‘You have to say goodbye before you say hello’
Elizabeth Kubler Ross
Beginnings and endings are a natural cycle of school life. As children, parents and teachers, we know the rituals of buying uniform, a new pencil case, attentively scribing a name on a fresh exercise book and finding our place in an unfamiliar classroom.
The end of school life. Signed and tear-stained shirts, a celebratory assembly, sharing appreciation and awards, preparations for a prom, then dancing and emotional release.
When endings are acknowledged and marked, we can move on with freedom.
We are skilled at creating these rituals for young people, but are we as attentive with leaders and colleagues, especially when we perceive difficult circumstances?
Circumstances such as underperformance, health issues, conflict, burnout or budget cuts. It’s tough to deal with the logistics of such endings; both parties may want to move on quickly and hope that time will heal.
But the truth is that if we prioritise short-term comfort, we are putting organisational health at risk over the long term.
I’ll illustrate this through a coaching conversation I had recently with a CEO. She has a bold vision for cultural change, empowering her team to use their initiative so that she has space to play to her strengths as a strategist.
But there is frustration.
They won’t move. They need help all the time for the smallest things. I can’t do everything.
At this point, I could lean in: that does sound hard for you, what can you do differently?
But I am learning to lean out and support people to see the whole system, both here, now and what has gone before.
Who was in the CEO role before you?
The previous CEO was here for 22 years.
What was he like?
He certainly had his own way of doing things. His office was surrounded by filing cabinets and it used to drive me crazy that we had to stand to talk to him. And he used to work on his own pet projects rather than bring people together.
We then created a map of the organisation, placing her, the team, her vision and the former CEO in relation to each other.
What do you notice?
He’s between me and the team. I can’t get through to them. It’s as if he’s still here.
Who or what is your team being loyal to?
They are still loyal to him.
This insight is valuable. But the system will remain stuck until this ending is acknowledged and the former CEO is granted his place so that the organisation can move into the future.
So what can she do?
She can acknowledge the contribution of her predecessor. To offer gratitude for what he gave so that the unresolved dynamics can settle. We experiment with these acknowledgements:
Thank you for what you gave to the organisation.
Thank you for giving me everything that I am now building from.
I acknowledge your contribution.
Now you can leave and take your heart with you.
Perhaps there is further work in giving her team members an opportunity to say goodbye and acknowledge their loyalties and enduring ways of doing things to please him. That would be powerful: the system may well settle and flow again.
So pay attention to your endings. Acknowledge them for what they are. Say thank you, even if it has been difficult. As a leader, create the space for what needs to be said.
Then you, or the system you lead, can be present, resourced and free to move into the future.