We were going to build a lifeboat. The CEO and I knew our seven-store, high-end, retail jewelry chain was experiencing declining sales in the all-important Christmas season of 2007. We knew the bank was worried about our leveraged position and wanted assurances the credit line would be paid off. We knew that some stores would require shuttering to preserve inventory and cut expenses. But the plan was for the two of us to rebuild, even if it meant launching a lifeboat for survival. However, the bank shocked us by calling our notes and seizing our inventory.
We had no choice but to fire all the employees. And the next day I was blindsided by a call, where I heard my friend’s voice say, “There just not a place for you Rich. I’m sorry.”
The impact of blindside transitions.
Some transitions can be planned for, like the retirement of a CEO or the relocation of a nonprofit’s national headquarters. But other transitions crash into us unexpectedly, from our blind side, like a 240-pound linebacker lunging from outside our field of vision.
But other transitions crash into us unexpectedly, from our blind side, like a 240-pound linebacker...
Blindside transitions can affect a nonprofit organization just the same as a business, such as when one or more major donors suddenly interrupt their giving due to unforeseen circumstances. Senior leadership may change the strategic direction, leaving certain employees without a role.
When blindside transitions happen to nonprofit executives they knock the wind out of us like a punch to the solar plexus.
As an executive recruiter, I’m often called in to an organization after an unexpected transition. A vice president has resigned, a CEO has been forced out following some behind-the-scenes political tumult. More often than not, either the executive is surprised, or the organization is caught unawares, or sometimes both!
To be sure, a whole field of study has grown up around planned succession, with a growing awareness of the dynamics that boards and incoming CEOs ignore at their peril. Unplanned succession lacks a similar body of literature. Yet my decades of leadership experience tell me it happens far more often than anticipated change. To date, I’ve never had a class that taught me how to fire or be fired; nor how to overcome bitterness when forced out unfairly from an organization I love. These are the challenges we face in blindside transitions.
How can I maintain vision and retain poise during unexpected vocational changes?
It’s tough to see God in the turbulence. I’ve always marveled at the “duh”-sciples in the Gospels, who never quite seem to get things right as they follow their Rabbi. When he is asleep at the stern of the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee, they’re awake and beside themselves with anxiety. When he is agonizing in prayer to the point of sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, they are dead asleep.
Jesus’ rebuke fits me well, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” My natural response to a blindside transition often seems to be total panic when Jesus is serenely at peace; when true danger calls for vigilance I fall asleep at the wheel. In my flesh, I have responded all wrong to blindside transitions, and so I offer the following reflections.
Four reflections on responding well to blindside transitions:
- Respond, don’t react.
Anger, bitterness, rage and malice only make a firing worse, even if it is unjustified. As leaders we are “response-able” so we must find a quiet place to gather our thoughts instead of lashing out or seeking revenge. To gain a vision of what God wants out of the situation, we need to be quiet enough to hear his voice. William Bridges calls this space we create after an ending the “neutral zone.”
“The essence of life takes place in the neutral zone phase of transition. It is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity and innovative ideas can come to life and flourish,” says Susan Bridges.
- Take a checkup from the neck up.
It’s not what happens to me that determines my reality, it’s how I think about what happens to me. I come into any blindside transition with certain beliefs about myself. If I encounter automatic negative thoughts, they are likely based on lies I believe about myself. “You had this coming. You’re a failure. You always blow it.”
William Bridges differentiates between the change (getting fired for instance) and how I think about that change (transition). “Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about.” (Bridges, 1991) A wise friend or mentor; a coach or a trained therapist can help spot maladaptive beliefs that haunt us following a blindside transition.
- Attend to your grief.
Losing a job, a church or a beloved employee isn’t easy. Even if others can glibly tell you “everything happens for a reason,” or “God won’t give you more than you can bear” unforeseen loss is hard, and can stir up previous loss or trauma. Gaining the support of friends, family, a coach or therapist during this season can be crucial to recovery.
- Embrace new beginnings.
“Getting to the next level always requires ending something, leaving it behind, and moving on,” said Henry Cloud in his excellent book Necessary Endings (Harper Business, 2011.) Blindside transitions give us opportunity to exercise resilience as leaders.
Blindside transitions give us opportunity to exercise resilience as leaders.
Recent research on resilience has shown that children can be discipled into these traits (Bell, 2020). “A resilient leader is a person who sees failures as temporary setbacks they can recover from quickly. They maintain a positive attitude and a strong sense of opportunity during periods of turbulence,” wrote Joseph Folkman in his April 2017 Forbes article “New Research: 7 Ways to Become a More Resilient Leader.” The Bible calls this ability to persevere in the face of adversity, “hupomone” Greek for “steadfastness, constancy, endurance.”
There was no lifeboat for me in 2008. I finished my doctorate, got a job at a Christian college and started a whole new phase of my life. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, because Yahweh Roi (the God who sees) knew my future and gave me peace to face the shock of a blindside transition.
Now with the Apostle Paul, I affirm: “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” (Rom. 5:3-4, NASB).
Dr. Rich Kidd loves to encourage others to greatness and has ample opportunity to do that as a Founding Partner at Mission:Leadership. In prior roles as a senior recruiter at both Slingshot Group and The Dingman Company, he specialized in finding executive-level leaders for key positions in a broad array of industries including Christian nonprofits, large churches, Christian schools and colleges, and mission-minded businesses. Learn more about Rich’s work today at www.missionleadership.org.