Change is scary. Try a transition journey instead.

Today the last day of school where I can still call myself a staff member at Chrysalis Charter School. This school has meant so much to me and my family -- a second family to belong to, a village to raise my kids, a third child for me to raise, and a job that I adore. I still have a few projects to tidy up in June, but this is a really big change for me.


I’m seeing evidence of change all around me. Communities are gradually emerging from the pandemic in fits and starts. A good friend is moving both her office and her house this month. Change is especially prominent for families and educators winding down the most challenging of school years. Amongst the hubbub of graduations and final exams are retirements and new hires. My principal’s Facebook group is buzzing with posts like “I just was offered XYZ position at ABC School! Advice please!”


Big changes like these are terrifying because change means giving up something known and familiar for something unknown and uncertain. I recently finished a fabulous book on navigating change: Managing Transitions; Making the most of change by William Bridges. He says the reason change is so hard is because people struggle “to protect their world, and the meaning and identity they got from it... I’ve learned how self-defeating it is to try to overcome people’s resistance to change without addressing the stress change poses to their world.”


The book has resonated deeply with me because it perfectly describes the psychological transitions that I see taking place personally and organizationally during times of change. Bridges’ main premise is that change is different than transition. Change is situational and environmental -- a new job, a new policy, returning to restaurants or the workplace after pandemic shut down, retirement, an empty nest, getting married or divorced, or having a baby. Change is what happens. In contrast, “transition is different. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind. Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place.”


For me, the discrete changes were (1) hiring a fabulous new Administrator to take the helm of Chrysalis last July, and now, today, (2) the last day of school. They were landmarks in time. In contrast, the transition has been a long psychological process that has taken all year to unfold. Transitions are the journey through the wilderness from one landmark to the next. There are three stages in a transition process.


Stage 1: Endings


“The single biggest reason organizational changes fail is because no one has thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people. Naturally concerned about the future, planners and implementers all too often forget that people have to let go of the present first. They forget that while the first task of change management is to understand the desired outcome and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home.”

We hired my successor last July with the plan that I would stay on half time to support her through the school year as she learned the ropes. I made the foolish assumption that I wouldn’t have to actually let go of my roles, responsibilities, and identity until January or so. I thought perhaps the year would unfold like a gradual release of responsibility.


Nope. We hired a dynamo, completely ready to dive into a covid school year as administrator. What a brave soul!


I found myself in the first staff meeting being asked to work from home in order to let the sun shine fully on the new Administrator’s face as the school year began. It was absolutely the right call for the team, but I broke down sobbing (luckily staff meeting was taking place on Zoom so I could mute myself and turn off the video) as the realization hit me like a semitruck that I needed to start letting go immediately, not somewhere down the line. Letting go of something as dear to me as the identity and belonging I felt as the leader of Chrysalis was not going to be easy.


With the help of powerful coaching, I started to make the psychological shift required of the ending stage. My first step was to take a brain break and realize that this wasn’t about me not being good enough or being rejected. No, this change was necessary and truly for the best of the entire team, especially my successor.


Next, I had to change my mindset about what my role actually could be. The first useful analogy I found was that this school, my third child, was growing up and going off to college. That helped for a time because it fully cemented the idea that I would need to let go and let my baby grow up and fly in ways I couldn’t take her myself.


In any personal or organizational transition, the way to pave the path for this first stage of transition, for letting go, is to:

  1. Help people see the reason why change is necessary and that it’s not about them. Folks get defensive, scared, and angry when their identity and whole world is about to change. If they can see the rationale behind it all, and realize it’s not about them but in the interest of a larger goal they can buy into, then you’ve got the foothold you need. The emotions are real. People are going to grieve. Let them. Empathize. Letting go is hard. But it’s essential to know deep down that this change is necessary and convince your team that this truly is the best way forward.

  2. Gradually shift people’s mindset. If people are going to lose something important to them -- status, belonging, space, responsibilities, control -- what’s something of equal value that could be given back. For me, losing my office, role, and control was worth it knowing that Chrysalis was going to grow up, stretch her wings and fly with more freedom than ever before. Moreover, I’d have time and space to explore my new professional adventure in leadership coaching.


Stage 2: The Neutral Zone

“One of the most difficult aspects of the neutral zone is that most people don’t understand it. They expect to be able to move straight from the old to the new. But this isn’t a trip from one side of the street to the other. It’s a journey from one identity to another, and that kind of journey takes time.”

The neutral zone is a time of great uncertainty and upheaval. The old hasn’t fully fallen away and then new hasn’t even fully taken shape. For me, this was a time of big ups and downs. The break in normal routines opened the door to experimentation, growth, and innovation on one hand, and grief, fear, and failure on the other. I stepped on lots of toes at school and made tons of mistakes with coaching and getting a new business off the ground, but at the same time, it was like being a kid in a candy store with so many delicious, tempting options before me.


