What to do when there’s nothing to be done

Seven months ago, I was given an incredible gift, although it didn’t feel like a gift at the time.  A strategic shift at my employer of 12 years meant that my innovation strategy expertise was no longer required.  There was no immediate financial concern because I wasn’t being laid off.  As my calendar cleared, my email inbox emptied and my phone sat quiet, I had many feelings, almost all of them bad.  I had been at the epicenter of an exciting cultural and structural change in a large organization, but now I felt excluded, disrespected and devalued.  And the more I tried to hang on to what had been lost, the worse I felt.

A few weeks in, I sat with a former boss, bitterly complaining about my situation when he said, “So what you’re telling me is that your employer is going to pay you to do nothing.”  “Yes!” I answered incredulously, full of righteous angst.  “Debbie,” he said.  “You need to learn how to slack.”  He was right.  I had to let go.  After so many years of showing up for all the meetings, passionately contributing and fully engaged, half-drunk on the flow, it was time to go cold turkey.  My participation wasn’t required or desired now. And at first, that hurt.

But then I jolted myself out of victim mode and reframed the situation.  I was going to have a steady income while I got to do whatever I wanted.  A sabbatical! I hadn’t even dreamed of taking a sabbatical during my career. But now, I was facing my very own blank page.  It was terrifying.  And fantastic.  And at first, I didn’t know where to start, but I figured it out.  Today, I’d like to share some suggestions for what to do when there’s nothing to be done about your disintegrating situation at work.

  • Appreciate the good parts – Yes, it is extremely stressful knowing that your paycheck will eventually stop and wondering how you’ll pay the bills.  But make sure you notice the good parts.  I’ve been able to pick my daughter up from school everyday at 3pm.  That’s never happened before and, once I get back into the swing of things, it probably won’t happen again.  This bubble has been a gift. Find those silver linings in your situation and intentionally appreciate them.
  • Say “YES!” – Waiting for the phone to ring and the email to chime will just make you feel worse, so open yourself up to everything you didn’t have time for before.  If someone offers you an opportunity to do something, no matter how outside of your comfort zone, go ahead and say “yes.”  That’s how I found myself creating an aggressive 10-year growth plan for my son’s school, running strategy and execution as we more than doubled its size over the summer and planned for another doubling next year.  It’s impossible to underestimate what a huge shift this was.  Over the previous 2 years, I’d literally phoned in from the road for parent-teacher conferences.  The other parents had never seen me. But I said “yes” and it’s been a great experience.
  • Apply your expertise to new situations – Most of the time, skills and experience are more broadly applicable than you might think. I quickly learned that the expertise I developed at one large organization is completely transferable to different industries and vastly differently sized organizations.  You are going to need to figure out what’s next and expanding your view of the possibilities will be a huge help.
  • “Be patient with yourself while you wait for the epiphany” – A very wise gentleman in my network shared this advice with me as I confessed my stress around not having my next steps completely figured out.  If you are putting one foot in front of the other and opening yourself up to new possibilities, the epiphany is on its way.  Try to appreciate and even enjoy the journey.

I’ve resolved to help organizations use what I’ve learned to be more successfully innovative via my new consultancy, Blank Page Advisory.  In my next few blog posts, I’ll discuss some best practices that you can use for your own blank page, no matter who you are or what you are trying to build.  In the meantime, please contact me if your organization wants to turn a blank page into something amazing.


The Blank Page

I love the blank page.  I see a horribly renovated row house in a cool neighborhood and decide to turn it into an amazing B&B, even though I’ve never owned property before. When a senior leader says “It would be great if we could create a thought leadership platform about healthcare” and I don’t know what a thought leadership platform is, my stomach aches and I’m exhilarated and I put one foot in front of the other until I’ve created something great.  When I had to transform the culture of a 5,000 employee division of a global insurance company and I had no idea where to start, I just started.  To me, figuring it out is the best part of the journey.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that for some, the blank page is terrifying and baffling.    I’ve seen individuals and teams tread water for months and years not knowing how to take the right steps (sometimes ANY steps) to putting something on that blank page.  The blank page is an amazing opportunity to create something perfectly aligned with your customer’s needs.

While I’m out filling the blank page (and helping others do so), my husband is the CEO of our busy household.  When I told him I was thinking of blogging, he asked me to explain what I do, because people ask him and he doesn’t know how to answer them.

I’m a blank page innovator.  I take on the biggest challenges, dive in and talk to customers or stakeholders to understand them, then create solutions to meet the need.  Sometimes I do this directly as an entreprenuer, but for more than a decade I’ve been an Intrapreneur (an entreprenuer within a large organization) and then an executive building a corporate innovation function.  Inside a large organization, I worked to transform the corporate culture so it was more nurturing to new ideas and the people who incubate them.  I built structures and processes that support other intraprenuers as they disrupt the status quo with their own blank page innovations.

In this blog, I hope to share some of the insights I’ve derived along the way and begin to fill my next blank page.