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Re-learning who I am

In February 2020, I was offered my perfect role in a prestigious research-intensive university. I felt so relieved (no more applications and interviews!), vindicated (I am ready for this step up!), and excited to be moving to a new university and city (so much to explore!). But by the end of February, COVID-19 cases were creeping up in the UK and I could see that lockdown wasn’t far away. So, in the first week of March, I officially handed in my notice, signed my new contract, and moved out of my small flat in London to the Derbyshire countryside to stay with my parents.

“I’ll probably only be staying for a month or two … then moving to start my new job,” I confidently assured my Mum and Dad.

One hundred and sixty days later and I am still in Derbyshire and will likely stay here until October, at least. I have started my new role, fully remote, without any realistic hope of going back to the office full-time before 2021 (if ever). Over the last few weeks, with the help of the Resilient Leaders Development Programme, I have been reflecting on how my life has changed and my experiences in this new role. I wanted to share some of these here.

Starting a job remotely is HARD

Yes, I know this is really obvious; the logistics of getting the right access and understanding the IT systems is more time-consuming when learning alone, but there was also something else missing. I was confident that I knew my role and what to do to succeed; however, in the first two weeks of introductory meetings with key colleagues, I was left without an understanding of the culture and community of the university. For better or worse, all my meetings were practical and action-based. This left me feeling isolated - everything was literally and metaphorically behind a screen - I could watch what and how other people were doing things, but I couldn't experience it for myself.

Running before I can walk …

If you ask people to describe me in three words, I can almost 100% guarantee that they will say enthusiastic or passionate as one of them. I am well-known for my commitment and energy when it comes to my role because I love doing what I do. The chance to empower others and support them with whatever they want to achieve is what gets me out of bed every morning! However, the middle of a global pandemic is not the appropriate time to be bounding in like a Labrador puppy, all energy and ideas, when people are simply trying to manage their own work and keep themselves afloat. They are at the ‘Uncertainty’ point of the Urgency Spectrum and my role is to be confident (and calm), clear, and consistent with my communication, not confuse them with all my wonderful ideas for the future. I need to walk along side them to understand what they are experiencing before I can get them to come with me on my "let's change the world" marathon!

A resilient leader knows what takes them from Pressure to Stress (chaos), and how to Rebalance (Equilibrium)
The Urgency Spectrum

Both these reflections reminded me that Resilient Leadership is not just about ‘What I do’, but also ‘Who I am.’ Starting my new role remotely has meant that I have less awareness of my own and others’ motivations, cultures, strengths, and weaknesses. Understanding these will help me to lead others and myself more effectively. But how do I do find this? My coach recently reminded me of the fantastic Simon Sinek TED talk: Start with the Why. By learning about WHY my University created its strategic goals (i.e. what motivates it and the people working within it to succeed), I will start to feel more connected with my working community. This will help me to prioritise my work and create a clear vision for my role that is fully aligned with my organisation’s Vision and Values.

Reflecting back to the Urgency Spectrum, I have realised that I am also at a point of ‘Uncertainty’ - there are way more unknowns than knowns in my work and personal life right now! How can I work towards ‘Equilibrium’ so I can manage my energy in a productive and focused way? Taking time to do whatever gives you energy is so vital to helping you stay in 'Equilibrium,' even during times of pressure or stress. For me, this is exercise. However, since lockdown began, I no longer cycle to and from work. I hadn't realised how much I valued this time to clear my head, focus my thoughts, and work out my pent up frustrations until it was gone! Unfortunately, cycling in Derbyshire did not offer the same effect; many hills and one broken bike later, I decided to change my strategy and start the Couch to 5K app from NHSChoices. Five weeks in and I am running three times a week, building my strength and stamina, and feeling more confident and motivated. As a neuroscientist, I know how much exercise can boost my brain health and help me focus. I just needed that nudge and the structure of a running plan to put it into practice! Now, I can start work with a clear head and focus my thoughts more effectively.

Six weeks into my new job, I remain confident in what I do - but I'm also beginning to rebuild my confidence in who I am in this new environment, both at work and home. Bring on the rest of 2020 - I am ready!

Dr Amy Birch is Researcher Development Manager at University of Bath and a Resilient Leaders Consultant at AfB Coaching and Consultancy. Email her to discuss how she can help you develop your resilient leadership. Follow her on Twitter.

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