“Turn and face the strange…”

I’d had day-dreams about leaving the law before. (Don’t we all from time to time?).  I don’t mean to belittle the thinking by using the word day-dream. But that was what these thoughts had been. I’d discussed alternatives with my family and friends. But, if I’m honest, I had never really considered anything different. Not properly. I was too rigid in my thinking; too commoditised about my career; too accepting that there were no realistic alternatives.

Like many other lawyers, I’d viewed my career as a linear progression, not an accumulation of wide ranging skills and experience (see my previous thoughts on this topic here and here).

I’d always felt a strong pull towards developing people and my roles in various organisations had satisfied this pull, to a certain extent. Fear of the unknown had certainly played its part, as well as the ease of sticking with the status quo.  So, I’d stayed put and carried on my default mode of working hard to please others.

However, one Sunday morning in 2014, something changed.

Further economic sanctions had been declared against Russia and the Ukraine as a result of activity in the Ukraine. I was in charge of a legal team with responsibility for supporting the emerging markets sales, structuring and trading businesses. Uncertainty was rife. What type of economic activity was captured by the sanctions? Our business colleagues pressed us for advice. My blackberry started blinking as the emails flew around.

I knew that my team were more than capable of handling this situation. In fact, my deputy had demonstrated terrific leadership and technical skill following the previous initial imposition of economic sanctions. My role had been very limited.

But when I read about the further economic sanctions on a Sunday morning, something felt different.

The easiest way to describe it was the sinking feeling, which we all feel from time to time, when it’s Sunday night or the final day of holiday ahead of a day back in the office.

Multiplied by a hundred.

I didn’t want to go to work. Where once there’d been butterflies of excitement about the novelty of the days and week ahead, I now had a sick hollow feeling. Now, I knew that my team would step up once again and that my presence wasn’t really required.

But I also knew that something had changed – that this incident – and my reaction to it – could not be ignored. I wasn’t able to suppress my emotions and simply write off another Sunday as a case of the pre-work ‘blues’. And I knew how I wanted to fill that hollow feeling.

Although he wrote about organisations, John Kotter’s work on change (Leading Change) is insightful into my situation. Kotter outlines an Eight Step Process of Successful Change. Step 1 of Kotter’s Steps was to “Create a Sense of Urgency”. In an organisational setting, he refers to the need to help others see the need for change and the importance to act immediately.

Interestingly, in his follow-up book, The Heart of Change, Kotter added an important new insight: that people are less likely to change themselves and others based on data and analysis than on compelling experiences. In other words, feelings often trump rational thinking.

With hindsight, I can see that the incident on that Sunday morning was the compelling incident that provided me with a sense of urgency. I recognised the need for change. And, rather than suppressing that need and risking the negative impact on well being that lies with all suppression, I decided to take action.

So, on Monday, I took the first step and approached my boss. I explained that I wanted and needed a change. I felt a strong push away from being a lawyer – and that the pull towards spending the next stage of my career on developing people was too compelling to ignore.

Now, I am not about encouraging all lawyers to re-assess the law. Working with me will not necessarily result in a change in career!

But I am about encouraging and supporting others to become aware of signs that tell them something needs adjusting. And changes that they choose to make can range from tiny tweaks to seismic shifts.

Are you ignoring any catalysts for change? What will it take to create that sense of urgency in you?

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