All careers involve transition, but it isn’t always an easy thing to navigate. How can we usefully think about this process and, crucially, how can we ensure that the transition to leadership is as smooth and successful as possible?
Over the years, we will all find ourselves in the midst of serious workplace upheaval. For example:
- Moving roles.
- Securing promotions.
- Changing organisations.
- Taking time off.
These shifts can be defined as changes as they occur in the external world. They are events that happen outside of ourselves and they often happen pretty quickly.
Transition is easy to conflate with change; easy, but wrong. Transition is the internal, psychological process that we undergo during a career change. We must come to terms with new situations, adjust and internalise the differences. Transitions tend to happen more slowly than changes and the starting point is always leaving the old situation behind.
For many, taking on a leadership role is the most significant transition in their career; second only, perhaps, to the jump from studying to working life. Moving into a leadership role as a partner or team leader can be a daunting experience but often the transition is neglected by both individuals and organisations. This can leave new leaders struggling to find their feet and deliver their business plans. Successfully managing this step-up will pay dividends in both the long and short term, while getting it wrong can be both painful and time consuming for those involved.
How can we think about transition?
The psychologist and thinker, William Bridges, offers a useful model when considering transitions. He proposed that a career transition typically consists of three stages.
Bridges called the first stage “Endings”. This stage is all about identifying what is being lost and how we manage that loss. During a transition to leadership, we might find that relationships with team members change, locations shift and processes we are familiar with no longer apply. Acknowledging these endings can sometimes be challenging but this acknowledgement is the first step to a successful transition.
The second stage is known as the “Neutral Zone”. Here, Bridges suggests that we must let go of the previous situation, learn about our new role and begin to create new processes. While we are letting go of the past, our new role hasn’t become fully formed yet and so this period can often be a time of flux. In this transitional zone, we hear reports of individuals feeling rudderless as they come to terms with their new world. There’s potential for confusion and distress, as well as feelings of hope and optimism.
The last stage is the period of “New Beginnings”. A new direction has been taken and this releases anticipatory energy that allows for the expression of a fresh identity. A new partner in a law firm described how he found this period brought focus, and a determination to deliver, following a period lacking in clarity.
While these experiences are by no means universal, transitions create psychological changes for everyone, not least because we are all programmed to find reassurance in stability over change. Given the ubiquity of these challenges, it is important to understand the impact of getting it wrong. Doing so can slow down career progress and undermine confidence.
How to guarantee a smooth transition to leadership
Acknowledge the transition is happening
In our roles as coaches, we are regularly surprised by how rarely individuals are aware that a slower period of psychological adjustment sits underneath a change in role. Acknowledging that a transition exists, and that it is significant to performance, is the first step to successfully managing this shift in role.
Understand the emotional impact
Once the idea of internal transition is identified and accepted, understanding that the change is likely to have an emotional impact is vital. Knowing what the impact might be at each stage of the process, and how these emotions can be understood and managed, is vital to ensuring both a smooth transition and to protecting wellbeing.
This can mean different things to different people. It often involves working with others to understand and validate experiences and challenge common assumptions. By sharing experiences with peers, a mentor or a coach, new leaders can gain insight into their position, share strategies and understand common challenges.
Transitions are rarely given much consideration in the legal world, including the move to leadership, despite the unique challenges that this brings. By ignoring the psychological processes that underpin significant career change, we are creating obstacles that will slow us down and trip us up. The conscious navigation of transitions can pay dividends for busy lawyers. Properly supported, new leaders can thrive.