Embracing Change: Lessons from an Immigrant

I was a 12 year old in Poland when the communist regime was in full force. People could not openly speak their minds for fear of being caught not obeying the communist rule. My parents would often meet with their friends in private, carefully selecting participants to avoid communist sympathizers, to discuss their political views and concerns for the country. Meetings like that is how an underground social movement called Solidarity got its roots in my home town of Gdansk.

I still vividly remember passing by the striking shipyard workers behind a tall metal fence with their families and supporters just on the other side. A strike in a communist country was a rare sight indeed. I felt proud of my people for taking a stand, but also felt afraid for their safety. Years later, the Solidarity movement eventually led to the fall of communism, but at the time the country was going through much political upheaval. The future was uncertain.

The winter of 1981, my mother decided to make a bold move and flee the country with my younger sister, leaving me and my dad behind. Somehow, we would figure out how to join her later. But things were not easy during this transition. Between 12 and 14, I had to adjust to dramatic changes, ultimately living with my grandmother in a city away from my home, school, and friends. After a long, turbulent two years, including a separation from my dad when Poland declared a police state with martial law, I finally re-joined my family in the suburbs of Chicago to start a new life.

In order to get through those turbulent two years, I had to learn how to embrace change. Multiple times. That experience changed me forever and influenced who I am today. I view change as a positive force that propels us forward. And leads to better things. The pace of change in the legal market is accelerating, yet lawyers in general have a hard time adjusting to change. Here are five strategies I have honed that will help you embrace change and lead your organization into the future.

1. Focus on the ultimate goal. For me the ultimate goal was a new life in a new country. I didn't know which country we would end up in, but I knew that wherever it was it would be better than communist Poland. I always kept that as my guide post, no matter how hard things got. Whenever anyone starts a new project or initiative, there is always a goal, a positive outcome that we expect as a result of the change. The more you focus on that result, the easier the change becomes. If you keep thinking about the old way of doing something, that will only get you to gripes and complaints about the new way. If you keep reminding people that the reason you are doing X is so that your organization can be better at Y, which will ultimately lead to Z, people start feeling good about the changes they are being asked to make. Even if the changes are temporarily painful, the ultimate goal makes the pain worth it. 

2. Measure and report milestones along the way. My family's journey was full of unexpected twists and turns, but each twist and each turn, brought us closer to the ultimate goal. If your change effort is a three-year process that involves multiple steps, be sure to stop along the way and look back at the progress you've made. I advocate measuring your progress before, during, and after a change. While you're in the midst of a large change initiative, it may feel like all you've experienced is pain, but when you actually look at the metrics you might discover you are actually making progress. Don't forget to celebrate those incremental wins. Shout them out to your team. Celebrate them! They will give you the fuel to keep going.

3. Don't forget the silver lining. It sucked for me to be stuck in war-state Poland with my parents in another country, but having some newly-found freedom and reduced constraints as a teenager was not such a bad thing. In any change situation, there are bound to be negative side effects. But usually nestled among them are some good things. It might take a bit of extra effort to see them at first, but when you stop to think about what is going on, you can usually find them. Seek them out and shine a light on them. 

4. Look for role models. We knew of other families who made similar journeys before us. You may have done another change project five years ago. And you may remember the pain and the reward. Remind yourself and your team about that success. Or you may have a colleague or a competitor who implemented a new initiative that turned out well for them. Look to those examples for inspiration and a reason to keep going.

5. Keep a positive attitude. I am an optimist. I see the glass as half full. At the end of the day, it all boils down to your attitude. If you are leading the change effort and you are the one grumbling and complaining about it, be sure that your people will follow your lead. If you are positive they will be positive too. And that circles right back to point #1— focus on the ultimate goal. There is a reason you decided to make a change in the first place. That reason is positive. If it weren't you wouldn't have started going down this path. So brush those Negative Nellies and Debbie Downers aside and keep on marching forward.

Change is a good thing. Really. Use these strategies to guide your law firm, legal department, or legal team through change to new or improved legal services.  Change may be temporarily painful but it ultimately leads to better things. And all of our clients want that!