Strategy & LeadershipHow to master the art of transitions in the working world

How to master the art of transitions in the working world

Transitions occur in all walks of life, and as the world navigates the post-COVID recovery phase, this is more relevant than ever. HRD Thought Leader Dave Ulrich tackles this poignant topic, outlining his top tips for leaders and individuals to master the art of transitions.

How well do you manage the transitions in your life? Though generally undervalued, this is significant skill, because as a species, there are many types of transition we may face throughout our lifetime. These can include:

  • The logistics of physically relocating
  • Emotional transitions as a result of major life changes. For instance, a change in relationship status or a new professional/academic endeavor
  • The process of finding, blossoming and maintaining social relationships
  • Spiritual transitions involving belief and understanding of the divine.

As we emerge from coronavirus hibernation, each of the above is likely to occur in abundance. While transitions are often idiosyncratic, lessons are learned from experience and research.

Below is a ten-item checklist I use when coaching individuals or leaders through transition that could also be applied to wider organizations and societies.

1. Leave on good terms and respect your past

Transitions imply moving on and beginning anew. But it is important when moving ahead to leave on good terms with those left behind. Whether the transition is by choice or enforced, it is helpful to thank those who were part of the previous experience for what they offered.

Consideration: What do I want my legacy identity to be?l

2. Take time to let go

Author William Bridges talks about accepting and working through the psychological states of transition: disengagement (letting go), ‘disidentification’ (leaving and gaining new identity), disorientation (being lost in new place), and disenchantment (facing discomfort with the uncertainty of change). His suggestion is to take time to leave the past before beginning the future.

Consideration: How do I let go of my present before moving into my future?

3. Bring knowledge with you

Knowledge and relationships are the two connectors through any transition. Knowledge about what worked in one setting may not work in another setting, so ideas need to be adapted, not just adopted.

Consideration: What have I learned and how can those lessons be adapted to my new setting?

4. Retain relationships

Relationships endure though transitions of time, role, or place, and create social networks of support. Retaining relationships may be as simple as periodic updates or more complex through ongoing face-to-face meetings. It is amazing how often former relationships become central to current issues.

Consideration: Who are the people I want to stay connected with? 

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5. Carefully observe new settings

New opportunities sometimes require an abrupt change of direction, and at other times, the new normal evolves by observing, asking, and listening, with questions like:

  • What are indicators of success? What drives those outcomes?
  • What has worked here and what has not? Why?
  • What are the core values?
  • Who are the key stakeholders to this setting and what do they want or need?
  • What unique skills do I bring to this situation?
  • Who do I need to enlist to shape my agenda?

Being observant is a talent and a discipline. Sometimes early observations are wrong, but often it is better to observe before acting.

Consideration: What do I observe and feel about my new setting?

6. Initiate when appropriate

It is hard to know when and how to move from observing to doing, but there is a time when it is appropriate to bring new ideas into a new setting. New actions come from both formal events and informal conversations. Discover what is required for early success and balance the dichotomy of changing too much and changing too little.

Consideration: How do I take actions that will have impact?

7. Honor your predecessors, even as you shape your agenda

When moving into a new role or position, it is important to appreciate your predecessors. Your new agenda will likely represent an evolution of their previous work. If this evolution builds on (rather than belittles) what others have done, it will likely have more success.

Consideration: How do I show gratitude to those who have gone before?

8. Involve others

Leadership is a team activity. In transitions, aim engage others in defining and solving problems. Show curiosity by asking questions, proposing alternatives, and seeking guidance. Involving others increases your insight and extends your influence.

Consideration: Who can help me make progress?

9. Institutionalize changes

Often transitions are shaped by events (presentation, symbolic action, new vision, statement), but they are sustained when events become patterns. Patterns are shaped by institutional mechanisms around how to manage people (HR practices of staffing, training, promotion, compensation), how to govern (set a vision, make decisions, hold meetings), how to allocate resources (establish a budget, set priorities), and how to share information (communication, reporting procedures).  These institutional mechanisms ensure sustainability of ideas with impact.

Consideration: How can my ideas be woven into institutional practices?

10. Keep moving forward

Not all transitions will work, and even if they do, initial efforts need to evolve. Marriages, new jobs, and relationships often go through standard teething phases. To reach the transformation stage, you should encourage stories that connect the past to the future so that there is a narrative of how today’s efforts link to yesterday’s stories.

Consideration: How do I continually adapt and evolve as I move forward?

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