My world was suddenly shifting.  Of course I knew it was coming but not at that particular moment.  I was seated comfortably (that is the operative word) in my role as a Managing Director of the Business Unit I was leading.  My boss walked into my office very cheerily and said, “this is it, your time is over and we’re executing the transition to your successor”.   I didn’t even realize I had a successor. We had never spoken of that, much less how to communicate the change, how to prepare her for the role and when to tell my direct reports.  In the scramble to do all that in short order, I was left feeling lost, isolated and sad. What would be next for me?

As I lamented my position to a very wise friend (okay there were several glasses of red wine involved) she said to me…”Joanie- you are stepping back, not down”.   I thought about that comment for a long time. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that moving from Senior Leadership into an Individual Contributor role was more than a little adjustment. Among the things I missed most was being “in the know” about what was happening in the organization.  The information flow shut off like a faucet the day I transitioned with just an occasional drip of intel.

What did it really mean to step back?

Let go of who you think you are

At some level, I know that our roles, our reputations, or positions within an organization don’t define us.  Yet to some degree, I felt they did for me. My friend insistently reminded me that I had an entire life to define me not just my work.  Hmm…what was she hinting at? It became clear that I had to let go of who I thought I was and spend time figuring out who I really was. 

The answer came to me for work first.  Now, I was an organizational citizen-not bound by my work group or functional area.   I had years of experience; depth and breadth in my company more than 20+ years’ worth.  I intentionally shaped my brand to be that of a connector – to where we have been to where we were going, connecting people, the dots, being a perspective taker and perspective shaker.  Suddenly I felt free.

In my personal life I worked on building my “cabinet” the women who I could hike with, laugh and cry with, who I could count on to see just me.  As I expanded my hobbies and found a passion in fly fishing- discovering that there was sufficient time to be present, still, relaxed.

Take stock of lessons learned

There was so much that I learned while I was a Senior Leader.  The lessons didn’t really become apparent to me until I stepped back and looked at that time through a different lens.  At first, I focused on all the “do overs” rethinking big decisions and dilemma’s…and then I realized that at the time I did the best with what I had and what I knew.  Time to put that to rest. I took thoughtful time to just let is all sit- to not guess what would emerge. 

In the end, I learned that not taking myself so seriously would have served me well.  To have the intention to ask more curious questions, the courage to be more fully present and the openness to find more joy in the journey.   To not feel burdened by knowing all that there was to know.

A gift was given to me that day when I was asked to step down and a bigger one when I realized that stepping back actually creates space to move forward.

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