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Where Did You Move My Cheese?

“If you want to make lasting change in your life, practice starting over”

Phillip Moffit

In August, 1998, I started my commercial mortgage banking company. It was a dream realized for me. Two weeks later the finance industry dramatically declined due to a devalued Russian currency. There was a large fall in oil prices. All of this impacted the U.S. economy. It became difficult to originate commercial mortgage loans----my new business venture.

During that time I read the book, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, a story about mice and people looking for cheese, a symbol for people of success, happiness and goals. The pursuit of the cheese was accomplished by traveling through a maze, a symbol of a company, organization, or community. The premise is that when our cheese is moved from where it was in the maze to a new place, we must find it or create new paths to obtain the cheese. Following the founding of my new company in 1998 and the downturn in the economy my cheese had moved and I needed to find it---FAST.

Mice locate cheese easily since they can smell it. But people allow emotions and beliefs to get in their way, which prevent them from accepting change as they continue to keep looking for the “cheese” in the same area of the maze. Fearing change, we continue to go to where the cheese was, hoping it might still be there, versus accepting change with a new attitude and doing what we need to do to locate the cheese in its new location.

I have been through many downturns in my business career including the Great Recession of 2008-2009. The Coronavirus downturn is like nothing I have experienced. The changes have been dramatic and rapid. II realized early that dusting off my downturn playbook might not work.

For the last seven years, the cheese had stayed right where it had always been. In March, 2020 the cheese was moved very far away from that place----and I have had to scramble through a complicated maze to find it again, and frankly I’m still looking for it. There are lessons from past economic crises which apply to this crisis and could help you manage through your maze:

Someone Moved Your Cheese.

Accept it. Deal with it. Get over it. Stop pretending that your cheese (business, happiness, serenity) is anywhere other than where the new place is. The maze is different. The cheese moved. How to get to the cheese has changed. Go find it.

This advice may seem harsh, especially when our lives have been upended and the changes have been difficult to accept. Here’s the softer side of this: be aware of your surroundings. We all have more time to see, think feel and just be. What is this extra time teaching you? What I’ve learned about myself is prior to this crisis I did things to feel productive rather than actually doing things which would accomplish my goals. Get really clear on what has changed during this crisis in your professional and personal life. You have roles and responsibilities in your life, parent, work associate, manager, business owner. What have you learned and how will you embrace these roles so people can depend upon you now? The sooner we realize that things have changed and recognize how they’ve changed, the sooner we can reposition ourselves to adapt. Only then can we hope to achieve success and greater happiness now and in the future. Resistance to change is futile; Denial for any extended period of time could be catastrophic.

No matter what business you are in, your business has changed. What your employees or work associates and family need from you is different now. Your customers’ businesses have changed. What can you do to help employees/associates and customers through this change now? How do you need to tactically change how you do your work now. How will you recognize these changes so that you can respond in a way which is helpful to others and you so that you will be successful and happy?

Lead, Lead Lead

If you are reading this blog you are a leader. There is some area in your life in which you are leading. While you might not be a CEO of a big company, you are a leader in your professional or personal life in some way. There are people in your life who depend upon you to live up to responsibilities, have the answers and do what has to be done. At the very least you are a leader in your life.

There’s a big difference between simply managing and truly leading. Managing is directing people, guiding them on getting things done, approving expense reports, answering questions or approving time off. Leading is taking on the role of saying “Here’s where we are going” and have the confidence that it’s the best place to go. Leading is taking the risk to set the tone and that you know where to go and will take people there---lead by example, because you are going there too. You are at the front of the parade.

Now is a great time to show YOURSELF as a leader. Leaders set the tone and demonstrate how they will get through this crisis. Leaders inspire others to look at this change and see opportunities to move in a different and better direction than one month ago. They have the courage to stay positive at a time when there is so much negativity and uncertainty. Be that leader. The people in your life are depending upon you.

