I've written before about the importance in putting energy and effort only into those factors which we have control over. Steven Covey's Circle of Influence and Control is a great model for this and one which I've regularly discussed with clients, but the lens of my coaching has been trained firmly on myself this week.
I found myself in a situation recently where my ability to keep my energy and effort in the right places has been tested to its very limit and it's a good reminder to me, not only about how important that is for your wellbeing and your focus, but also how challenging it can be.
Right now in the UK, the Passport Office are dealing with a huge number of applications. Many people put off renewals throughout the pandemic, knowing they had no use for their passports during that time and so the expense of replacing them (typically £75-85) was not money well spent. Since the borders and the skies have reopened however, there have been a deluge of applications submitted, which have piled up in passport offices across the country. Some people have been well served during this time. I know of friends (and even my daughter) whose applications have been completed within a couple of weeks or less, which is what you'd expect of the system operating in normal times. I, on the other hand, have not been so lucky.
Earlier this year, I was approached by a company about doing some work, with international travel required. I was pretty excited by the prospect - firstly I like the company, secondly I enjoy the work and thirdly, in 15 years working in financial services, I never managed a single trip outside of the country for work! I needed a passport renewal (technically I didn't need one for the early trips, but my passport would have been invalid for the later trips and they were spaced throughout the year in such a way that there were no gaps longer than 3/4 weeks between trips in which to get my replacement sorted) so I got it in the post as soon as I knew I'd need it, with the application and my old passport arriving in the hands of HMPO in April.
When the work was confirmed, I was very clear with the client of the situation regarding my passport, but I shared the timelines quoted by HMPO and both the client and I were aware of people whose renewals had come back in a matter of weeks at that time, so while I was nervous, it wasn't a huge worry and I expected to have it back in a month or so. The first two international trips (one to Europe, one to the US) were scheduled for late June and the next two, for late July. Sending my application in late April would mean that while the June dates were inside the ten week SLA and therefore there was a slim possibility that I might not have a passport back at this time, I'd definitely have them back in plenty or time for the July travel.
The passport office offers an emergency service, to get your passport quickly via a face to face appointment, however these appointments were like hen's teeth, given the situation, so that was sadly not a possibility. As always, my focus was not on what I couldn't control (the backlog at the passport office, the other people applying) and focussed on what I could control (getting my application completed, checked and sent at the earliest possible point in time). So off went my application and my old passport, I let the client know and I focussed back on the work in front of me.
The weeks ticked by and I heard nothing. Several weeks after sending my application, we submitted my daughter's and her new passport arrived back within three weeks of submission. That was a bit frustrating, but again, outwith my control so I paid it little heed. Still no word on mine. I began chasing, as the June deadlines for travel loomed and got nowhere. The jist of the comms were 'we've got your application' and since it was still within the ten week SLA, there was nothing they were willing to do to expedite it. What can I control? Keep the client in the loop, keep contacting the passport office and hope for the best. So that's what I did.
The June deadlines came and went with no passport arriving. The client had to arrange someone else to travel and cover the sessions, at a cost to them. This was a significant frustration for them and for me, with both parties being financially impacted, however the fact that it fell at a time which was inside the Passport Office's SLA meant that there was little that could be done. While this was still an inordinate length of time to wait for documentation and while many applications submitted subsequently to mine had been processed, it didn't fall outside of their guidelines.
By now, I'm, starting to worry about my application. Have they lost it? So my call frequency increased and I found myself on hold, waiting to speak to advisers, on two occasions for an hour plus. Then during one call, I spoke to a customer service agent who advised about an upgrade process I could use if travel was imminent. Now it would have been lovely to have heard about that from one of her colleagues previously - perhaps that could have allowed me to make the June dates - but I can't control the past and I can control this opportunity. So I applied for the upgrade, giving them all the proof of travel they asked for. "They'll call you" I was advised. They never did. So the calls continued and the days continued to pass with no passport and no news on its progress, until during one call I'm told about another, separate escalated service. Again - it'd have been LOVELY to hear about that before, but I can control this moment alone. So I applied for the escalated service, again giving them all the proof of travel they needed. "They'll call you." Where have I heard that before?
By this point we have passed the ten week SLA and things are absolutely desperate. I've exhausted my controllables, beyond calling and emailing teams who have, thus far, done nothing to progress my application. Then a friend suggests engaging my MP. It seemed a long shot and a frivolous use of an MPs time and resource, but the loss of reputation, relationship and revenue that were at risk with being unable to fulfil this contract were hugely significant to my business. And, again, it was something I could control - so I did it.
