Dancing Down the Mountain: A Lesson in Change Management

By Lori McNeill

I recently took a trip to the mountains of Austria. My destination was a beautiful ski resort and my goal was to learn how to ski. In order to accomplish this goal, I enlisted the help of a talented ski instructor named Florian. What I eventually came to realize was the lessons I learned that week applied directly to change management.

On the first day, Florian and I worked at the very bottom of the mountain, as I learned the fundamentals of skiing. These were not hard concepts to learn, but it took practice and repetition to acquire the skills. After day 1 of practicing fundamentals on the bunny slope, we got on the lift to make our climb to my first challenge.

Looking down from the top of the lift, the incline appeared to be too steep for my ability. If I am completely honest, I will admit that tears were streaming down my face and I felt a sense of dread and defeat before we even started our descent. I was completely vulnerable in that moment. My feeling was that this change was too big for me to achieve. What I had to do in that moment was to pause and think about my purpose and why I was going through this change in the first place: the purpose was for me to learn to ski so I could join my friends and family who were advanced skiers and not be left behind on future excursions. If I lost sight of the purpose, I would have stopped in that moment and not continued any further. My fear would have taken over and kept me mentally paralyzed. Change Management Tip: Focus on the “big picture” of why the change is happening.

Florian saw my vulnerability and wanted to make this a fun experience for me, not one filled with tears and dread. He asked what I enjoyed and I told him of my love for dance. He started to hum a tune easily recognizable and perfect for the setting: The Viennese Waltz. A smile quickly spread across my face and we hummed the tune together.

In that moment, we began to “dance” on the mountain, at least that is what it felt like to me. We started executing the turns that I had learned on the bunny slope and we continued to hum, whistle and sing songs. My fear dissipated and was replaced by this fun experience of singing songs such as Dancing Queen, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Stand by Me, Don’t Stop Believing, and Country Roads. It certainly took the worry and fear out of my mind and replaced it with wonder and laughter that a girl like myself from North Carolina would know the same songs as a half-German/half-Danish ski instructor, as we sang our hearts out on the slopes of Austria. Other skiers may have thought we were a little crazy but we had so much fun, we did not notice. Change Management Tip: Be creative and find a way to make it a fun experience.

Florian set small goals for me to achieve. Even though the overall goal was to get to the bottom, he did not want me looking too far out. He would choose a point that was a reasonable distance for me to exercise my skills and that is as far as we would go. This allowed us to test my knowledge of the basics and apply them in small increments. By not taking on too much too soon, I could focus on a few turns at a time, which meant that I had a sense of safety and did not feel I was not putting myself at a high level of risk. Change Management Tip: Apply the skills you have and test those in the new setting or new task. You can mitigate risk by evaluating challenges you faced with each milestone and adjust implementation as necessary.

As I continued my progress of going from one point to another, I would sometimes get distracted by what everyone else was doing: the speed at which they were going, their path, their skills, etc. This distraction kept me from doing well at my own task. Florian kept reminding me to focus on him because he was right in front of me and showing me how to get from point A to point B. Change Management Tip: Focus on your own work and do not get distracted by what everyone else is doing or not doing.

Each time I made it through a particularly challenging section of the mountain, Florian would pause and tell me to look at the progress I had just made. By taking a moment to look back at the steep incline I managed to ski down without falling or losing control, it built my confidence to tackle the remainder of the course. Change Management Tip: Celebrate milestones; by doing so, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and your confidence to proceed will increase.

Throughout the week of skiing, I would repeat these steps over and over again. It was a process that warranted repetition. If I only mastered the smaller slopes that were not as steep or challenging, my development as a skier would become stagnant. Change Management Tip: To achieve growth, it is necessary to keep pushing past your comfort zone.

By the end of my ski trip, I had not only improved my ability to ski, but I also I gained a lifelong friend and learned many change-management lessons along the way. And the next time I tackle the slopes, I will simply think of myself as dancing with skis attached to my feet as I sing my way down the mountain.

Lori coaches leaders and teams through change, and leads change management workshops at trainings. Email Lori at lori@price-associates.com.