How to manage – and win – in these chaotic and turbulent times of change

From the vault: This column was originally posted in November 2020. Despite the gap between then and now, the challenges remain eerily similar to those facing leaders today. The insights touch on a lot of the themes and themes I’ve been hearing and talking about with clients and C-suite executives as I go on a kind of mini listening tour as we wrap up the year. I’ve made some edits, but the ideas are what we’re still tackling as we move from DEI-specific initiatives to building strong culture-focused leaders and organizations.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In a year (or years, really) of constant change, it’s understandable to feel burned out, especially if you’re in the C-suite. The challenges are immense: constantly forced to pivot, be optimistic, remain empathetic, keep all the moving parts together, set a good example. Y Lead your team to great victories.

All these day-to-day pressures and demands have not gone away! You still have to meet compliance deadlines, develop and implement sustainable strategies, identify problems and opportunities, monitor good fiscal activity, and do everything you can to plan for a future that is tremendously uncertain. Its alot. As the year winds down, you’re tired, as are many of your teammates.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

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Managing demands can sometimes seem impossible, but as a leader it’s your personal responsibility to navigate the chaos and keep winning. The obstacles don’t really matter. When you feel stuck in the valley, that just means you need a hilltop: a place to represent a new perspective on where you are and where you’re going so you can navigate change, get back on track, and keep moving toward a better place. A better future.

One resource that is in my constant rotation of leadership tools is transition management by William and Susan Bridges. A bona fide business classic, the authors present a three-stage model for leading through transition. I highly recommend that you read transition managementbut I’ll give you an advance in hopes of cheering you up.


Bridges are quick to tell the difference between change and transition. The change is usually rapid and external: something that happens to you, not within you. Rather, the transition occurs more slowly and internally.

Both ideas are intertwined. On an organizational level, change could mean layoffs, a merger, a digital transformation, a new C-suite leader, or a new diversity program. On a personal level, it can mean a promotion, a move, or a change in your marital or paternity status.


The immediate challenge is that in extremely difficult times, what we would often call “chaos”, none of us were really cut out to drive that much, fast or drastically. Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman address this idea in an article in the Harvard Business Reviewwhich explored leadership and change.

“The human mind evolved to think linearly and locally in the face of challenge, not exponentially and systemically,” they explain. What Chima and Gutman actually explored reveals the power of the three-stage model in transition management. Bridges provide a linear framework for understanding the transition.


transition management shows how to identify each stage of the process and provides step-by-step strategies for managing them:

  1. End, lose and let go is when people grieve what they have lost and struggle to accept unwanted changes. This stage brings resistance, frustration, and fear, so the role of a leader is to listen and communicate, ultimately focusing on the positive.
  2. The Neutral Zone occurs when people are getting used to the transition and then readjusting tones, behaviors, and expectations, but have not yet felt like they used to. In the Neutral Zone, one finds low morale, low productivity, skepticism, and even resentment. At this time, the leader’s role is to give strong direction and encourage people to talk about their experiences.
  3. The New Beginning is when people finally move towards transformation and acceptance. Here, you will witness renewed interest, commitment, and enthusiasm in rewarding your team and highlighting their successes.


Imagine your team is embracing a new digital process. At first, they are likely to be resistant and anxious, increasingly frustrated with the required learning curve, or worried that the change will make their jobs redundant. As an executive, your job is to listen empathetically, communicate the value of the change, and let the team know that you will do everything you can to help them through the transition.

During their learning process, the team will encounter challenges with the new process and will gradually move towards the Neutral Zone. Although engaged with the new information, they are not happy with the process. In fact, they miss the way things used to be, that seemed easier. As a leader, your response should encourage both creativity and patience. It’s important to remember that everyone moves at their own pace, and frankly, people can back off if change doesn’t work. As they master the technology and make it their own, you’ll notice renewed energy and increased productivity.


What sets him apart as a C-suite executive is his problem-solving mindset, but according to transition management, you will win during chaos by respecting all three stages and allowing them to unfold naturally. As the authors point out, it is self-defeating “to try to overcome people’s resistance to change without addressing the threat that change poses to their world.” By moving too quickly, you simply extend the first stage and make it harder for people to manage their own internal transitions.


As of September 2020 McKinsey Report on Organizational Grief he urged leaders and their organizations to face their loss and uncertainty head-on. According to Senior Partner Aaron De Smet, “The grieving process allows us to acknowledge and accept our emotions, paving the way for healing and recovery.” In other words, chaos breeds uncertainty, but it can be corralled or at least addressed by allowing employees to crave what they miss.

If we’ve learned anything in the flurry of chaos of the past few years, it’s that today’s high-octane executive must be empathetic. De Smet points out the underlying aspects of today’s leadership that past executives barely noticed, but are essential to winning. “It’s too easy to assume that if your colleagues and their families are healthy right now, then there’s no problem,” he says. “Look stronger. It’s a safe bet that members of his team are grieving on unrecognized levels: the potential sources of human loss are as varied as the people themselves.”


Everything we’ve experienced in the past two years has changed the organizational landscape, but it also revealed some profound challenges that continue to drive leadership into the 2020s. Understanding the three stages of transition in transition management It helped me form a mental model so I could understand where I was at, where my team was, and how I could support them.

As CEO, board member and executive coach, the three-stage model Bridges outlined provides a clear perspective. From this vantage point, I can see, and then lead, my team and the businesses I am responsible for or invested in, despite varying levels of turbulence. The phase aspect of transition management It helps me remember that within its framework, I can lead my team to win after win, despite the changes that come our way. It is this leadership perspective that keeps me coming back time and time again to transition management.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is CEO and Co-Founder of The Diversity Movement. His leadership memoirs, Underrated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, It is now available. He has extensive experience as an executive and board member, including digital marketing agency. walk west. Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, culture change, and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, keynote speaker, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and executive coach, he also serves on the board of directors of organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology, and sports. Donald also features the “High Octane Leadership” podcast. The Diversity Movement (TDM) enables organizations to build and strengthen culture by linking real-world business outcomes to diversity, equity and inclusion through a scalable employee experience platform. The Microlearning Library , “Microvideos from The Diversity Movement”, was named a fast company2022 Ideas that change the world.” IED Browser is a “diversity manager in a box” subscription service that gives organizations the ability to scale DEI efforts quickly, particularly for diversity leaders who are a department of one. Connect or follow Donald on LinkedIn Learn more.

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