On Being Uncomfortable. Very Uncomfortable.

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I don’t know about your world; ours is getting rocked. Technology is changing, the competitors are changing, I’m convinced the very structure and business model of the industry are changing. Threats and opportunities are everywhere. Ponder the wondrous technological change taking place everywhere around us, for example, and you have to be inspired. But if you’re like most people, if you think hard about what it might mean for your industry (and your job), it’s pretty easy to be terrified. I have no difficulty admitting that I’m about 20% inspired and about 80% terrified. But whichever it is, I’m very puzzled as to why we react the way we do to the changes sweeping toward us.

We read about change and change management everywhere of course. We talk about embracing change, stepping outside our comfort zone, building consensus, continuous learning, trying new ideas even if they don’t work out. But there is only one consistent aspect that I can find to real change: Most people hate it, and will resist it with everything they have, even when its inevitability is staring them in the face. They don’t call it a comfort zone for nothing, I guess. It’s easier to stay inside your cave and slowly starve than to step outside and get eaten.

What I find really interesting is that it doesn’t matter whether the change is driven by a threat or an opportunity (you’d think both would be strong motivators) – because both upend the status quo, the existing order and relative status, the way of the world that we are used to. When you’ve finally found a secure place for yourself in the world, even big opportunities are threats.

And there are some paradoxes. You would think that people would feel more secure trying a change when a company is healthy. There’s more money to invest, there are more personal opportunities available, and it’s easy to retreat if the change doesn’t work. Instead, the company’s health is seized on as incontrovertible proof that this disruptive new idea is not needed at all. We’re doing just fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (a seven word prescription for bankruptcy if ever there was one).

So, where do you stand? I think it’s akin to how everyone thinks they are a better than average driver: We all think that it’s the other person who resists change. I’d suggest that there are several reliable signs that you’re really and truly outside of your professional comfort zone: Your stomach is in knots, you’re having second thoughts, and more than a few people are telling you that it’ll never work.

At EllisDon, we continue to hire people far too much on the basis of their experience and conventional qualifications. We should be hiring much more on the basis of courage. On the drive to move forward, alone. On understanding of people and trends, rather than expertise with accepted industry practices.

I don’t think EllisDon’s next CEO needs to be a builder. It needs to be the person who has cracked this riddle. How do you convince people not just to accept change, but be invigorated rather than threatened? It’s driving me right crazy.

Thanks for reading.