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Gird yourself for ceaseless change

During the early '90s, I watched a chief executive launch a painful corporate change program by administering the cold water treatment to a group of employees. "I'm going to make a prediction," he said. "Most of you won't have your current jobs a year from now."

In the stunned silence that followed, he added: "But don't worry. Our new, streamlined company is going to grow so fast, you'll all have the opportunity for better jobs!" I'm not sure if those people were heartened by his words. Nor do I know how many are still there. But the company has indeed prospered since then.

Think back on your career. How many of us hold the same job we had five or three or even two years ago? My guess is not many. Ask yourself, would you want your old job back? The answer depends on your success in the interim.

Overall, the national economy is much, much healthier as a result of the massive restructuring we have weathered in business. But the individual story is highly variable.

The one positive thing about dramatic change is that it energizes the individual. As longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer pointed out more than 35 years ago in The Ordeal of Change, when we are suddenly plunged into a new experience it creates a crisis in self-confidence. We flail and struggle and work all the harder to achieve personal mastery.

The Bible goes much further. In Ephesians, we are enjoined to "be thankful in all things" _ even our most painful experiences, which supposedly give us increased compassion for our fellow man.

All this comes to mind amid news that reported job cuts in America rose 9.3 percent in November. Many more loom in the mega-mergers of Exxon and Mobil, America Online and Netscape, and Deutsche Bank and Bankers Trust. Meanwhile, word has arrived that a brilliant businessman, Gary Wendt, has left General Electric Capital Services.

Change just doesn't stop, even among the successful.

During Wendt's 12 years as head of GE Capital, he grew the unit into GE's largest single moneymaker, with $255-billion in assets and accounting for almost 40 percent of GE's net earnings. His act will be hard to follow for his successor, Dennis Dammerman, whom GE chief executive Jack Welch described as having "great intelligence, outstanding people skills, unquestioned integrity and keen business insight." All of which he needs.

Each of us faces constant upheaval _ for better or worse _ in our career. There is no avoiding it. But there are a few immutable mental rules you can bring to this "ordeal" that will help you through change, whatever its nature.

Understand first that a resistance to change is built into us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Nature seems to have hard-wired us to operate on the assumption that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." After all, certain modes of behavior were tried and true until now.

But once you realize that (and sort of forgive yourself for your natural timidity/prudence) then it becomes easier to relax and consider the many ways you can respond to change. In a job, such options range from deciding to leave immediately, commit to stay or wait and see.

Hopefully an organization requiring radical change of employees will realize that it wants their cooperation, not just slavish obedience. A key step in this is communicating the underlying reasons for change. If this isn't forthcoming, find out for yourself. You must understand, and internalize, these reasons before you can move on _ one way or another.

Most importantly, understand that successful change in yourself requires a genuine willingness on your part. This may take time to develop. So cut yourself some slack if you feel like whining for a while.

Finally, realize that while none of us can really be the master of our fate, each of us, alone, is responsible for our attitude about change. In a business world that is constantly sliding away under our feet, that is about the only thing you can control.

_ Tribune Media Services