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By Nick Wakeman

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What one person's transgender journey teaches about the power of change management

In many ways Cassandra Grace’s story is one we’ve all seen before. A long-time government employee who has developed an expertise in a certain area and sets up her own shop. Nothing unique there.

But while Grace was working on her career transition, she was going through a very personal and physical transition and finally embraced her transgender identity.

Why that transition should resonate with government contractors is that when she took on that life altering transition, she leaned on her professional expertise as a change management expert.

“That’s the wonderful irony of my story,” she said. “I spent so many years helping others manage change and then I finally came around to realizing I have a fair amount of change of my own that I needed to manage.”

Cassandra Grace

Cassandra Grace

Grace said she knew her entire life that she was not a man. “You are born trans. That is who you are, but I had no idea what to do with that,” she told me.

She had no examples to follow growing up as there was no positive representation of what being transgender meant and “representation matters,” she said.

“I overcompensated. I went completely in the other direction,” Grace said. “I played the role of a man because I thought that is what I had to do.”

But years of profound unhappiness drove her to realize she needed to change. “You see these people who are happy. You see these people who are living fulfilling lives and you wonder, why not me?” she said.

Returning to the theme of representation, Grace credited the internet and the growing acceptance of a transgender identity as a turning point. “I was in my forties before I really saw an example of someone that I recognized,” she said. “’Oh, my God, that is me.’ That is someone living an experience that I understand and relate to.”

While that realization was an epiphany, the change didn’t occur overnight. “I spent a very long time in therapy figuring this out and finally getting to the point where I realized this is who I am and this is what I have to do,” she said.

When she embarked on her personal transition, she also knew that a professional transition was needed. She could not hide her changes from her government colleagues forever. 

Maybe she didn’t have to tell people at work about the initial steps in her transition but that wouldn’t last, and that is where her change management expertise came in handy.

“I’m such a nerd when it comes to this methodology, these change management principles,” Grace said. “I believe in them so strongly that I just applied them.”

Grace wrote emails to the workforce, describing what she called the rules of the road and her expectations.

“First, I said, ‘Okay, I have some news for you. You are about to see some visible changes in my presentation,’” she said.

But Grace also admitted in the initial emails that there were things she didn’t know yet. “I told them I’m not sure how I’m going to handle the bathroom situation or how I’m going to handle the name situation or the pronouns,” she said. “But I alerted everyone that changes were on the way and I was going to guide everyone along with me.”

A couple months into this process she reached another milestone and Grace updated co-workers on her progress. She was legally changing her name and would start to use the women’s restroom.

“I sent out another set of guidelines. ‘Here’s what we are doing, everyone,’” she said.

It was a process she repeated as she progressed through her transition. With each benchmark – physical, legal, financial, etc. – she would pause to reassess and gauge her progress. She would then calibrate her approach for the next phase.

The transition from one gender identity to another is a heavy experience for all involved – friends, co-workers, family and especially the person going through the transition.

“For those at work, I set expectations and guided them along this path, so it’s been a remarkably smooth process,” Grace said.

“I wanted to help normalize this because I know I’m not the only one,” she said. She’s heard plenty of nightmare stories and didn't want hers to be another one.

“I’m not going to say my transition has been all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns,” she said, but she credits her change management principles for making the transition relatively smooth.

She took an incremental approach. She set expectations. She was open and honest along the way.

“I was able to bring people along and help normalize what this is,” she said. “I knew it was going to make it easier for other people if I helped guide them along this path as I walked it myself.”

The success of this personal application of Change Management principles led her to launch her own business, Graceful Change. Her consultancy covers a range of services including strategic planning, project implementation, culture building and change seminars. She’s also offering personal consulting for individuals, couples and families.

The idea for her own business was sparked by the reaction of many people to her transition.

“People started talking to me about their relationships, their careers, about their health and fitness routines,” Grace said. “They see this person over here who clearly knows an awful lot about managing change. Let me tell her about my situation.”

She realized that there was a lot of potential for sharing her story and helping people and organizations manage and navigate difficult changes. “That’s been a huge surprise to me,” she said.

Grace realized that instead of her transition story being seen as something very odd, people were seeing something relatable in it.

“It’s not just individuals but groups as well,” she said. “I love getting in front of a group of people who have never been around a trans person before and leading them through change and leveraging the power of my story to focus on their own change, whatever it is.”

Grace said that people are connecting to her combination of vulnerability and confidence, which fosters trust.

“What they see in me and what they see in my story is the power of letting go and having a real serious conversation with yourself,” she said. “Whether it’s an individual or a group, an organization or a corporation, it’s about breaking down barriers to growth.”

Culture is a powerful force. It sets expectations and it can inhibit change. Grace uses her story to break through barriers to change.

“I come into a room and people instinctively know that something different is about to take place,” Grace said. “I’m walking change, not just talking it. So we cut to the chase very quickly and get to those core conversations -- and key actions -- that have to happen for people to move forward.”

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Dec 21, 2020 at 7:50 PM


Reader Comments

Tue, Dec 22, 2020 Ashanti

Great accomplishments, Grace! You are an inspiration for us all.

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