Those of you who know my work know that I am passionate about helping leaders change minds and deal with change in their own organizations. Change is not easy. It’s often quite hard. But last night my mother taught me an important lesson about change. She taught me that we often make it harder than it needs to be by clinging to the past.
I phoned my mom on the way home from work like I do most nights. She was relaxing in her new apartment. It is her second week of independent living in a beautiful senior community. She is telling me about her new furniture, wall art, and window treatments.
Eighteen months ago we buried my father. He was 89. It was a warm day in August. The sun was shining brightly. “Taps” is playing as two young marines in their dress blues gently fold and hand the American flag to my mom. She is gracious. She is strong. She is hanging on with everything she’s got as she walks to the car leaving behind the love of her life.
A few weeks after Dad’s passing, my sister-in-law had to undergo brain surgery to remove a tumor. And when, after months of recovery and rehabilitation, my sister-in-law’s doctors say she will be unable to take care of her large house, my mother suggests that they move into hers, which is smaller and all on one level. She even holds an estate sale to sell her furniture to make room for my brother and his family.
After her home is painted and redecorated she moves to the guest room, but it was hard for her to be there. So, I asked her to come live with my husband and me in New York.
For 10 months, we have a very special time. We laugh and cry. We reminisce about Dad. Yet, when the holidays are over, Mom begins to miss home. She misses her friends, my brothers, their wives, and her grandchildren.
My younger brother invites her to stay with him and my sister in law. She is happy there, and yet she still feels somewhat displaced. She misses having a home of her own, but she is afraid to live alone. So, my brothers begin talking to her about an independent living arrangement. They take her to visit several communities, and when she finds one she likes, I encourage her to get her own place.
In two weeks, mom will turn 90. When I got around to asking her what she wanted for her birthday, she told me she wanted a tea set. “I’m having the girl’s over for tea”, she said and I don’t have beautiful teacups.”
Now, Mom had some very beautiful teacups. She gave some to me and some to my sister-in-law when she sold the contents of her house. I offered to return mine and assured her that my sister-in-law would be happy to do the same. But Mom said she didn’t want them.
“I’m starting over. This is my final chapter and the first time in 90 years that I have ever lived on my own. I want a fresh look,” she explained. “I’ve been in other apartments in this beautiful facility and there is too much furniture and too many things. People are bringing their past into their future. When I’m asked about how I feel about starting over, I tell them the truth: ‘I think about my husband every day and I miss him terribly; he was the love of my life. We had 70 amazing years together. I will never forget my past, but I won’t cling to it.’”
Today I shipped a fancy 21 piece tea set off to my mom for her birthday. The note reads “happy birthday and thank you for being the best role model any girl could have”. After I sent it, I realized that Mom is a great role model for leaders and companies that are grappling with bittersweet change. Like Mom, they need to stop clinging to the past. They need to remember the valuable lessons that they learned, but they need to recognize that the “good old days” are never coming back. Like Mom, they need to start fresh. And they need to start by getting rid of the old furniture, pictures and window dressings.
You may not be drinking from the same old teacups, but are you still wedded to business practices and management tools that are just as dated as the chintz Mom’s neighbors are schlepping around? Are you still laboring under systems and policies that were designed for a larger, slower organization? Instead of trying to shoehorn them into the leaner, meaner company you have become, why not find some new furniture that fits? We don’t always go looking for change; sometimes change finds us.
None of the events that happened to my mom over the last 18 months were anticipated. If she had her way, she wouldn’t have chosen any of it. But stuff happens, and things change when we least expect it. We can be victims of it or we can take it on. My mom is taking it on. She is leading bittersweet change and transforming what is left of her life. And she is setting a great example in the process.
You can follow her on twitter @rosefass.