Swimming Toward Change

I waved to the lifeguard as I walked to the pool, slipped in, and started my laps. At this pool, 72 lengths equal a mile, and that was my goal for the day. My employer was generous enough to allow me to work in Seattle part time while I was still in school, and so every day I was in Seattle I tried to make it to the pool.

When I started the EMBA program, one of the suggestions that UW (Foster EMBA Profile) had made was to try to make some time to work out. Balancing full-time work with full-time school is challenging, but we were all encouraged to try to maintain as much of our "regular" lives as possible. One of my goals was to try to stay physically active.

In the beginning of the program, it was relatively easy for me to do that. The company for which I worked had a gym located on-site and offered fitness classes during lunch, so when my schedule allowed I would slip away in the middle of the day and do that, often with a co-worker or two. Alternately, I would try to fit some time on the treadmill so I had at least some activity.

The downside to this is that I was never really "away" from work or school in those situations—there were always meetings before and after—or during, thanks to co-workers being present—and more often than not you'd find me laboring on the treadmill with course materials propped up in front of me. I think I read the entirety of my organizational leadership course materials while on the treadmill.

Once I lost my job in the spring of 2009, it wasn't so easy. Granted, I had more time as I wasn't working, but there was still full-time school and the full-time job search. The easy access to the company gym was gone. It was difficult to get motivation to leave the house, never mind going to work out. After a few weeks, it occurred to me that there was a public pool within five minutes of where I live. That was the start of my swimming regimen. I started slowly, but eventually worked my way up to swimming a mile each day. I grew to look forward to my swimming time more than I had other exercises. I couldn't read course materials while swimming, and I certainly wasn't going to meet co-workers there. Swimming gave me some time to clear my head and focus on what I wanted to achieve for the day.

Interview Out of the Blue

On this particular day, though, I started reflecting on everything that had happened in the previous month, especially with respect to how much of an influence my EMBA classes had played. After a layoff of several months, I had found a job in the fall of 2009. The new company was prosperous and seemed to be weathering the economy with relatively few ill effects. Things were going well for me; I was learning the company culture and found the work challenging. I enjoyed learning about a new industry and thought I was bringing some value, even after a short period of time. My boss was spending a lot of time with me to get me up to speed and making sure I met the right people in the organization. The job was located 1,000 miles from Seattle, so I commuted back and forth regularly. A commute that long has its own challenges, but my husband and I were making it work and my study group was incredibly supportive. My husband was looking for work in the new city, and we were looking forward to moving after I graduated.

What's that saying, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans"? Out of the blue, I received an e-mail from a company to which I had applied more than six months ago. This wasn't just any company. It was one I had set my sights on when embarking on my job search—a Fortune 500 company in the energy sector. Would I please give my contact a call? When I did, I was invited to interview later in the week.

A flurry of interviews, meetings, and e-mails later, I had a job offer in hand. The job was clearly one that would continue my upward career path—a larger team, more responsibility, and more visibility. It was an opportunity that was rare for someone in my field. How could I turn it down?

As I approached the half-mile mark for my swim that day, I remembered the thought process I had used to make my decision. Although it seemed to be an easy decision to make, taking the new job did present a dilemma. I had only been with this other company for a few months. I'd never had that short of a tenure with any company I had worked for in my career. It had invested much time in training me and having me get to know the people. I had spent a considerable amount flying back and forth in anticipation of the move.

I considered what our excellent accounting professor, Bob Bowen, taught us. When making a decision, beware of letting sunk costs unduly affect us. The time and money spent were already gone. What would be the benefits of each job moving forward?

I had talked to my husband and my study group about the decision. One of my team members, Maju, had said dryly: "You have found two jobs during a time when so many people can't find one. Obviously, you are in demand." Evidently both of us remembered the many lectures we received from our microeconomics professor, Ali Tarhouni, and his endless supply and demand curves.

"People, Structure, Culture"

During the interviews, many of the questions I had revolved around the people—the department was going through a big reorganization. What was the scale of the change? How was the company handling it? How was the change management? How were people responding to that change? I had learned well the "People, Structure, Culture" mantra that our organizational leadership professor, Greg Bigley, had instilled in us.

I resisted the urge—I'm an engineer, so it was very difficult—to calculate the probabilities of success for taking the new job, or staying with the current one, based on several different conditions. I think our statistics professor, Andy Siegel, would have been proud.

My husband and study group were not the only people I talked to about the decision. I talked to others whom I trusted, and tried to get a wide variety of opinions. One of the elements that our leadership effectiveness professor, Pat Bettin, had taught us was "Listen to the old man," referring to a leadership exercise in which we had all participated that illustrated the benefits of gathering all pertinent information before making a decision.

Finally, I used a concept I had learned from Jerry McCormick in our negotiations class—BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. There had been a few points I wanted to negotiate with the new company. It dawned on me that my BATNA was simply I could stay with my current employer. However, the company's alternative was likely to start a new search, and I was guessing that wasn't very attractive for it. Luckily for me, negotiations went very well.

Taking everything into account, I had eventually decided to accept the new position. I can't say that it was easy to notify my boss to tell him I was leaving after just a few months on the job. It was very important to me that this segue in my career went well. I explained the opportunity I had been offered. This was another area where I was very fortunate. My boss said that while he was disappointed, he understood my decision and likely would have made the same one himself if he had been in my shoes. I was quite relieved, and I think we will remain in contact.

I thought about the challenges that still lie ahead. Another new job, with another new company, in yet another new city. This commute will be as long as the last one, requiring me to fly to and from Seattle every week. My husband's upcoming search for work. Entering the final stretch of the EMBA program, including the upcoming international trip.

As I pulled myself out of the pool that day after finishing my mile, it struck me just how much of what I had learned through the EMBA program had helped me in the last month. I am sure I will be using those lessons many times—as well as the ones I have yet to learn—in the coming years.