How to build resilience and adapt to new events
By: Deb Liu, President & CEO, Ancestry
I remember a time when I was sitting in a leadership meeting with our leads at Meta. Our head of Analytics looked around and said, “We should remember this moment. Everything is going so well, but things are bound to change. We may never work together like this again.”
Within a year, we had gone into lockdown for Covid. During that period, we went through multiple reorgs. Eventually, everyone in that tight-knit group went on to take other jobs, first within the company, and then elsewhere in the industry. We still remain friends, but that moment in time passed in the blink of an eye.
Change is inevitable, but how you deal with it is what distinguishes a good leader from a great one.
There are three major types of changes that we go through in our careers and work lives, and learning how to navigate each of them is critical. Each presents a slightly different set of challenges and opportunities.
The good news is, with a little forethought, you can weather these changes and turn them into growth experiences. In today’s post, I will show you how.
Company reorganizations are a fact of life—so much so that one cheeky member of my leadership team created this sign for my conference room:
I never had the gumption to put it up, but I found it in storage after I left Meta, and I think it nicely sums up how we all feel about reorgs.
The ebb and flow of business needs requires companies to be flexible and adaptive. Hence, the dreaded reorg. These are simple enough to do in theory, but in practice, they are hard to do well. One of my managers once said to me, “Reorgs are a blunt instrument. They create as many problems as they solve, so you just end up picking which thing is more important to fix right now.” In my experience, his words have held true in all the years since he said them.
Reorgs come in many forms. Perhaps your product will be moved to another organization, or you will be placed under a reporting structure. In some cases, you may even be pulled off something you love, only to be placed in a different role altogether.
The challenge with reorgs is that they are often very disruptive to your career, your team, and the work you do. This creates a great deal of stress, presents some unique risks, and can leave you feeling like you have no control over the situation. That said, there are several things you can do to take back what control you have:
- Take a step back. In the heat of the moment (and trust me, I have done this), it’s easy to say or do something you regret. That’s why it’s important to remember not to react instinctively. Instead, allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling and let it sit for a while before you respond.
- Don’t take it personally. Reorgs are rarely personal. Rather, they are done to solve a macro-level issue outside your purview or control. Don’t overthink the whys; instead, focus on how you can envision yourself moving forward in this new set of circumstances.
- Be as helpful as possible. Many people react negatively to reorgs, but those who rise to the occasion are seen as stronger leaders, and therefore as more trustworthy to the company going forward. If you are asked to land a reorg, focus on how to guide your team with grace, positivity, and curiosity.
- Focus on the future. I won’t sugar-coat it: reorgs are hard. It will hurt to look back and see the people and projects you’ve left behind, but it is more important to look ahead. Learning how to move forward will give you the momentum to push onward to what comes next.
There was a time when a reorg cost me almost half my team. I had spent years building a team that spanned a number of different areas, and I valued my work greatly. But many of the people on the team were going in different directions, and it was becoming more and more work to keep managing them. Then came a massive company reorg. I was asked to dedicate myself to a smaller number of things while about 40 percent of my team was moved elsewhere.
It was a huge blow. So much of my identity had been tied up in the team that I had inherited, grown, and helped to build. So many questions plagued me. Was this a signal that I wasn’t good enough? Was I failing in some way? But even though I felt hurt by the change, I didn’t resist. I landed it with the teams, and in the end, we were all better for it: the company, the teams, and yes, even me. Despite the stress and anguish that it caused, after that reorg, I ended up doing some of my best and most impactful work.
Reorgs are a major stressor, and they can leave you feeling lost and out of control. However, they can also open doors you would never have considered otherwise. By taking a breath and reframing them as an opportunity and not a loss, you can make the most of them without losing your cool.
People come and go in every organization. Sometimes, you will barely notice the change, but other times, their absence will have a deep and lasting impact. People who depart a company or role will almost always leave some mark, whether on their peers, products, or reports.
