At some point, almost all of us will experience a period of radical professional change. Some of us will seek it out; for others, it will feel like an unwelcome intrusion into otherwise stable careers. Either way, we have choices about how we respond to it when it comes.
We recently caught up with yoga entrepreneur Leah Zaccaria, who put herself through the fire of change to completely reinvent herself. In her quest to live a life of purpose, the Seattle-based yogi shed her high-paying accounting job, her husband and her home. In the process, she built a radically new life and career. Since then, she has founded two yoga studios, met a new life partner and formed a new community of people.
Even if your personal reinvention is less drastic, we think there are lessons from her experience that apply.
LISTEN TO THE WHISPERS
Often, the best ideas for big changes come from unexpected places—it is just a matter of tuning in. Great leaders recognise the weak signals or subtle signs that point to the big changes to come. “About the time my daughter was five years old, I started having a sense that ‘this isn’t right’,” says Leah.
Until that point, Leah had followed traditional measures of success. After graduating with a degree in business and accounting, she joined a public accounting firm, married, bought a house, put lots of stuff in it and had a baby. Leah easily could have fallen into a trap of complacency; instead, her restlessness sparked a period of experimentation and renewal.
TEST THE FUTURE
Feeling the need to change, Leah started playing with future possibilities. She first tried exercising and dieting. She lost some weight and discovered an inner strength. “I felt empowered because I broke through my own limitations,” she said.
It was another interest, however, that led Leah to radically reinvent herself. “I remember sitting on a bench with my aunt at a yoga studio and having an aha moment right then and there: Yoga is saving my life; yoga is waking me up. I’m not happy and I want to change and I’m done with this,” she says.
In that moment of clarity, Leah made an important leap, conquering her inner resistance to change and making a firm commitment.
PRACTISE PLANNED OPPORTUNISM
Creating the future you want is a lot easier if you are ready to capitalise on opportunities that come your way. Simply put, we can practise ‘planned opportunism’. Leah primed herself to new opportunities she may otherwise have overlooked.
“There was this coworker, Ryan, who has his office next to mine,” she says. “One day, he said, ‘Leah, let’s go look at this space on Queen Anne’. He knew my love for yoga and had seen a space close to where he lived that he thought might be good to serve as a yoga studio. We went out there and I was like, ‘This is it, this is it! I’ve got to do it!’ Of course I was scared, yet I had this strong sense of ‘I have to do this’.”
A few months later, Leah opened her first yoga studio. Success, however, was not instant.
MANAGE THE PRESENT, SHED THE PAST
Creating the future takes time. That is why leaders continue to manage the present while building towards the big nonlinear changes of the future. Initially, to make it all work, Leah kept her accounting job while starting the yoga studio.
She soon knew she had to make a bold move to fully commit to her new future. Within two years, Leah shed the safety of her accounting job and made the switch complete.
NOURISH YOUR ROOTS
“Be yourself,” Leah says. “Quit being the person people think you are supposed to be. Find a way to dig deep into your courageous self to be who you are. Whatever that means as far as exploring your emotions, your identity, your profession, find one version of you that you are always and everywhere.”
Navigating change and facing obstacles bring us face to face with our fears. Leah recalls when her investors threatened to shut her down. “I was probably up against the most fear I have ever had,” she says. “I had spent two years cultivating this community, and it had become successful very fast, within six months, and I was facing the prospect of losing it all.”
She connected with her sense of purpose and dug deep, cultivating a tremendous sense of resilience. “I was feeling so intentional and strong that I wasn’t going to let fear just take over,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘Okay, guys, if you want to try to shut me down, shut me down.’ And I knew it was a negotiation tactic, so I was able to say to myself, ‘This is not real.’”
By naming her fears and facing them head-on, Leah gained confidence. “I learned that no matter what, I was going to be okay,” she says. “Even if they shut me down, I have grown so much, I have been through so much, and my life has changed completely. I left my husband and went from a big house to couch-hopping and staying in the basement of someone I met on Craigslist, of all things. I saw that I already had lost everything and I was fine.”
Her courage speaks volumes.
SEE THE ENDLESS CYCLE OF RENEWAL
The cycle of renewal never ends. Leah’s growth spurred her to open her second studio—and it wasn’t for the money. “I have no desire to make millions of dollars,” she says. “It’s not about that. It’s about growth for me. Honestly, I didn’t need to open a second studio. I had one and it was highly successful. I was making as much money as I was as an accountant. But I know if you don’t grow, you stand still, and that doesn’t work for me. I am here to grow and to help others grow. I want to inspire people to be better, to dig deep into their courageous self.”
Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe distinguished professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. Hylke Faber is CEO of the Growth Leaders Network and managing partner of the culture and leadership consultancy Constancee.