Today’s hardworking professionals are navigating sudden waves of financial stress, management shakeups, and downsizing. Using the experiences of Titanic survivors as a powerful metaphor, executive coach Maggie Craddock offers lessons for a transformative approach to our professional lives, one that recognizes that “every man for himself” doesn’t work long-term. Lifeboat: Navigating Unexpected Career Change and Disruption is organized as a series of key questions we all need to ask ourselves when facing unexpected career disruption or difficult changes at our existing jobs. These questions help us clarify our authentic priorities, assess the group energy that guides a particular workplace, and identify the type of job that will help us reach our true potential.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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We all like to think we are prepared for the unexpected. When it comes to our professional self-image, most of us strive to be adaptable, collaborative, and resilient. Yet in my work as an executive coach, I’ve listened to many people describe professional situations where they were caught off guard and discovered that their reactions under pressure surprised them.
Whether it’s a thought leader who gets tongue-tied at a critical moment or a manager who loses his or her temper during a staff meeting, many people are bewildered by their own conduct when the stakes are high.
These eye-opening gaps between how people hope they will respond and how they actually react are symptomatic of a breakdown in trust. This may start as a breakdown in trust between organizations and their employees, but it can gradually evolve into a breakdown in trust within individuals themselves.
Here are just a few of the professional challenges people have shared with me and the questions these situations have prompted. Circumstances such as these leave many hardworking people feeling emotionally paralyzed, tempted to make impulsive decisions, and striving to please external authority figures at precisely the moment they should be listening to their authentic inner voice:
- My boss just resigned unexpectedly: Who can I trust to help keep my career on track?
- Power struggles keep erupting at my firm: How do I handle my emotional reactions to dysfunctional behavior and protect my professional reputation?
- Earnings are down and our firm needs to run leaner: How do I convince my top talent to do hands-on work they had previously been delegating?
- Everyone in my department is under constant pressure: How do I find the inner strength to stay patient and present with my family while keeping up at work?
What do you do when unexpected problems arise that threaten to overwhelm you, undermine your ability to trust others, or even compromise your ability to align your personal and professional values? In this book, I offer a method for survival that I call the Lifeboat Process. This process will help you trust yourself under pressure, adapt as necessary, and take effective action to keep your job, life, relationships, and career afloat.
Stories help us unlock personal truths that we can’t access when our minds are focused on routine responsibilities. The Lifeboat Process stems from lessons I have gathered from the Titanic and formalized into a process of exploration, discussion, and awareness. I have used this process to help clients leverage their resources in all kinds of unpredictable and even potentially catastrophic professional environments, whether they are entering the workforce, contemplating a job transition, seeking to become a more effective leader, or navigating a corporate or professional disaster.
This method uses the events of the Titanic’s sinking — and most particularly, how a group of strangers managed to survive together in Lifeboat #6 — to draw profound lessons for navigating the upheaval and difficult challenges in today’s workplace. Using the real-life experiences of these maritime survivors, I have created a practical guide for spotting trouble, managing fear, trusting oneself, fostering cooperative and supportive teams, and taking simple yet effective action in any crisis. By mastering the skills in this book, you will adopt a transformative mindset that can serve you throughout your life.
Whether you are trying to figure out what you genuinely want to do professionally, what kind of culture will complement your strengths, or even how to be a better parent and partner — this process can help. It will improve how you see yourself, clarify your expectations of others, and help you foster a sense of trust that’s vital to making sound decisions at critical turning points in your life and career.
To thrive in changing times, you will have to reinvent yourself more than once in the course of your career. In fact, job change happens more frequently today than perhaps in any previous generation. And every time you change jobs, your professional agility will be tested, along with your emotional resilience and even physical stamina. The pragmatic demands of the workplace challenge all of us to succeed in ways that reflect our authentic selves.
Thankfully, the story of the Titanic contains vital lessons for anyone who feels stuck in a dead-end job or a professional role that stunts their potential and damages their self-esteem. This is because, when the Titanic sank, everything that had defined these passengers sank with it — and they were left with nothing but their innate capacity to relate to themselves and others if they wanted to survive.
They did survive, and this book shows you how to learn from their experiences and thrive.
The Lifeboat Process: How to Use This Book
This book starts by retelling the story of the Titanic, from its launch in Southampton to the rescue of the last survivors by the Carpathia, and then each of the eight chapters that follow takes a closer look at certain key events and gleans important lessons for the workplace. In total, these lessons make up the Lifeboat Process. Each chapter is framed by a “lifeboat question”; these are questions we might have asked had we been on the Titanic, and they are definitely questions we should ask when workplace challenges arise today. These questions highlight what we need to focus on during the Lifeboat Process, and the rest of each chapter is, in essence, an answer to that question. Overall, these questions proceed in sequence and match the Titanic events, so that the story and the Lifeboat Process are aligned.
In addition, each chapter includes real-life examples, or “case studies,” of my actual clients as they grappled with work-related disasters and used the Lifeboat Process to succeed. These stories illustrate the process in action and show how to apply the metaphor. For confidentiality purposes, the case studies use pseudonyms and are sometimes composites of several people. That said, the situations are real, as is the dialogue.
What is the Lifeboat Process? At its most basic, it’s a shift in mindset, from the “Big Ship mindset” to the “Lifeboat mindset.” This shift in thinking can be made anytime. It can be helpful in every aspect of our lives. But it is essential in a workplace crisis when we must act effectively with others under pressure. Metaphorically, when we hit an iceberg in our lives, we must shift our thinking from minding our own business on the “big ship” to working strategically with others to survive in a “lifeboat.”
