Building Resilience in the Face of Change

January 27, 2020


Happy 2020! Here’s to this shiny new year, one in which – hard as it may be to believe – we’ll mark the completion of a full fifth of this century. Closing the book on 2019 and looking ahead has me contemplating the pace of change and how it’s accelerating.

If you’ve had the good fortune of having built your administrative career without ever using carbon paper and having had to wipe your fingertips clean of its ink smudges, consider yourself fortunate. If your first keyboard was mounted on a typewriter, you may have begun using a computer with a massive monitor and WordPerfect software … only to transition not long after to Word. Having left the career for a few years in my mid-twenties, my re-entry to an office environment coincided nicely with Word’s emergence as the dominant software. I remember, though, just how daunting a change it was for some of my new colleagues to unlearn WordPerfect shortcuts and adapt to the new software. More than a few of them were vocal in expressing their preference for sticking with the familiar.

The fact is, however briefly or long you’ve been an administrative professional, you routinely accommodate change. It doesn’t matter whether you work remotely, in a two-person office, or as part of a multinational corporation; change is part of this career. Think of the meetings and functions you plan and schedule. Then consider just how frequently you adapt to, negotiate or initiate your own changes to schedules, agendas, meetings, travel and much more.

The scope of change isn’t limited to schedules and events, of course. We’ve embarked upon the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as IR4.0 and Industry 4.0. Some refer to this era as transformational, while others have labelled it The Great Disruption. The term “digital disruption” has become part of the lexicon, and artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition are on the rise. We’re advised to anticipate three waves of automation and, while some roles are more susceptible than others to automation, we can and should at minimum anticipate changes to how assistants and other administrative professionals perform their jobs.

When it comes to change, we can bundle it into three categories: developmental, transitional and transformational.

Developmental change

Developmental change impacts how business is done, or refinement of workflow. If your finance department updates its procedures or expense claim forms, those represent developmental changes. They may directly impact how you do your work. You may or may not be enamoured of those new procedures for completing expense or other reports, but such changes aren’t earth shattering.

Transitional change

A transitional change can have a more substantial impact. This type of change involves replacement of a process or the status quo; it implies dismantling one established business process or state in order to implement a new one. Adoption of new office technology is a prime example, as is the creation of a new product, service or even corporate logo. Transitional change is often marked by project management and timelines. A changing of the guard, in the form of organizational restructuring, mergers or acquisitions, also constitutes transitional change.

Out with the old and in with the new is sometimes easier said than done. Letting go of that familiar email system, logo or corporate structure and accepting the new one is more significant than adjusting to a developmental change. When transitional change is planned, you’re likely to be invited to a meeting or directed to online information for communication of the change and its probable and possible impacts. You may be encouraged to ask questions and can anticipate regular updates. If it’s a new system, service or product that’s being introduced, you can also anticipate training or familiarization with the new offering.

Transformational change

Transformational change is the big one. It can involve both developmental and transitional changes in order to completely revamp the organisation’s strategy and processes. An organization might overhaul its strategy, operations, technology, services, products, culture and/or its processes. It’s often viability that drives transformational change, and factors can include increased competition, regulatory changes, changes in market conditions or customers’ needs and expectations … and, of course, new or changing technology.

Transformational changes don’t necessarily suggest negative market conditions; an organization may make transformational changes (as in automating warehouses) in order to meet increased demand for its services or products. Whatever the drivers, such substantial change can be unsettling. Some colleagues may fear job loss, or that they’ll be unable to remain relevant or keep up with the pace of change.

Resistance to change

I’m lucky. For whatever reason, I thrive on change and it’s been a staple of my own career path. I mentioned having left the admin. world in my mid-twenties; that’s because I was afforded an opportunity to become a trainer for the same national company in which I worked. I travelled to our corporate headquarters, halfway across the continent, for Train the Trainer education.

One of the concepts to which we were exposed was the “RC” factor, or resistance to change. There are different reasons individuals may resist change. These can range from a poor approach to change implementation to concerns over status, mistrust, fear of the unknown or failure, and more. Those colleagues who resisted the transition from WordPerfect to Word software weren’t being difficult; some of them liked WordPerfect. Some, who may have been daunted in making the shift from typewriters to PCs and WordPerfect with its shortcuts, were concerned about tackling yet another unknown product and a whole new series of keystroke commands.

Resilience in the face of stress

The fact is, change can be stressful for many. This can be true whether you’re dealing with a developmental change to how business is done, a transitional change that represents replacement of a process or the status quo, or a transformational change that can involve both developmental and transitional changes as an organization revamps its strategy or processes.

There are different definitions of resilience. The term can be used to describe elasticity or the ability to bounce back or recover from difficulty or change. We use the term “resilience” in referring to one’s capacity to cope, and it can be intertwined with adaptability. The more resilient you are, the better off you’ll be – both personally and with respect to your career.

How do you build and nurture your resilience?

It may be helpful to begin by acknowledging that change is inevitable, and that you’re not alone in dealing with uncertainty as to just how and when it will unfold. Employers and boards of directors are also grappling with how they’ll incorporate AI and other emerging technologies in your workplace, and with the implications for the organization and its people.

There was one point in my career when I recognized a decline in my resilience. This reflected a combination of two issues unrelated to change, but the result was the same. My solutions were right in front of me, in the form of renewed commitments to ongoing learning and networking.

Neither solution represented anything new. Like many of you, I’ve remained a lifelong learner. That can take different forms, from reading industry and association publications such as this one to delving into your organization’s strategic plan and annual reports. Learning can be self-directed, and it can also take the form of certification, credit courses, workshops, webinars and conferences. The act of learning stimulates and energizes your thinking and, I believe, openness to new ideas and therefore change. It can also help nurture confidence and your capacity to positively impact your organization.

I had long been involved in three national professional associations, in addition to other bodies and extensive informal networks. I held leadership positions and led a number of initiatives, and mentored others within these groups. These networks also afforded opportunities for ongoing learning; networks and professional growth have always gone hand in hand for me.

Sometimes, if you find your resilience lagging, something as simple as contact with a trusted peer can be the best medicine. This is particularly meaningful for assistants who work remotely, in small organizations with a limited number of peers, or alongside C-level colleagues. A career in the corner office can be stimulating and rewarding, but it can also be isolating at times. Whatever your environment, you do not need to be an extrovert to be an effective networker. You need to be invested in your career, and in other people.

More to come

It’s almost two centuries since Mary Shelley wrote, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” In writing my upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant, I’ve interviewed some of my readers from different countries about how they nurtured their own resilience in the face of unexpected situations such as job loss – typically the result of corporate restructuring. Networking and ongoing learning played prominent roles in their approaches to such painful situations, and these individuals are being generous in allowing me to share their experiences.

Make this a great year

While we sometimes instigate change, it can also be thrust upon us. It makes sense, then, to take steps to build and maintain your resilience. You know yourself best, and what works for you. It may be as simple (and challenging!) as establishing boundaries that support your ability to maintain personal or family time. It may mean ensuring that you leave your desk at lunch time, and acting on a commitment to exercise regularly and get the best possible sleep each night. You’re already off to a great start in 2020, in that you’re nurturing your resilience by virtue of reading this website (ongoing learning) and in being a member of The American Society of Administrative Professionals. Here’s to continuing to treat yourself well through the balance of 2020!

About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit to find out more and tell her we sent you.

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