unexpected discomfort of having the corporate umbilical cord cut. I was now out on my own to fend for myself and it felt very unfamiliar. No more Qantas Club, no more cab charges, no more funded long lunches with the team, no more annual conferences to Queensland and no more celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Irish pubs (a ritual I still miss). But wasn’t this what I’d wanted? Why did I feel disoriented again? Now I could spend a glorious year with my two young children, finish my studies and start a new career. While I treasured this precious time with my boys, I did not feel the abundance of free spirited joy I had hoped for. I felt like I had lost a big part of my identity and I felt unexpectedly disoriented and unsure about who I was! The only clear anchor was my role as a Mum, which kept me going.
How I Get Back on Track
Interestingly, it was my husband who said to me, when I first finished at Diageo, ‘You should be a consultant’. I think I laughed at the time, unable to see it. And so began my journey of self discovery, led strongly by a very challenging subject I had to complete as part of my Diploma of Education. I was required to share my reflections from my teaching rounds (which were tricky enough with two young children), and consider my values, who I was, and what made me a good teacher. I had to dig deep and used the tough feedback of my lecturer to reconnect with who I was and what I wanted to become.
Who am I and How do I Work it Out?
It is the Who Am I? self reflection exercise I first used and have since developed and use with clients, based on the work of Jack Collis, that helped me find myself during this period. I invite new business coaching clients to do this Who Am I? Exercise on their own, or with their partner, before they commence their coaching with me. It is a very personal exercise and I reflect on my own notes from this each year to remind me of what’s important, how I may have changed, and where I’m headed.
There is an intensity that comes with making choices, being a parent and getting older. This week is the perfect example of that for me, with Friday evening being spent in a hospital emergency department with my dear Dad who had a very low haemoglobin count and so had to have a blood transfusion!
As I reflect on how I get myself back on track during these times, I’m comforted by the knowledge that it is these key tools that help me, and also now play an important role in the stories I share with clients to help them find their way. Life throws a lot at us, and we need to have mechanisms to ensure we do not lose our way. Or when we do lose our way (which happens), it is these tools that will help us get back on track. When I heard Dr Jason Fox speak recently, he referenced the concept of Type 2 thinking, a term he was introduced to when reading Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 New York Times Best Seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is this slow and rational thinking that has enabled me to be more diverse in my thinking; to muse, to ponder, to be curious and make meaningful progress.
Here are 3 of the key methods I use to help get me get back on track when I am feeling lost.
1. Invest Time in Type 2 Thinking
The redundancy forced this on me, and I have consistently and regularly spent dedicated time alone since to explore who I am and what I want. The simple act of taking time out for yourself, on your own, to just be with your thoughts, can be cathartic.
I suggest you must first carve some time out for yourself to get away and think. Whether it be overnight or just for the afternoon, make it a priority to find this time for yourself. Take a journal and capture ‘what’s working well’ and ‘what’s not’. Your subconscious is an amazing tool and, when you give it time to process your experiences, will help guide you in the right direction. If you are a believer, prayer can also be a very powerful way to help you reconnect with yourself.
I like to take a break on my own for this purpose every 6 months and encourage you to do the same. Perhaps you can add a personal day to a work trip?
2. Ruthlessly Schedule Your Time
Busyness can just be so tempting. So please don’t think for a second that this suggestion relates to being busy. It is about taking back control of your schedule and learning to say no to events, activities and meetings that are not a priority. It is essential that you spend time on the work and life activities that will help you achieve your goals.
I suggest you consider your answers to these questions. Write down your answers in that journal I mentioned.
- What brings you joy? How much time do you dedicate to doing the things that bring you joy each week or month?
- Who do you love spending time with, but haven’t seen lately? When do you plan to see them? Can you schedule a regular catch up?
- When are you at your most effective? Do you schedule meetings at this time or use it for clear thinking time to develop strategies and work on high value items that will help you achieve your goals at work?
You are in charge of your calendar. Apart from some mandatory meetings, there is no excuse for not taking back control of your schedule and allocating blocks of time to certain activities throughout the week.
3. Learn to Say No
I’m not sure if being caught in the ‘should’ trap is an age or emotional maturity thing, but being able to trust my gut and release the guilt associated with doing things that I think I ‘should’ be doing, is the most empowering step that has enabled me to maintain my energy levels and stay true to myself. It’s hard, but necessary, to say no sometimes!
In my example when I took on the two management roles at Diageo, I did not even consider saying no or negotiating my way through it. I just did it because I thought I ‘should’. In a recent experience with a valued client, I agreed to preparing, delivering and recording a series of videos for them in the management and leadership space. Once I received the detailed brief of what I was required to do, I realised I should never have said yes to this project. Rather than suck it up and do it, I was diplomatic and honest with this client and explained I would not be able to do it. And you know what he said? ‘That’s what I love and respect about you Karen. You have learnt and know when you need to say no’. Importantly, I did also help them find another leadership trainer to deliver this project successfully for them.
What’s critical about this tip is that you need to respond to your gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t! As I mentioned earlier, I believe your subconscious is a powerful force and can really help you make decisions. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, he explores the role of your subconscious in great detail. Reading these insights has helped me value the importance of my gut reaction to decisions, or how I feel the day after making a decision, when I first wake up. I will always consider ‘does this feel right or not?’ And it’s not about being comfortable. I embrace discomfort daily and believe everything is sweetened by risk. It’s about whether it feels right.
Another example is how I engage in social activities. I want to be a parent and work. I want to play an active role in my children’s lives. I’m not a big social butterfly and have learnt to say no or avoid some social gatherings and potential friendships that feel like ‘shoulds’ rather than something I genuinely want to be part of. Do some of these decisions have the potential to make me unpopular and hard to read? Absolutely! But I have learnt to accept this, because this is my life. Fortunately, my nearest and dearest friends and family get me and give me the freedom to run my own race. In fact, many close friends comment that they like my lack of ‘neediness’ and know I am always there when they need me. They have learnt to understand that I can not do it all, I love an early night and need time to recharge on my own.
I suggest you read this blog about My Ambivert Journey and see if you can relate to my ambivert tendencies. What does this mean for you and the ‘shoulds’ you have happening in your life right now? What can you start saying no to?
If time allowed, I could also add a final point, which is to not compare yourself to others. However, I do ruthlessly schedule my time and this past week has taken its toll on me and so I am stopping writing to have a good night’s sleep, so I may be recharged for the week ahead