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Mental Health

by Michael Chakerian

[This reading is from Michael Chakerian, Director of Information Technology for the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.  He is a Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) MOR Leaders Program alum.  Mike may be reached at [email protected].]

Perhaps the most difficult thing that no one prepares you for with a major change is how much it can adversely affect your mental health.  While there are “by the book” approaches to best practices in change management, when it comes to seismic career shifts, I think you have to give yourself a long leash… and remember to breathe.

When our cohort from Ohio State arrived in Illinois before our first MOR session, we showed up pretty early.  There was ample time to get situated into our hotel rooms, to enjoy our new surroundings – perhaps even go out for a run despite the cold weather to explore campus.  

Instead, I spent those first few hours in my hotel room and cried.

Unfortunately, it had honestly become quite normal.  A twenty-five-minute drive to work every morning filled with tears was the norm, and one habit I didn’t quite know how to get out of.  Many days those first few months were met with self-questioning, “what exactly is your problem?” I chalked it up to the onslaught of change – spending the last twenty years of my career dedicated to a family-like environment and leaving, taking on a new role I felt largely unequipped to deal with let alone do effectively.

Not surprisingly, everything felt like an insurmountable challenge: Lead transformation meetings with personalities I hadn’t yet built effective relationships with.  Bring about meaningful change in their worlds while every word landed with exceeding ambiguity as to how we would do all the things promised.  Inability to hear criticism without feeling somehow personally responsible.  Longtime colleagues now reporting to you, going through career changes themselves.  Our 209 locations, 88 counties, 3 campuses, research stations… no exaggeration to say we were quite literally changing the way we did everything in information technology.

One day I finally couldn’t take it anymore.  Between a very stressful morning and a few problems via email that rolled in, which given our new IT construct I knew would take me the better part of a month to have a definitive answer, I closed my door and called the employee assistance program – explaining that I needed to talk with someone as soon as possible.

“When do you think you can come in?”

“… how about now?”, my voice cracked.

Thankfully after a small hold, the person on the line pulled some strings and I was able to meet with a counselor that day.

Subsequent visits to them made a significant difference.  So too did the corresponding toolsets from the MOR program over the next several months.

The harsh reality is that personal and professional growth can be very painful.  One begins to realize that laced in all the undercurrents of “fake it till you make it”, the imposter syndrome, and the art of improv is the common understanding that everyone is going through some kind of sizable internal strife to push forward.  If you’ve watched Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on this (highly recommend 16:06 till the end), you know what I mean.

We were all collectively dealing with massive amounts of change.  But what I kept top of mind over the past year was a recurring idea we heard throughout the MOR program – you’ll get out of this what you put into it.  One can’t dismiss leadership maxims as motivational posters that don’t apply; having the “body” will always be more attractive than doing the diet & workout – yet one can’t happen without the other.

The story on this new role isn’t finished, but the pathway is much better illuminated.  So too is the footing and foundation.  And feeling more confident doesn’t happen by accident – it continues to take courage to meet discomfort head on and work through it.

On that note, perhaps you might be in a position where you need to talk to someone.  God knows I was over this past year and likely didn’t reach out when I should have.  If you ever need an ear, please drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.

I wish you all success in your continued leadership journeys and explorations, and here’s to a clean slate and a brand new year.