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Who am I now? A journey to find professional purpose

In November 2015, Coach and Consultant Maeve Lankford took a leap and left her job to start up on her own. This radical shift encouraged Maeve to consider her professional purpose: who is she now?

At the same time, higher education in Maeve’s native Ireland was also facing considerable change brought about by a new national strategy published in 2011 and ongoing challenging economic conditions.

In times such as these, when our personal and professional environments are shifting, how do we recognise our individual and collective purposes? And how do we make these meaningful to ourselves and others?

For most of us there is a moment in adult life that raises questions about our purpose and direction. It can be a mid-life crisis or the result of radical life changes – positive or negative, chosen or imposed. We re-evaluate, asking what’s really important to me, in life and in work? And for many of us we experience the stirrings of ‘what do I want my legacy to be?’.

These are questions that also get raised for us collectively in our institutions – a re-evaluation perhaps prompted by change at the top, by sectoral developments or the harsh realities of achieving sustainability.

However such questions arise, and whether it is in the personal or institutional context, identifying and articulating our purpose in this changed world can be both exciting and daunting.

The challenge, I believe, is to resist the urge to just tinker with what you already know and are familiar with about your purpose up until now”

The challenge, I believe, is to resist the urge to just tinker with what you already know and are familiar with about your purpose up until now, to allow yourself to not know for long enough for the new direction to emerge, and to be brave enough to do something new and better when it does.

On a personal level, my re-evaluation came after 16 years in the same role as Staff Welfare & Development Manager in University College Cork (and for the record, in my late 40s). I’d grown and changed in the role as indeed had the institution. But I’d hit a plateau and came to believe that it served both me and the institution for me to move on. To what though? The not knowing was excruciating.

The role of our longings and discontents

Working through one’s not knowing starts with all the elements of what you do know. As a species, we are hard wired to avoid pain. But among our many signals for growth is the information contained in the pain of what we don’t like – the discontents. I had to take the time to identify and acknowledge my discontents. They included: my commute; frustration that I wasn’t making an impact anymore; feeling I was no longer growing.

Alongside what I realised I needed to change, was the realisation of what I wanted: more self-direction and self-leadership; more direct engagement with individuals and groups, being present and even instrumental in their light-bulb moments and forward momentum; increased opportunity to bring more of me into what I do. These longings were also my growth signals.

Staying with these discontents and longings, for long enough, allowed my new dream to emerge: self-employed consultant and coach.

Changing the narrative

We have to rewrite the story we are telling ourselves and others about who we are.”

Once I knew the direction I wanted to travel in, I knew what I could retain, and what I had to adapt and change to realise my new future. I became certified as a Life Mastery Consultant and trained further in Appreciative Inquiry. I learned how to build an exciting portfolio of individual and institutional clients with whom I work with to support and challenge them in identifying who they are and how they can live their purpose.

At the heart of this change, I had to learn how to communicate my new purpose so that clients could see its potential and relevance to them. I’m not perfect at it, but it’s work in progress.

Throughout this journey, what I became certain of is that when we reframe our purpose, we have to look at our narrative. We have to rewrite the story we are telling ourselves and others about who we are. We have to be able to demonstrate the value inherent in what we do now and find new ways to connect with people based on who we are now.

From the personal to the institutional

This journey is true not only for individuals but for institutions too. In Ireland, for example, government strategy to 2030 recommends that the Institute of Technology sector ‘should commence a process of evolution and consolidation’. For many, it feels like a requirement for mergers, the carrot being the possibility of re-designation as a technological university for newly merged entities. The journey for those undertaking mergers seems to be a long and arduous one. Yet as I perceive it, it can also be a huge opportunity to re-examine institutional purpose.

In this new context and environment, with all the options available – including merger – it needs to be asked:

Who do we want to be?

Who do we serve?

How do we want to distinguish our service?

Answering these questions, in my opinion, has to include spending some time identifying and acknowledging the current dissatisfactions (the longings and discontents with the status quo) and taking the time to allow a new, shared vision of where you want to go to emerge before identifying how to get there.

You come to know your new purpose and, in undertaking it, you become your new narrative.”

For institutions, if this inquiry is given the time I believe it merits, merger becomes more an enabler than an end goal. The existing strengths that can be harnessed and any new capabilities required to flourish become more evident, and the steps to be taken are more easily seen. The difference between who we were before and who we are now becomes so much more than a name change and is evident and more clearly articulated both internally and externally. You come to know your new purpose and, in undertaking it, you become your new narrative.

Your purpose illuminates your path

The journeys therefore are the same for individuals and for institutions. When change happens we need time to embody it and allow our new sense of being and purpose to emerge. It can feel slow and painful, but the benefits are huge:

When we know who we are, we can articulate our value.

When we identify our purpose, it illuminates our path.

When we walk our path, we embody our new narrative.

The change leaders and change analysts among you will have recognised elements of the Beckhard-Harris change model in the above. I refer you to it if you prefer a model to work with as opposed to anecdote! To my mind it is a useful model, not least because I’ve seen it play out both in my personal journey and with clients.

Dr Maeve Lankford

Maeve is a leading coach, speaker, facilitator and trainer. With over 20 years’ experience of working in people development and human potential, Maeve works with individuals and teams in higher education and beyond to nurture their personal and professional aspirations through leadership, team building, resilience and wellbeing. Find out more:

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