In Search of Sustainable Leadership:
Managing Transitions

Sponsored by SUSCOM & Shaw Industries

This is the third in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to the entire series below.

The first step in our search for sustainable leadership has shown how purpose and values can make us more able to handle change. Managed correctly, this generates a form of competitive advantage that grows stronger with each challenge we face, making other leadership models “obsolete.”

This article looks in more detail at how we can achieve this.

Transitions Matter More Than Changes

We are living through a time of rapid change. Changes in technology, the economy, politics and society are forcing every organization to adapt. Each change brings with it psychological and emotional transitions. Some of these are large, others small. All will be important.

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For example, following a reorganization, John and his team found themselves with new roles and reporting lines. The changes involved were relatively straightforward: John and his team could quickly adapt to the new location, tasks and technologies they were being asked to take on. But what mattered more to them (and affected their morale and productivity) were the unspoken impacts on their identities. Would their new role still be as important to the strategy of the firm? Would they lose their relationships with key decision-makers? What would be the impact on their status in the industry?

It wasn’t the changes that would determine the success or failure of the reorganization but the way these personal transitions were handled.

Changes happen in the outer world. They involve new roles, tasks and reporting lines. Transitions happen in our inner worlds. They are about who we are, our identities.

Changes are visible. Transitions are invisible. Changes involve places, transactions, and things. Transitions are about meanings, relationships, and stories. Changes can happen quickly. Transitions can take time for people to work through. Changes are predictable. Transitions are not. This is why change guru William Bridges says, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”

Managing these transitions forms Step 4 of the process by which change happens in organizations (see diagram). It is the step to which we collectively pay least attention. But it is also the step that, if managed well, closes the loop of organizational change, making leaders and their organizations more able to address the next issue that arises, and so building antifragile competitive advantage.

The first person to write about these transitions was Arnold van Gennep. In the early 1900s, he studied the ‘rites of passage’ associated with the major life transitions of death, marriage and the shift from childhood into adulthood. What he discovered was that we never go straight from ‘State A’ into ‘State B.’ There is always a third, intermediate or transitional stage where we are no longer in the old identity but not yet fully in the new one, either. This is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly.

Getting married provides a good example. Usually this begins with a period of engagement. Here we announce that a change is going to happen and start to come to terms with the idea that we will take on a new identity. This stage is called Separation. In the second, Threshold, stage, the wedding itself takes place. Here we cross the threshold and officially become ‘married’: our old life is over but our new identity has not yet formed. Then, during the third stage, we start to discover and integrate what being married is really about. This is Consolidation: the honeymoon period and beyond.

These same three phases exist whenever we start a new role or implement change in an organization. We separate from the way things used to be, cross the threshold to start building the new approach, then gradually consolidate this new way of being and doing.

The key success factors for the first phase, Separation, are to let go of the past and turn to face the future. This involves accepting that the past has gone, recognizing the resources and learning it has brought us, and deciding to use the future to rebuild what matters most. Ritualistic actions can help us let go of the past. The key to turning to face the future is to create an inspiring vision.

In the Threshold stage, people face uncertainty. Here we have let go of the way the world used to be but have not yet built the way it is going to be. Values give us a way to step into that uncertainty, by controlling the only thing we can control: ourselves. By defining our values, we give ourselves guidelines and permission to choose quickly how we respond to any situation. This puts us back in control and immediately brings the culture of our future vision alive.

Finally, during Consolidation, the priority is to align and integrate the different elements of the future organization. Here momentum, coherence, and communication matter. Defining purpose delivers all three: it provides urgency, alignment and a way to resolve competing priorities. Defining purpose enables different parts of our organization to make rapid, independent decisions and remain aligned with a common, shared direction.

By empowering organizations to quickly manage all three stages of transition, sustainable leadership enables us to adapt seamlessly to change. This builds the ‘better system’ that Buckminster Fuller talked about: a new kind of organization that not only survives change but uses change to become stronger — the ultimate sustainability.

We will return to purpose and values in the sixth article of this series. For now, the next step in our quest to find the building blocks of sustainable leadership is to understand how to achieve Separation. For this, we need to understand how to create an inspiring vision, which I will discuss in my next post.

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet
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