I have had well over a dozen managers since I started working two decades ago. Some lasted years, and others lasted mere months. But each and every time my manager changed, I felt it acutely. The sense of uncertainty that it created left me dreading what came next. Sometimes, I knew who my new manager would be, but other times, I didn’t. There was even one time when I came close to resigning rather than having to work for my new manager, who was the one person I never, ever wanted to report to. (You can read more about this in Chapter 5 of my book, Take Back Your Power* [*Women in Product affiliate link]).
I remember a point in my career when I went through seven managers in less than three years (four months of which I spent on maternity leave). My work didn’t change, but the leadership above me was like a game of musical chairs. I felt like I was constantly having to prove that my projects and I were worthy of support. It frustrated me to have to constantly defend my choices and investments each time my manager changed. The churn also delayed any kind of promotion, because each manager needed to “see my work” before they were willing to go to bat for me.
A change in your manager can feel fraught and personal—even more so if you are unfamiliar with or not excited about the new person coming in. But the good news is, this challenge is navigable. You just have to take a few steps to smooth the transition:
- Build bridges. As hard as it may be to imagine, your new manager may also feel uncertain about the transition. Help make them comfortable and work to build trust. This will allow you to make a personal connection while getting to know them and how they work.
- Align them to your work. There is a huge affinity bias in the workplace, and this can be even stronger when it comes to managers and reports. Don’t be afraid to explain and advocate for your work, and walk your new manager through your reasoning if you sense uncertainty. The more they know about you and your work, the more they will be able to connect with and support it.
- Plan the future together. It is easy (and tempting!) to just keep going on the path you’re on. Do your best to resist the urge. This is a chance to pave the way to a beneficial long-term relationship, which will be critical to growing your career in the future. Helping your manager to become an ally can open doors for both of you.
Being assigned a new manager can be a uniquely stressful situation. However, it can also be an opportunity. By seeking alignment and looking ahead to the future, you can make the most of the uncertainty and build the foundations of a strong relationship.
Changes in strategic direction
Sooner or later there will come a point in your career when your company will experience a massive change in strategic direction. These changes often come because of evolving market conditions, competition, or other business needs. Strategy changes may affect the projects you work on, the teams you work with, or the resources you have, so preparation and alignment are key.
There are three scenarios to consider here:
- Your area is deprioritized. I often see this happen to high-flying innovation areas where there is a lot of focus. It can feel very demoralizing, like the lights have been suddenly turned off and the electricity has been cut. In these cases, the goal is to get as much information as you can as quickly as possible. Getting clarity for the sake of your team is critical, because you may otherwise see attrition and loss of focus from those working with you. Is your product getting reduced resources, being put in a holding pattern, or being deprecated? When possible, ask for a clear answer. A fast “no” is better than a slow “maybe.”
- Your area is suddenly a company priority. On the flip side, you may find yourself going from working in an obscure area to being in the limelight. That may feel wonderful for a moment, but it also comes with a new set of challenges. Your work is now being more heavily scrutinized. Whereas you could take more risks before, now you are suddenly under a microscope. Prepare to do more executive reviews and have more scrutiny placed on your metrics. Dialing into this while keeping your team focused is key.
- It’s not certain where your area falls in the new strategy. Many times, a company will change direction, but it is not clear what that means for your team. In these cases, you may have to create your own place in the new order. This means sitting down with your team and getting alignment on where you fit into the big picture. Remember to get guidance from leadership about where you stand so that you can move forward with as much clarity as possible.
The best way to adapt to a new company direction is to find your place in its new strategy. Clarity is your friend. Communicate with leadership, and help your team think, respond, and align so that you are ready to move forward.
The hardest part about change is that it brings uncertainty. As a result, it will almost always feel hard. You will feel the loss and the real, tangible impact of what is happening.
It’s important to remember that this is completely normal. The best way to deal with change is to look forward, not back. It can be tempting to fight it, and you will naturally want to mourn the way things were before. But then you will need to find a way to move forward constructively. Seek alignment rather than fighting the inevitable. Not only will you see a smoother, more manageable transition, but you may even find yourself in a better place than you ever expected to be.
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