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

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by Donald Thompson — November 23, 2022 .
From the vault: This column was originally published in November 2020. Despite the gap between then and now, the challenges are still eerily similar to what leaders are facing today. The ideas touch on many of the themes and topics I’ve been hearing and talking to clients and C-suite executives about as I conduct a kind of mini-listening tour as we wind down the year. I’ve made some modifications, but the ideas are ones we’re still addressing as we move from specific DEI initiatives to building robust culture-centric leaders and organizations.
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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In a year (or years, really) of constant change, it’s understandable to feel depleted – especially if you’re in the C-suite. The challenges are immense: You’re constantly forced to pivot, be optimistic, remain empathetic, keep all the moving parts together, set a good example and drive your team toward big wins. 
All these pressures and the day-to-day demands haven’t gone away! You still need to meet compliance deadlines, develop and implement sustainable strategies, identify problems and opportunities, oversee good fiscal activity and try your best to plan for a future that is wildly uncertain. It’s a lot. As the year winds down, you’re tired, just like many of your teammates. 
Donald Thompson
Handling the demands can sometimes feel impossible, but as a leader it is your personal responsibility to navigate the chaos and keep winning. The obstacles really don’t matter. When you feel stuck in the valley, that just means you need a hilltop – a place to stand for a new perspective about where you are and where you’re headed so you can navigate change, get back on track and keep pressing forward to a better future.
A resource that is in my constant rotation of leadership tools is Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges. A bonafide business classic, the authors lay out a three-stage model for leading through transition. I highly recommend that you read Managing Transitions, but I will provide a sneak peek in hopes of spurring you on. 
The Bridges are quick to note the difference between change and transition. Change is usually quick and external: something that happens to you, not within you. In contrast, transition happens 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 might mean a promotion, a move, or a change to your marital or parenting status. 
The immediate challenge is that in extremely difficult times – what we would frequently call “chaos – none of us were really made to handle so much, so quickly or this drastically. Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman touch on this idea in an article in the Harvard Business Review, which explored leadership and change. 
“Human minds evolved for thinking linearly and locally in the face of challenge, not exponentially and systemically,” they explain. What Chima and Gutman explored actually reveals the power of the three-stage model in Managing Transitions. The Bridges provide a linear framework for understanding transition. 
Managing Transitions shows how to identify each stage in the process and gives step-by-step strategies for managing them:
Imagine that your team is adopting a new digital process. At first, they’re likely to be resistant and anxious, growing frustrated with the learning curve required or worry that 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’ll do what you can to help them through the transition. 
During their learning process, the team will find challenges with the new process and gradually move into The Neutral Zone. Although engaged with the new information, they are not happy about the process. As a matter of fact, they miss the way things used to be, which seemed easier. As a leader, your response should be encouraging both creativity and patience. It’s important to remember that everyone moves at their own pace and, frankly, people can slip backwards if the change isn’t working. As they master the technology and make it their own, you’ll see renewed energy and greater productivity. 
What sets you apart as a C-suite executive is your problem-solving mindset, but according to Managing Transitions, you will win during the chaos by respecting the three stages and allowing them to play out 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.
A September 2020 McKinsey report on organizational grief urged leaders and their organizations to face their loss and uncertainty head-on. According to Senior Partner Aaron De Smet, “The grieving process lets us recognize and accept our emotions, easing the path toward healing and recovery.” In other words, chaos breeds uncertainty, but can be corralled or at least addressed by allowing employees to yearn for what they miss. 
If we have learned anything in the flurry of chaos over the last several years it is that today’s high octane executive but also be empathetic. De Smet points to the underlying aspects of leadership today that past executives barely noticed, but are essential for winning. “It’s all too easy to assume that if your colleagues and their families are healthy right now then there’s no problem,” he says. “Look harder. It’s a sure bet that members of your team are grieving on unacknowledged levels – the potential sources of human loss are as varied as people themselves.”
All we have experienced in the last two years has changed the organizational landscape, but also revealed some deep-root challenges that continue to drive leadership in the 2020s. Understanding the three stages of transition in Managing Transitions helped me form a mental model so I could understand what stage I was in, where my team was and how I could support them. 
As a CEO, board member and executive coach, the three-stage model the Bridges outlined gives a clear perspective. From this vantage, I can view – and then lead – my team and the businesses I am responsible for or invested in, despite varying levels of turbulence. The phase aspect of Managing Transitions helps remind me that within its framework, I can lead my team to win after win, despite whatever changes come our way. It is this leadership perspective that keeps me turning again and again to Managing Transitions
About the Author 
Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement. His leadership memoir, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available now. He has extensive experience as an executive and board member, including digital marketing agency WalkWest. 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 as a board member for organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Donald also hosts the “High Octane Leadership” podcast. The Diversity Movement (TDM) enables organizations to build and strengthen culture by tying real-world business outcomes to diversity, equity, and inclusion via a scalable employee experience platform. The microlearning library, “Microvideos by The Diversity Movement,” was named a Fast Company2022 World Changing Ideas.” DEI Navigator is a “chief diversity officer 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 to learn more. 
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