My biggest mindset shift during this phase was realizing that Chrysalis was not my kid going off to college, but that it was me, Irene, that was graduating and going off to new adventures. I wasn’t being left behind. I was the one in the drivers seat. I had control. I was excited, even thrilled by some of the new opportunities. That shift would not have been possible if I had not been able to make the first shift and accept that my identity as Chrysalis’ leader was ending.


For you or your organization, it’s important to understand that there’s a lots of mixed emotions, ups and downs, and mistakes being made in the neutral zone. The solution is to celebrate growth and experimentation. “Experiments” don’t seem as scary because they aren’t final and finished. They inherently allow for trial and error. It’s okay to make mistakes because you learn from the mistakes just as much as the successes. So encourage lots of experimentation, both large and small.


A culture of safety and trust is essential here. This fantastic Harvard Business Review article describes the many benefits of a high-trust organization, especially in times of change. With a management focus on relationship-building, acknowledging the hard stuff and asking for help when you need it (aka vulnerability), broad information sharing, and growing your people, the organizational culture can emerge from the neutral zone stronger and more resilient than ever before.


Stage 3: New Beginnings


“The purpose, the picture, and the plan all omit something: a part for them to play. Until that is provided, many people will feel left out and will find it difficult to make a new beginning.”

William Bridges’ advice for the final stage of transition is to address the 4 Ps: Purpose, Picture, Plan, Part.


Purpose means keeping all eyes focused on a desired outcome that solves the problem that spurred the change in the first place. For me, I wanted to leave Chrysalis and find a career that offered location and time flexibility. I also wanted to leave Chrysalis with a bright future ahead of her.


Picture means painting a picture of how that outcome would look, sound, and feel to myself and everyone around me. At the beginning, the picture was unclear to me. It took lots of experiments throughout the year to paint this picture. For instance, I tried on consulting in addition to coaching before I realized that I prefer coaching. That was the perfect experiment for the neutral zone and it made the final picture much more clear.


Plan means laying out a step-by-step plan for how to reach the outcome. As much as I wished for a crystal clear road map, that plan for me evolved gradually over the course of the year. The details of the painting closest to me were obvious and clear: enroll in coach training. Some other broad pencil outlines were also easy to set in place: meet frequently with the new Administrator and Chrysalis team at first and less and less throughout the year. And the remaining details needed to be completed later on: only now do I know what tasks remain on my plate for Chrysalis in June.


Part means ensuring that everyone on the team has a part to play. Without a sense of ownership and independence, there’s no buy in for the new beginning you wish to create. Obviously, I had a part to play in creating my leadership coaching practice but I had to work hard to understand and embrace the part I would play in my final days as a staff member at Chrysalis. My part is to set the example for what a gracious exit can look like. I have clear, delineated tasks that play to my strengths. I continually make myself available so that if someone needs help of any kind, I’m there to step in. But otherwise, it’s the new team’s show and they’re doing an amazing job.


So, for all of you readers out there, know that whatever transition you are facing -- a new job, a job search, a new baby, pandemic emergence, graduation, the end of a school year -- it is possible to navigate from letting go to a new beginning with all the identity change that will bring. Scary is normal. But the new world on the other side is pretty awesome if you take the opportunity to create the new world and new identity you want to for your new beginning.


Read More

There are many other models of change management out there in addition to Bridges. This color-coded comparison by Confident Change Management is fabulous. Why do I like Bridges’ Managing Transitions best? Because of the emphasis on the psychological and emotional challenges of transitions. I am a psychologist and neuroscientist after all!


Going Further

Here’s 2 free and 1 paid way to explore the transitions taking place in your life.


  1. Are you interested in some free leadership coaching? I’m seeking to level up my accreditation with the International Coaching Federation and would love to waive my normal fees for two coaching sessions with you -- one recorded for my accreditation, and a second to build upon whatever insights you gained and take them even further. Email me at irene@irenesalter.com if interested.

  2. If you found something of value in this article, consider subscribing and/or sharing it with a friend. It warms my heart when my words can stretch their light further into this world.

  3. Calling all women leaders seeking camaraderie and connection as they navigate transitions in their career or life. Join me and fellow executive coach, Tutti Taygerly, amongst the redwoods of Mendocino, CA for a women’s leadership retreat. This unforgettable four day, three night experience over Labor Day weekend will empower you to deeply understand all your strengths and how to best use your voice in any professional context. Apply today to snag one of the remaining early-bird tickets, or email me at irene@irenesalter.com for more information.

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