This “Lifeboat shift” in thinking changes how we relate in three ways, which will be explored in depth. First, it involves how we relate to ourselves and how we navigate our own emotions and inner challenges. When things go wrong, fear, anxiety, panic, anger, and many other difficult and unwanted emotions can emerge — which I call our “inner iceberg.” Being able to act effectively in a crisis depends first on coping with this emotional and mental challenge inside ourselves; otherwise, we risk acting in self-defeating ways. If we have been conditioned by the Big Ship mindset to play our role, to do what others tell us, to not cause trouble, and to suppress our true feelings, this makes it even more important to restore our connection to our authentic selves before workplace drama undermines our professional lives.
The second area is interpersonal awareness and how we interact with others under pressure. Once the Titanic slipped beneath the ocean, the power structure or hierarchy of command was less important than interpersonal influence. Rank didn’t matter. Personal authority won out over sanctioned authority, and informal leadership was respected over official titles. Informal leadership means trusting oneself, supporting others to overcome their fear and trust themselves, and promoting an attitude of joint effort to solve common problems, no matter what your expertise. To do this, we have to be aware of others and pay attention to all aspects of verbal and nonverbal communication.
The third area involves working with the group itself, which means leveraging the group’s diverse strengths and pulling together. In a lifeboat situation, people competing with one another to call the shots can leave everyone dead in the water. Collaboration becomes a survival skill. What this means in real life depends on the circumstances, but the actions we take make a difference. The passengers on Lifeboat #6 had few resources, but they used what they had to stay warm, stay afloat, and stay determined to live long enough to be rescued. In the end, they were in the water for seven hours, which was plenty of time to despair and give up. They didn’t, and the stories of how they survived through trusting one another and using their resources effectively provide timeless inspiration for us all.
Here is a brief overview of the eight questions that make up the Lifeboat Process, which proceeds step-by-step to help you operate authentically when the stakes are high:
- Is this ship safe? Generations of people have been fascinated with the simple question: If the Titanic had been better prepared, could this tragedy have been prevented? Probably. Is your company prepared? The first step in the Lifeboat Process is assessing the environment where you work. Does it align with your values? Does it embody the Big Ship mindset? If it’s an option, should you leave now or perhaps not board at all?
- What do I do if I sense trouble? The Titanic ignored warnings about icebergs. Even as Titanic launched, there were issues that led some crew members and passengers to sense trouble. But no one felt authorized to speak up or take action. However, by pausing and assessing when you notice red flags, you can recognize problems both on the horizon and in your emotional reactions to danger.
- When is it time to get in a lifeboat? People sometimes deny problems or delay their reactions to them, hoping to fix them before they are noticed. Both happened on the Titanic, and this made the inevitable evacuation worse. Making the “Lifeboat shift” in our mindset is critical to addressing problems proactively.
- What if I freeze in a crisis? The Big Ship mindset conditions us to ignore, minimize, or suppress our feelings. This can create an “inner iceberg” of difficult emotions that erupt in a crisis, causing us to freeze when we need to act. When people aren’t aligned with their authentic selves and personal values, they can break down under pressure. Once a crisis arrives, the first goal is to recognize, acknowledge, and manage our own emotional response.
- How do I find inner strength under pressure? When the unexpected strikes, the solution isn’t in the employee handbook. Business as usual doesn’t work, and the old norms don’t apply. Thus, we need to cultivate the emotional agility and personal judgment to respond authentically and strategically under pressure. We empower ourselves with the personal authority to become problem solvers in a crisis.
- Who can I trust in a crisis? The first person we need to trust is ourselves, by summoning the courage necessary to admit our vulnerabilities and limits. This allows us to assess what we need to solve a problem and evaluate who within a group will help. This also cultivates the discernment necessary to clarify who to trust and why to trust them under pressure. We learn to ignore titles and status and seek to align with people who also embody the Lifeboat mindset.
- How do we survive together? The answer to this question is simple: by adopting the attitude that we must all look out for one another. We need everyone’s help to pull through, and this means everyone needs to be supported and included. We treat everyone equally and don’t dismiss anyone as “expendable.”
- What will be my story? The Titanic survivors had no idea how long they’d be stuck at sea, and neither do we in our lives. We just have to keep rowing, having faith that taking the next right action in the present moment will ultimately bring success. This approach doesn’t just help us survive — it ensures that we thrive. We write our stories of survival and success continually, through our ongoing actions, by adopting the Lifeboat mindset throughout our lives, rather than waiting for a crisis in order to change.
Ultimately, when it comes to our authentic leadership potential, the Lifeboat Process teaches us that, when the emotions of a group shift from fear to trust, the collective mindset shifts from self-help to us-help.
By gleaning lessons from the Titanic story, the Lifeboat Process helps clarify what distinguishes people who respond effectively under pressure from those who stay stuck. This isn’t just related to how people think, although being thoughtful is important. This isn’t just about how people feel, although cultivating the patience to identify and accept feelings is central. This is about navigating the inner challenges that arise when a crisis hits, tapping into our deeper strengths under pressure, and working with others to solve problems in ways that align with our values and authentic selves. This is foundational to charting your own course in the workplace and in your life.
The Titanic offers us timeless lessons about survival in any situation. My hope is that the ideas in this book will give you an even deeper appreciation for why being true to yourself is vital — because sustainable success is an inside job.
Let the voyage begin.
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Maggie Craddock is a veteran executive coach known for her work with Fortune 500 CEOs and senior management. She is also a certified therapist and the author of The Authentic Career and Power Genes. For more information, visit www.workplacerelationships.com.
Excerpted from the book Lifeboat. Copyright © 2020 by Maggie Craddock.