133. Managing Our Careers in Unpredictable Times with Aenslee Tanner

June 11, 2020


“As we’re seeing nowadays, more and more things are falling into the unpredictable realm. And this is where cause-and-effect cannot be known in advance. We’re only going to be able to connect the dots in hindsight.” — Aenslee Tanner

Clearly, unpredictability is the name of the 2020 game. And we are getting real, just-in-time training on how to manage ourselves, our teams, and our careers during unpredictable and uncertain times.

Ep133 Aenslee TannerSo, the question is, are we completely in the blind here? Is there anything that can help us or are we simply to stumble in the dark?

Aenslee Tanner is a certified leadership coach with a focus on Vertical Development. She works one-on-one with high achievers and high performers to help them become more conscious leaders.

I recently chatted with Aenslee to talk about what she’s seen work during times of sustained unpredictability, what we can do, and what models – if any- we can use to guide our decisions and actions.

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A few highlights from this conversation:

The question is, are you willing to go after it? I love something that’s inspired me a lot throughout my life is this quote from the hockey star, Wayne Gretzky. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” And so we are in these uncharted waters. There is no blueprint here. So are you willing to try stuff? Are you willing to say, “actually, if I want career growth right now, am I willing to put my hand up for that project? And I’m willing to have that conversation with that person that might be able to connect me with that opportunity? Am I willing to do that?”

Equally valid is to say, “you know, what, I’ve been, I am just struggling to keep my head above water right now. The best I can hope for is just to make it through the day to take care of myself, take care of my family, just health and wellbeing, the best I can keep making it, making ends meet.” Maybe that’s the best thing for where you’re at right now.

Here, there’s no blueprint. But luckily, there are folks out there who operate in the realm of complexity theory and systems thinking and so forth. So there are actually tools we can use and frameworks that can support us, at least in navigating these challenging times.

When we’re talking about things that are predictable, we’re talking about cause-and-effect can be known in advance. So we don’t just mean things that are easy. There are plenty of very hard things that are predictable as well. Aerospace engineering. If you want to get a rocket into space, the cause-and-effect is known in advance. It might take you years of training and experience, and, you have to build up lots of expertise to know how to do it, but it is knowable. There is a way to break through the atmosphere and put a rocket in space.

There are certain things where cause-and-effect can be known in advance. Those fall into the predictable realm. However, as we’re seeing nowadays, more and more things are falling into the unpredictable realm. And this is where cause-and-effect just cannot be known in advance. We’re only going to be able to connect the dots in hindsight.

When we’re doing something that’s predictable, it’s really worthwhile trying to seek out, what is the right answer? I really want to narrow my focus, hone in on what really works follow best practice, good practice, listen to the experts. Or build up my own expertise. This can all serve us really well in the predictable round. And we can really think through a problem in our heads and advance. That’s a fail-safe approach.

Basically anything with people, leadership, culture change, you’re in the unpredictable realm. Because there are just too many variables. We cannot understand how they’re all going to interact in advance. We’re only going to know what works in hindsight. Here we don’t want to go narrow. We don’t want to ask what’s the right thing, because you can’t know in advance. We want to go broad. We want to try things we want to do. What’s called safe-to-fail experiments. We want to nudge the system and see how did it respond.

In the predictable realm, we can seek out answers. We can seek out things that give us the clues that say, “Yep, you’re heading towards the right solution.” It’s not the case now in the unpredictable realm. Here, we can really get stuck in analysis paralysis. If we try to sort through what’s the right, what’s the right thing to do here.

I come back to those safe-to-fail experiments. So you don’t need to take more than you can chew, but can you try something to give yourself some data? Can you take a step? Can you try a project? Can you put your hand up for that assignment? Can you speak to that person? Can you talk to a mentor? Can you call up a friend? Can you collect information and plant some seeds out there and see what grows? It’s going to be a surprise. That’s the thing it’s unpredictable. It’s going to be a surprise to see what grows. But you might get some great surprises in there if you’re willing to try some stuff.

The question is what’s possible? What is possible within the given constraints where I’m at right now? With what feels safe enough for me? Because like I said, those experiments are not meant to freak you out. It’s safe-to-fail. It’s like, I can try this and it’s okay if it doesn’t work out.

If you’re feeling like you’re in a really tough spot, a question that can be useful to help you break out is considering what’s the story I’d like to be able to tell about how I handled this.  Like, I like to future-pace myself to a future interview and think, okay. If they were to ask me that question about how I handled the challenge in the past or something, I like to use that for inspiration. What’s the story I’d like to be able to tell?

What you’re talking about is how are you defining success for yourself. Is it something that’s outside of your control, such as the outcome? In an unpredictable situation, you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Or are you focused on the things you can control? What are the seeds I planted? What are the things I tried? What are the lessons I learned? There’s so much wonderful stuff in there, right? Regardless of the outcome, how much you might grow, what you might learn, the connections you might make.

We are so well-served by not operating in isolation. On so many levels, we benefit from being connected to others. So I think networking is absolutely important. And, I think it’s absolutely unpredictable. You’re not guaranteed the result. So are you willing, are you able to take action even though you’re not guaranteed what the outcome is going to be? Is that something you’re willing to do anyway?

I would say I’ve become much bolder. If there’s somebody I want to reach out to, I do it. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m in the same situation I am right now. We’re not conversing. We’re not in contact. So I’ve gotten to the point where I just think, you know what, this is calling to me. I feel like I have something I want to reach out to them and say, I’m going to do it.

Networking doesn’t have to be about making an ask. In fact, especially if it’s your first reach out, it’s probably better offering some human connection.

As catastrophic as COVID has been, it’s woken people up. It’s woken people up to the fact that the world is changing and it’s not changing in a linear fashion. It’s changing exponentially. It’s getting faster and faster.

What I think is more important than ever is that we really take ownership of our own learning and development journeys, our own career paths. Because the days of one job for the rest of our lives until retirement is gone.

Evolution’s a messy process and it doesn’t come in a straight line. So we may see some horrible things on the journey to get there. But I am hopeful that in the broad scheme of things, we’re heading in the right direction.


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