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The Other Side Of The Table.

Nov 07, 2023

“Going to the dark side, I hear,” a colleague said to me as I made my way down the corridor of offices for the last time. “Now you’ll be one of them.”

Not exactly how I hoped to conclude my last day with an organization and position I loved. You see, I was preparing to embark on a journey to the unknown. The unknown to many in my profession, that is. I was transitioning my career from the higher education philanthropy and nonprofit sector to that of private equity. Behemoth-sized, for-profit technology. Gasp!

Although I was staying in higher education philanthropy, and continuing to devote my expertise to the same greater good, it was a big shift nonetheless. That final comment – although the source was far from genuine in any other previous interaction – got me thinking about what led me to that moment. And why.

It’s no secret that our experiences tend to shape our perspectives. For better or for worse, of course. Ideally, a commitment to continuous learning, listening to understand, and a growth mindset will help to balance our experience-to-perspective ratio, ensuring our lens doesn’t always remain singularly tinted.

But that requires work. Introspective work. Nobody is going to hover over our shoulder and tell us to do it. It’s easy to push it off our ever-growing task list.

Unless, we change our environment.

One of the most fascinating business-related examples of this played out in the airline industry during the initial days and months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course other sectors such as education, healthcare, and hospitality ranked similarly high on list of overwhelming disruption. The airlines, however, went on to share applicable lessons from their massive pivot with other sectors, as seen in widespread media coverage throughout 2020 and 2021.

As an industry, the airlines didn’t do an introspective deep dive prior to the pandemic and ask themselves how they could reshape every single aspect of their business all at once. They didn’t conduct intensive studies assessing how they would respond to losing billions in revenue overnight. They certainly didn’t ask themselves before making a big decision what they would do if thousands of employees and their families were hospitalized at the same time.

But that’s exactly what happened when COVID-19 hit. Their environment changed dramatically and thrust them into a collective new world where they were forced to take what they knew from experience, apply it in a new space and in a different way to make decisions that would let them survive or result in a shut-down.

Fortunately, my environmental change was far less dramatic. It was, however, the best gift I could have given to my career.

Early in my working life, I viewed someone’s long-tenure with an organization or in a job with awe. I aggrandized individuals in positions of power that had 10, 20, sometimes even 30 years of experience in one place. That was until one of those people looked me square in the eye as they were leaving their post of 15 years, and said, “I stayed too long. Don’t make this mistake. Opportunities are closed to me now because I don’t have diversity of place and space.”

I was shocked. 

Never did I imagine a world in which that leader I aspired to be would face any closed doors. Yet, that’s exactly what they faced.

That doesn’t mean the immeasurable contributions and years of service in one place does not have value. It doesn’t mean their work was not impactful. And it doesn’t mean their experiences didn’t shape perspectives that can be devoted elsewhere.

It does mean, however, that sometimes in order to grow, we have to get up and go to the other side of the table. We have to plant ourselves there. Live there. Be there. See from that seat. Learn in that seat. Contribute from that seat. Fail in that seat. Succeed in that seat.

I’ve made this shift to the other side of the table twice in my career. Once early, and once later. And each time people would ask how I survived the transition. I would usually respond by describing my adjustment to the stark differences in tactical aspects such as the pace of work, the expectations and metrics, the size and volume. In reality, how I survived the transition was more about seeing my life’s work through a new lens.

I could automatically relate to people at different institutions from which I found myself sitting across the table because I had sat in their seats before. I understood their jobs, their challenges, their day-to-day life. I could build bridges between two previously separate worlds, enabling greater understanding and more efficient problem-solving.

At the same time, I could teach my new colleagues about a different perspective outside of their professional experience, giving them insight into how to meet the needs of their constituents more effectively. I could learn from them the nuances about for-profit business I couldn’t possibly have understood before as an outsider.

The table then became more interesting. More full. More beautiful. One that more people wanted to join. 

Although I could have sought these experiences out on my own as part of personal growth exercises, it’s likely I wouldn’t have invested the time and energy. Changing your environment changes your experience. Changing your experience changes your perspective. Changing your perspective changes your approach. Changing your approach can change your life. Changing your life can help others change their lives. If that’s what happens when you go to the “dark side”, then it looks like I made the right decision.

Michael Macrae can help you easily navigate the steps to simplicity.

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