Relationships Matter

Since this pandemic happened there has been a shift in the pace of life and what we now expect. The car you are driving has reduced speed from 60 mph to 20 mph and you have downshifted from fifth gear to first gear. What have you learned? Are you still looking for cheese where it is now longer located?

We have exited a largely “transaction-oriented” business climate to valuing relationships more. Before the Coronavirus, my clients and I would exchange pleasantries, but delved right into, ”OK, what do we need to do to move this deal along?” Now I call my clients without any expectation that they will do anything for me. I just ask how they are doing. I listen. I help them. While this can be exhausting, listening to clients’ problems and issues and offering my market knowledge and advice, that’s what I must do now. During this situation I help my clients with their problems, support them enhancing the relationship without an expectation of transacting business.

Accept the Uncertainty, Stay Aware

We are all reading more than ever about this virus, the effect on our people and economy. The Trump/Dr. Brix/Dr. Fauchi/VP Pence press conferences are long but I watch them. We do not know when things will be the way they were before…perhaps not for a long time. We don’t know when we will be able to get in our cars and drive to the office, greet our associates, turn on our work computers, make a cup of coffee and begin working. We don’t know when we will be able to go into the world and not see masks, not worry about maintaining a distance of six feet from others. I don’t know when I’ll have my next meal with a favorite client. One thing I do know, I won’t take a lot of things I used to do for granted any longer.

Decide How You Will be Different --- Create a Stop Doing List

Anyone who has seen the first season of the series “The Walking Dead” knew this situation could happen. But we didn’t realize what that meant. It can be hard for me to think I’m doing a lot as a U.S. citizen, Ohio citizen and Cincinnati citizen by simply staying home. I often feel quite helpless and like I’m not doing enough during my days and must remind myself that I really am doing a lot.

What is on your “stop doing list” now? These are the things you were doing before all this happened that didn’t need to be done and doesn't need to be done in the future. Perhaps it was busy work, or something you did out of habit which no longer fits into any of your goals right now----which should be something like: mental/emotional/physical health, spouse/kids/family, home, perhaps faith, friends, work, fun/joy/play. Anything you were doing which doesn't fit into those areas probably should be looked at closely in terms of future value in meeting your goals.

Take Care of Yourself

If I didn’t stop myself I would work non-stop for 10 hours a day. I have to set limits around my time or I will get exhausted and not take care of myself. My husband and I have taken long walks almost every day. We talk about mundane stuff which is on my mind and he’ll talk about mundane stuff on his mind and each of us work hard to listen to the other. Naps are good. Getting fresh air is good. Listening to your favorite music or reading a book that has collected dust on your bookshelf.

We shouldn’t feel like we are losers if we don’t take up some new hobby or are highly productive right now. Even though we may feel like we are doing less, there are profound stresses right now and it is a difficult time. It may take a big adjustment to transition back to normal work routines.

People are drinking and eating more to cope. As much as you can, moderate your drinking and eating. Self-care involves feeling your feelings around this, talking to friends and family, exercise, resting, finding joy and play in your life not over-indulging in food and drink that your body does not need.

Head Toward the Cheese, Where it is Now

I’m hoping this blog might be somewhat stale or obsolete in six months when I read it again and say, “yeah that was a really tough time, very weird time…but it’s kind of back to normal now”. I hope I will not forget the people who lost their lives to this virus and their families and friends. I hope I will not forget that we are a country of people who really are united and most of us want what’s best for each other. For now though, I’m just keeping my senses on high alert as I walk toward the new location of my cheese.

If you found this article helpful and would like to get a regular dose of career and personal improvement tips for women, subscribe to my blog and tune into my Podcast, LeadingShe.

About LeadingShe

A podcast in which executive women who are leaders in their industries, companies, and most importantly...their lives, share inspiring stories about the obstacles they've overcome to succeed in a male-dominated world. Host & Creator: Susan Branscome

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