Dean, a leader with many years of international based leadership experience, confessed even he was tired of managing another phase of change in his organisation. He told colleagues that he was suffering from ‘transition overload’.
This is not surprising – the more senior the leader, the increasing number of transitions they have to manage.
William Bridges published “Managing Transitions” in 1991 where he focussed on the transition as opposed to the change itself. A transition is the internal manifestation of that change that happens within the individual – the psychological impact of the change itself. Whilst this might seem subtle, it is significant as he clarified the emotional impacts the individual experiences during each stage of a transition.
Bridges makes a key point that people experience change even if they don’t agree to or desire it. He highlights three zones of transition people go through when they experience change. He said they are:
- Ending, Losing and Letting Go
- The Neutral.
- The New Beginning
Some of the major emotions experienced in the Ending Zone include denial, shock, anger, frustration, stress and ambivalence. The notion of a “sense of loss” is often described at this stage. The loss may be of history, identity, personal strength or control.
In the Neutral Zone, people often describe their experiences as resentful, low morale, low productivity, having anxiety and being sceptical about the future.
The New Beginning, when handled well, brings energy, openness to learning, renewed commitment and optimism for the future.
As leaders get more experienced they also experience many types of transitions they need to overcome. Here are ten such transitions.
Rising in seniority brings leadership complexity, competency stretch and the need to increasingly lead like a business owner rather than a line manager.
Joining a project team, taking up a functional role, going overseas for a period all bring new learning and a shifting of identity. The opportunity in the Secondment is, of course, the attractor. Letting go of the current role to experience the new one is the difficult part.
Inheriting a new boss
Research shows that a supportive boss who stretches and recognises their direct reports gets the ‘best out of their people’. Inheriting a new boss means you have to adapt to their style and approach (which may or may not align with what works best for you). This can be made more difficult if there was a positive relationship with the previous boss.
Inheriting a new team
In an ideal world every leader would get to choose their own team. We don’t live an ideal world of course. A promotion often means inheriting a pre existing team that has had a history of working together which pre dates the new leader. Both the leader and the team will experience transition until a new operating norm is established.
Increasingly, people, most often women, are returning from extended Parental Leave into operational and leadership positions. The transition of adjusting to parenthood and then leaving the baby at home is a difficult one. In environments where working mothers are not the norm, the transition for the team members to working with a colleague who is often a part time colleague and full time mother can be difficult.
Return post illness
Similar to parental leave, many employees and leaders have to take extended time due to illness. Returning to work is often staged and full of anxiety for the individual in question. Managing potential resentment from colleagues and ambiguity from trying to establish a new or return to the previous rhythm is a leadership activity.
Moving overseas as an expatriate leader is an obvious transition. In fact the assignment holds multiple, simultaneous transitions which are often being experienced for the first time. The expatriate will need to transition to a new country, language, country culture and way of working, go to market conditions, working for new leaders while their family comes along for the ride. This is a difficult set of transitions and it is not usual for this group of leaders to fall over.
By nature, organisational culture change is crammed full of transitions at every systemic and individual level. For some leaders a culture change is welcome and needed. For others it is seen as a threat as it may challenge how they have led in the past. People will transition at different paces. The leader needs to be actively cogniscent of these differences.Industry disruptions
Disruptive industry change forces whole companies and sectors to change or become obsolete. The world at large has witnessed this in 2020. Individuals transition at dramatically different speeds. Some adapt very fast and pivot to the new need. Many fall by the way side wondering what happened.
Personal identity changes
As life progresses we often stop to reflect on ourselves, what do we believe in, what do we value, what serves us now, what no longer serves us that might have in the past? Life events such as redundancies, death, divorce, having children, losing friends all have been found to force contemplation and re orientation. By nature, this is a transition.
Whatever approach is best is up to the individual but wisdom suggests the leader needs to “honour the past but embrace the future”. Failing to do either will result in leading a team with no one following or potentially, leading a team into oblivion.
What parts of transitioning do you find difficult?
What do you need to let go of in order to move ahead?
Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is the Founding Partner of The Leadership Context, a leadership advisory firm specialising in top team development and accelerating leadership transitions. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series.
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