For children growing up in America during the 1960’s and 70’s, “Gilligan”, “Skipper”, the “Howell’s”, “Ginger, the movie star”, “The Professor” and “Mary Ann”, were household names as key characters in CBS’ hit Television series, Gilligan’s Island.[i] It’s 98 episodes focused around the plot of finding a way to get off the island where they had become shipwrecked on the S.S. Minnow. It is hard to believe that the series was produced on the backlot of the CBS Television Studios with a small pond. It seems disproportionate to the drama and significance of being marooned week in, week out!
This feeling of being marooned is common to many of life’s transitions. We struggle when we find ourselves in between things. One moment we are relatively comfortable, then for what can sometimes seem like an eternity, we find ourselves isolated and disoriented.
Not surprisingly, most leadership literature focuses on how to be successful, more productive and efficient as a leader. There are also countless strategies on how to lead people better, build stronger teams and develop strategies that will result in substantial growth. However, as Daniel Forrester argues in his book, Consider, leaders are rarely encouraged to stop and reflect, but press ahead and maintain momentum as if the activity equates to productivity.[ii]
Much of the literature around succession planning and managing executive transitions focuses on what is next, rather than how to prepare for what is next by laying a stronger foundation for your leadership experience during periods of transition.
While many leaders naturally feel awkward talking about what it is like to be let go from a senior position or the identity issues that emerge when they contemplate retirement, it happens frequently enough for us all to know that it comes with significant pain, confusion, and a profound sense of loss. I still vividly remember my father coming home one night having learned that he was no longer required by the company he had given 36 years of his life to, and the ensuing days and months he would wonder how this could have happened to him.
Many leaders deal with these transitions in very different ways. Some use this time as a period of self-evaluation and self-improvement. What can I learn from this experience? Could I have done something differently? How can I use this time to prepare myself for my next leadership role?
However, because it can be extremely uncomfortable, some leaders choose to avoid a lot of the issues that emerge during this time. It is either too hard or they simply don’t want to focus on the negative, but on what is going to be next. Successful businessman and entrepreneur, Bob Buford, likens these transitions to a person’s “half-time”—a season when people realize they have reached a point in their careers, or where they have experienced a level of success and influence that no longer brings the fulfillment it once did.[iii] He argues this can be a defining moment in the life of leaders who have always been in charge. Suddenly, they are no longer in control. What they do next is critical!
While this can be a confronting time, Buford encourages people to identify what their strengths, passions, and values are, and to carve out some capacity to explore something different other than maintain the status quo. Rather than default to what is comfortable, pursue an alternative course of action that resonates with your heart, not just your head.
What’s the bottom-line?
Here are some important things to be aware of and questions to ask yourself:
- Career transitions—through termination, resignation or retirement—always have corresponding emotions. Don’t deny them or pretend they don’t exist. Acknowledging them as a normal part of the grieving process is the first step towards moving on.
- If you allow your identity and sense of “who am I” to be linked to a strong performance orientation, or what you ‘do’, you will be constantly be at the mercy of other people’s expectations (and your own!).
- Understand your CORE. What are you good at? What strengths or talents to do you have? What are you passionate about? Understand your CAPACITY. How full or cluttered is your life? Try and create some margin in your life to help you evaluate this unfamiliar stage in your life.
[ii] Daniel Patrick Forrester, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
[iii] Bob Buford, Halftime: Moving From Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008).