“When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.” – Mae West
My first work experience with organizational change and transition came when I was a brand new government employee at the age of 21. We were told there would be a major reorganization (forever nicknamed THE Reorg) and we would get more information. That information came in the form of two huge charts on the wall. One was an organizational chart and the other was a floorplan of our building with a seating chart. We were told to find our names on both charts and report there. If our name was not on the chart, we were told to report to Personnel (our version of HR) to receive our new assignments in a different division. That’s it. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well. I was very lucky. Since I had only been there a few weeks and was an entry-level hire, my job stayed the same and I reported to the same person in the same place. Everything else was absolute chaos. For months, people filed complaints, refused to do their jobs, or secretly delighted in their new situation. It was over a year before everything settled down. A year later, a new reorganization was announced. Let’s just say they did a better job of communicating this time (and every time thereafter). One thing we quickly learned is that reorgs and moves are a way of life in state government. No one likes them, but state employees dance to the tune played by legislators, politicians, and public interest groups. That is a reality of life.
I was a state employee for almost 20 years. One of my final assignments was to be a part of the team that built a new customer service unit from the ground up – essentially re-centralizing everything that was decentralized in that first reorganization. We were supposed to do it without upsetting people (yeah, right) and create a transition process that would keep chaos to a minimum. We did not do that. We did create a transition process, but our “white paper” on the transition reminded the head of our division that there was a historical bias against reorganization and that even people who were excited to join the new service center would need to process all of the negative stories they would hear. I never found out if they took our suggestions to heart as I left state government before the center was fully implemented.
Reading the book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, by William and Susan Bridges, took me through the changes I have experienced in work, churches, and in my own life. Every story or point made me thing of situations I could have handled differently as a leader, frustrations I experienced as a follower or bystander, and successes I witnessed in the different settings. This book feels like it neatly wraps up many of our previous leadership books, particularly Lowney’s Heroic Leadership. Lowney says, “When leadership is working, it hurts.” Leading people is messy, especially when we are training others to be leaders – the best of the best. What happens, though, when the “organization” that requires change and transition is me?
I confess to having a bit of a panic attack while reading the first chapter of this book. I had just started writing out my timeline to finish my dissertation work, and realized that my draft needs to be submitted in six months – three weeks after my daughter’s wedding. I began to realize how many changes and transitions will be happening over the next year and it hit me that a major chapter of my life (NINE years of grad school) will be ending and it will be time to start a new chapter. I need some sort of a guide to make that transition and this book is it.
Bridges notes that there are three phases of transition that take us from the old way to the new way:
- Letting go of the old ways and the old identity
- Going through and in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational (the “neutral zone”)
- Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning.
These are not linear phases, but rather cyclical phases that will overlap and fold in on each other in the transition. The “beginning,” however, is the end of the old way and identity. The “end” of transition, is reaching the new way.
I have known that change is coming. As much as I would probably like to, I cannot stay in grad school forever. Next spring (fingers crossed) I will graduate with my cohort and our time in this intense crucible (okay, I know that’s dramatic, but we’re tired) will end and everything will be different. What I didn’t take into account was the fact that I need to plan for the psychological transition that needs to happen. How will I let go of my identity as a full-time student and embrace my identity as, well, whatever I will be after graduation. I need to enter the “neutral zone” with an openness to the discomfort and creativity of that time. I need to be prepared to wander a bit while I find my footing, to grieve what I am letting go of, and to move ahead with new habits and patterns.
Even as I write this, I realize that my time in this program has been a bit of a neutral zone as well. Bridges describes what happens in this time and space as “the winter during which the spring’s new growth is taking shape under the earth.” Even though I have experienced endings and beginnings during this program, I also sense a deep shift in my formation. Something is gestating in me and my next transition will, hopefully, lead to its birth.
. Lowney, 285-286. Lowney explains that the Jesuit founders believed that finding and training “as many as possible of the very best” was the heart of true leadership. To do this, every leader must model the behaviors and attitudes they expect. Lowney boils this down to, “If you want your team to perform heroically, be a hero yourself.”