Transitions are tough on everyone including senior executives, who we tend to assume are experienced enough to cope on their own. We need to support everyone through transitions, but especially senior executives, where the ripple effect is the greatest, both for the business and for the people involved.

Let’s look at an example that is important for every business to get right– hiring a new senior executive.  We’ll assume that this person has the right experience and is ready to start.

The problem is, we expect them right from the word go to have exactly the same skills, understanding and embedded culture as our home-grown executives…and because they don’t, they under-perform and/or bail on us.

When they are sponsored and mentored by existing home-grown talent, they are likely to hear about how they can ‘fit in with our way of doing things’.  This defeats the object of bringing in their external perspectives and experience.

Alternatively, we throw them in the deep end to swim, with little support.  In this case, they are likely to stand apart, aloof and rubbing people up the wrong way; or having a victim mentality, not rising to the challenge.

The chances are that they – and we – will get frustrated in both of these scenarios, as they don’t lead to premium performance, and this leads to attrition.

It’s important for business that change is managed well, for the sake of productivity.

And it’s important to our people that transitions are managed well.  If the human transitions are not managed well, then we don’t have much hope of making the change work and increasing productivity quickly.

There is always a dip in productivity as people go through transition; if we can support them through that transition, they will make it through to the other side sooner and less battered and bruised.

The distinction between change and transition

Change is situational: new team, new boss, new location, new policy etc. Change has to do with external circumstances.

Transition is the emotional and spiritual process people go through in order to come to terms with the new situation.

Change is external, transition is internal.

“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions”

(William Bridges).

Unless transition occurs, change will not work.

Take another example, getting a promotion from senior manager to partner in an organisation.  This is a big step.  As with every “passage” in the leadership pipeline (Charan, Drotter and Noel), there is a need to leave old ways behind, and develop new ones – skills, time application, and work values.  That can feel like a wrench – all these things that served us so well and got us promoted now need to be jettisoned in favour of new ways of doing things.  As a business, we want them to prove that we made the right decision in promoting them, and yet it’s tough for them to go through this transition without some support and challenge.  We need to stop assuming that people are “grown up” enough to figure this out on their own.  They can figure it out much faster with a little support from a coach.

If we were to look at change through the employee’s lens, we would see the following:

Of course, there are changes outside of work too, births, deaths, marriage, divorce, moving home etc.

Each of these changes needs a corresponding transition.  Individuals can get stuck in the transition, causing real anxiety and loss of action.  It helps to talk about what is going on.   That could be with a friend, or with a boss, or with a coach.

The most helpful conversations enable individuals to identify and mourn what they are leaving behind; figure out what they can take with them; celebrate the ending; work through the no-man’s land, as constructively as possible, despite many unknowns; and make a good beginning.

There are a lot of emotions wrapped up in there too, such as grief at what you are losing with the ending, a feeling of betrayal, or fear of the unknown.

These emotions slow us down too, as we sometimes get ourselves in knots, mulling them over, but not really resolving anything.  Again, that’s where it helps to have a sounding board, to help us to process what’s going on inside our heads.

“Transition is an emotional and reflective process that can take many months”

Pamela McLean.

Emotions drive us forward

I know some business leaders think that emotions should be banished from the workplace.  But do that and motivation, momentum and action are lost.  Emotions drive us forward.  Sometimes, we just need a little help to articulate them constructively and to figure out our next move – and we don’t necessarily want to talk about them to our new boss, for example.  That’s where coaching from a neutral person comes into its own.

A third, slightly different example, involves a senior executive who had been working on a sale for a year, only to lose the bid at the last hurdle.  He was exhausted, having expended all of his time and energy on building the client relationship, and putting together the best proposal that he could.  He invested a lot in that bid over the last year.  He was then expected to move straight on to the next sale.  No break, no recognition of his efforts, a feeling of failure.   While he realised that business is business, he also resented this lack of support for the turmoil he feels. This is a big transition, moving from one sale to another, after such a lot of work.  This guy was lucky – he stumbled across a coach, who helped him to process the loss, learn from it and move on.  Had he not been able to take time out to reflect, he says himself that he was headed for burnout.  As it happens, a few months later, he brought in a massive deal worth millions – but he says he could not have done that without the support of his coach, who helped him build his confidence again.

Change helps us develop and grow; and it’s a psychological disruption.  No matter how seasoned we are or we are in our journey, we still need help making the most of the transitions we encounter.

Executive Coach and Coach Supervisor Clare Norman is based in Southampton and also works in London and Bournemouth. Clare works with clients who want to make high impact transitions from one company to another, from one role to another, and when stepping up to more senior leadership levels.