The challenge with getting a passport for work is that when there's work to do, the client needs to ensure it's going to get done. If they and I hold out the hope that my new passport will arrive on time and we get to the day of travel and it hasn't, they have already sunk a HUGE cost into getting delegates to the venue (in one case, flying their team from across the US into their American HQ and in another case flying delegates from across Europe into their European HQ for the sessions) only to be unable to deliver these sessions. They need time to create and deliver a contingency plan, flying someone else in. Last minute, while not ideal, works ok for a holiday. It does not work for business.
Fast forwarding to a point where my frustrations were peaking, the passport was well past the ten week SLA and the client, having been supremely patient, needed some reassurances on progress, otherwise they'd have no choice but to move to plan B. At this point, there is zero indication of my application having been progressed. The specific option on the HMPO phone line for applications over the ten weeks simply as an automated message telling me they have my application and will be in touch! By now, friends and family have sent me a number of press reports, suggesting that applications received by the passport office in April and May have been deprioritised vs those received in June and July, in order that the processing times and the stats for those months look good for the passport office. If you applied in June and July, the stats show great turnaround times, but if you were ahead of the curve and got your application in during the spring, your application has been put to one side. That, whether true or not, is HUGELY frustrating to read.
The feeling, at this point, is total helplessness. Impotence. If I could drive to a passport office and get the replacement, I'd do it in a heartbeat. If I could get my old passport back, just to enable me to deliver these sessions, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But neither of those things is possible ("If you want your old passport back, you'll need to send that in writing to the passport office and it'll take 4 weeks"). I've exhausted the contents of my circle of control, so all I can do is remind myself of that - you've tried everything you could. However, that doesn't stop it eating away it you, if you let it. Sitting idling, your thoughts naturally drift back to the topic. Where is it? When will I hear? How can they allow this to happen? It's unfair - others have had their passports back in a matter of weeks, and they aren't even going anywhere! I'm angry. I want compensation and retribution!
But that doesn't do your mental state any good. The circumstances of others and the machinations of HM Passport Office, Durham are outwith my circle of control. No matter how much this situation has annoyed, frustrated, angered and hurt me, no amount of dwelling will change it. I simply need to look at what's next in my circle of control and put my energy there.
Later that day, the client makes the call - it's too close to the deadline and they need to book flights for someone else to travel and deliver the sessions, before the cost of this becomes prohibitive or there's no availability. The window closes and the work is gone. I apologise again, profusely, for the inconvenience that my circumstances have brought upon the client, hopeful that the relationship is strong enough to withstand this.
An hour later my phone rings. It's the passport office. "We'll have it in your hands in two days". I frantically contact the client, but it's too late. They've re-booked all the travel in a new name and in a saga that's dragged on for over ten weeks, I've missed the boat by sixty minutes.
Getting my passport is good news. I won't need another for a decade, so that's one less stress to deal with, but the damage is done. There's nothing I can do to change the situation. I've created a situation (not through my own doing, directly, but does the client see it that way?) which has massively inconvenienced the client and resulted in huge upheaval for the consultant replacing me and, personally, I've lost thousands of pounds in revenue for a business in its critical first year.
So where does that leave me? What can I control now? Well there's more work to do for this client and the first order of the day is making sure that's the best work I've ever done. Blow them away and restore their faith in me. And how can I make the best use of the time that I was due to be travelling? Time with Harper is a great start. Time to prep for the next round. And maybe some time to read, to plan and to focus on what the rest of my year looks like. Those are all things I can control.
Focussing only on those things you can control is tough, especially when you're in situations where there's a feeling of unfairness or unjustice. It takes practice and effort. And even as someone who helps leaders to reframe their own circumstances in order to do this, I struggle with it at times. But it's kept me sane and reminded me of a powerful quote.
It's your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how your life's story will develop - Dieter F. Uchtdorf
**Side note - if you find yourself in a similar situation, with travel deadlines looming, be aware that by speaking to an adviser at the passport office (0300 222 0000 > option 8 > option 3) you can request an upgrade (at a cost of about £101) if you're able to provide the proof of travel. It may not be accepted, depending on the volume of applications, but this was a service I wasn't even aware existed and I've never seen it advertised. Hopefully this helps someone else out along the way.