How many times have you heard that question? For me, I am sure the answer is “in the hundreds.” It began as a young boy who wanted to become an architect. And, it has come back any number of times since then in both personal and professional situations.
What’s your Plan B?
I have now wrestled with this question and the best way to answer it for more than four decades. For me, the wrestle isn’t about “what” my Plan B is, but whether I should have one; for my clients, the wrestle is whether I should recommend that they have one.
Why wouldn’t I have–or recommend–a Plan B? Here is my reasoning. I will illustrate it with my own circuitous career path.
In fourth grade I discovered graph paper. How cool! I could draw rooms, design buildings. Suddenly my perspective went from logic and words (I was good on lined paper, but not an artist) to more creative visual thinking. Architecture became a passion that stayed with my through high school. I had a drawing board mounted under the window in my bedroom, and would spend hours lost in designing. I took mechanical drawing every semester, advancing my skills. The money I earned after school went into buying drafting supplies and books on famous architects. On career day I would visit la local architectural office. I entered competitions. When the time came for college I applied to three architecture schools, and was accepted to one. I had no Plan B. Being an architect was the one career that, in my heart, I wanted to spend my life pursuing.
As it turned out, by my junior year of college I had lost that passion. I no longer wanted to be an architect. I could probably succeed and make a living at it, and I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t feel very good about myself or my work. But by then, I had developed another passion… I was doing youth work on the Onondaga Indian Reservation, and had become very interested in Native American cultures. My new major became cultural anthropology. (“But what are you going to do with that? What”s your Plan B?”) I continued into grad school with the same focus, thinking I would love to teach anthropology at a college or university.
Midway through the first semester of grad school I received my draft notice. The next four years were spent as an Air Force Basic Military Training Instructor (“drill sergeant”) and earning two masters degrees. My passion for Native American studies morphed to larger issues of social justice, and my focus on higher education shifted from the classroom to administration.
Eight years of various higher education positions led to four years of consulting to higher education and nonprofits. It was during this time as a consultant that I was introduced to the nascent field of change management, and realized that underneath every career shift was a commitment to executing change.
By 1990, AIDS was a growing crisis in America; I became the Deputy Director of Finance and Operations at an AIDS organization providing permanent housing and support services to homeless people with AIDS. They needed to put in place an infrastructure that would help ensure their long-term viability without becoming bureaucratic, and I knew how to do that.
And so the path has twisted and turned, even to today. The thread has always been change. It has taken me inside of organizations, and outside. I have worked independently, and on teams. I have been a residence hall director, a fund raiser, an internal (as well as external) change consultant, a coach, a trainer, a mentor, a trusted adviser.
And, I have never had a Plan B.
I have spent time exploring options. But those explorations have always been just that…where am I being pulled to go next?
Perhaps if I had a Plan B when I made some of these transitions, I would have made them more quickly. But for me, the only way to have a Plan B is to say, “I am good with doing either A or B.” And, if that is the case, then I would not be able to fully invest myself in either one. If Plan A failed (and some of them have), I would never know whether–had I been more fully committed–I could have made it work. And, given that we go into big changes in our lives naive about the difficulties that will inevitably arise, it would be too easy to walk away from the realities of Plan A to begin the uninformed optimism of Plan B.
Big changes are tough. There is no guarantee of success. That is why I always begin, for myself, with an exploration of what is in my heart…what is my passion? That is why I always urge the same reflection for both personal and professional clients. If you are not passionate about the intent of your change, how will you ever complete the journey? I have been laid off, fired, and had a nonprofit that I attempted to start fail to get the funding that it needed; in each case, I can say that I put everything that I had into success.
I have also had incredible successes. I have turned around a stagnant annual giving program, established a living learning program, and supported major strategic shifts that make a difference in people’s lives both within the corporate and the nonprofit worlds. I have continued to engage in issues of social justice. I have helped individuals successfully navigate some of the most difficult personal life-changing events one could imagine. I have taught, coached, and mentored students, change practitioners, and organizational leaders. Along the way, the changes that I have been engaged in have touched tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of lives. And I still have no Plan B.
When my clients ask me if they should have a Plan B, I tell them quite honestly that I can’t answer the question for them. I help them to understand the reasons I do not. I point out how uncertain a Plan A tough change is, and the fact that there is no such thing as “this change cannot fail;” every change can fail. I help them understand the reality of a difficult change journey. And, I assist them in determining whether developing a Plan B is right for them.
Sometimes, when the realities of change sink in they revert to an immediate Plan B…and don’t proceed with the change. Sometimes, they develop a Plan B (which they may or may not ever call on). And sometimes, like me, they dive headfirst into Plan A and leave the idea of creating a Plan B behind.
How do you answer this question for yourself? Do you have a Plan B? Do you recommend that others do? What am I not seeing that would make it an easier one to answer, or is it really as personal a decision as I make it out to be? Please comment below.