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Perfectly Pivotable - Mastering Change

I doubt that I am alone in feeling the uncanny way the world pushes you to pivot. Yes, I said pivot, the cringe-worthy buzzword used in every business school and hailed as the “go-to” way to excel as an organization. But, on a personal level, change is brutal. Some of my professional “pivots” brought apocalyptic levels of anxiety or generated a bomb-like fallout. Why do we hide the personal struggle directly tied to making these professional pivots from one another?

As a kid, I loved the heroes’ stories of triumph over adversity that were played out over late night plates of food. Since my mother ran an oil and gas recruiting agency, the heroes discussed were the candidates, executives, and companies in her professional orbit rather than Greek gods. Psh, who are we kidding? It was good old fashioned, delicious business gossip. Plain and simple. To a born business nerd like myself, I leaned close to her as she wove the juicy details out with a rum and coke in her hand, “Can you believe that the CEO pulled it off? He built one hell of a company in a downturn by changing direction. Unbelievable.”

Pivots were common themes in these stories, but packaged as the less slick sounding term, change. These stories followed similar patterns, heroes struggling through tough, seemingly-impossible situations requiring change, but it almost always culminated in success. While I still enjoy these stories of triumph, I have to say that living my own professional storyline can be a hell of a lot less glamorous. Not all the professional adjustments that I’ve made have garnered success. Crap, some landed me at that personal right of passage, rock bottom. If you’re not familiar with it, lucky you.

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One of my first personal valleys was filled with bowls of bland, chunky polenta (mighty cheap food mind you) while living the dream of an internet startup founder in my twenties. I chose after college to chase the hero’s story of internet business founder, which in my mind meant moving to California. Duh, it was the only place to launch an internet company. In hindsight, untrue assumption. Rather than the lifestyle of San Francisco founders depicted in glossy cover stories of Fast Company, I was pathetically broke sharing a moldy Victorian house in Oakland with my sister, seven girls, and a voyeuristic landlord in the carriage house. Living the dream baby! Commuting into the city on the BART subway seemed romantic, but in practicality it smelled of urine and never went according to plan. Honestly, nothing went according to plan. Returning from a failed business development attempt at SXSW, Whitney and I found ourselves with a note from our roommate stating, “Had to leave before the end of the month. Can’t pay rent.” I should also mention she was my college friend and employee at the time. Lovely moment. Rock bottom does have the tendency to bring hard, fast clarity. For the first time, I understood professional choices can have personal ramifications. Still these aspects are often removed from the profiles I peruse in popular business publications. Why are they a secret? Aren’t we robbing each other of lessons learned?

Change is difficult, and sometimes ugly. In 2020, I have weathered changes brought upon me by the pandemic crisis like so many other professionals. But who would know? Sadly, I reduce these dramatic and significant changes into sanitized narratives shared with others in my professional life. Furthermore, I often leave out the sometimes traumatic personal ramifications associated with each professional adaptation. While these tidy stories make conversations easier and less awkward for the listener, they strip me of having meaningful connection with my peers. Well, I am done with this mediocre strategy. Now, more than ever in my life, I crave honest and open conversation - tapping another person’s personal experience for clues on how I too could thread the needle of change. So, I have decided to open the door to sharing the full, messy, often weird stories of change with my professional peers. I will venture to break the ice so that others too can feel inspired to have bold conversations and venture forth with newfound connections, resources, and ideas.

Take our founders story for Iridium, the sanitary version depicts our passion for helping individuals and companies to work better together throughout our careers effortlessly leading to our forming Iridium Consulting Company. While this is technically accurate, it is not giving voice to the hard knock, non-linear journey that led us both to this point. We glossed over the very critical pivots (there have been many) required to survive and thrive.

Initially in 2019, we dedicated ourselves to recruiting exclusively for the energy sector. It was where we cut our teeth as our family’s fourth generation in oil and gas. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Six months into business, the worst downturn in a lifetime hit the energy market. Unfortunately, our crystal ball never hinted of this potential pitfall. Enter our first pivot to diversify outside of the oil and gas industry we knew and thrived in. My initial thought, “You have to be effing kidding me.” We had spent years learning the ins and outs of the industry from a technical standpoint and building strong networks of fabulous individuals and organizations. It was devastating to consider working in a new, unfamiliar industry. Was it even possible? Remember our internet startup days. Yes, PTSD-like scenarios came to mind incessantly. Honestly, Whitney and I beat ourselves up with a toxic combination of guilt, sorrow, and apprehension for weeks. Not days, but weeks. It was in this dark moment that we reached out to those in our “tribe” of individuals for clarity and advice. Unlike in my twenties, I didn’t need to struggle alone. But, these were professional contacts. It goes against conventional thought to share your insecurities with your professional peers. Interestingly, I noticed that the quality of input from our tribe was directly correlated to our ability to be open about our struggle. Magic happened. Gratefully, a former oil and gas client who made his own difficult, scary transition presented us with a chance to dip our toes into a new sector with the help of a a friendly face.

In case we were too comfortable with just the recruiting game, the universe delivered yet another crisis on the heels of the energy downturn, the pandemic. Cue the largest layoffs in our nation’s history (we may need to upgrade our crystal ball). Fewer companies needed hiring assistance. Okay, that is an understatement…almost no one needed recruiting assistance. We were deemed irrelevant. Useless. This was a gut punch to us, as we considered our sole value tied to our knack for finding top talent. While “doom scrolling” unemployment numbers one afternoon on our hunter green, office couch, we were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of concern for individuals that were being forced to embark on job searches in this extremely difficult climate. We knew all too well that unemployment can quickly strip an individual of their self-worth. Now there were millions of people being catapulted into the jobless abyss. Pure madness. Surprisingly, we had a thought. This could be our time to help. While we waited for hiring to pick back up, why not be useful? What did that look like? Up until then, I only viewed myself as a recruiter, but we made the decision to share our knowledge on job hunting with others. Thus, our workshops and coaching services were conceived and launched. 

Similarly, we seized a chance with four clients out of state to try on new consulting work. One client called with an odd request, “So, we know you do recruiting…but I need help with handling our people in the company better. You know that onboarding, retention stuff. What do you think?” Initially, Whitney and I felt serious “head trash” about working on consulting projects. We are recruiters. What do we know about improving organizations through enhancing their people assets? I was forced to unexpectedly expand my own, archaic narrative of my professional capabilities. Sounds simple. Let me tell you changing my mind about my capabilities is insanely difficult for me. But, I did learn to never underestimate your personal capacity to evolve. I’d love to tell you that it was a breeze but learning the balancing act of a consultant was not graceful. Several stumbles and bruises were sustained. But, damn we are adaptable. It’s been a fun ride.

Throughout these adventurous pivots, I have leaned into my close professional network for advice as a sounding board. Often these conversations were startlingly close to therapy sessions (although cheaper and included wine). Truly, the discussions were a bi-directional path for us to foster the courage in each other to try new strategies on for fit, flex our ability to adapt in hopes of achieving success.

While this founder’s story is not easily told in the span of an elevator ride, it should still be shared unapologetically. We could all use fewer platitudes and more open, awkward discussions. These struggles are what make the pivot story so compelling and a useful learning tool for others in our community. We are all traveling our own path with our own stories of pivots. Let’s get to sharing.

Additional Pivot Learning: Harvard Business Review's How Businesses Have Successfully Pivoted During The Pandemic