Leading through transitions: How to navigate the rough waters of change

When I’m asked about the work I do with individuals and organizations, I say that all coaching is about learning.

Transition coaching is about learning a new way to navigate change. I am privileged to work with individuals during transitions of so many sorts, from graduation to retirement. I’ve assisted growing business organizations tackling changes from new IT systems to new members on the team, from mergers to the birth of a global presence.

Dr. John Kotter’s work as a change management guru has enriched my coaching. Kotter is a professor at Harvard Business School who formulated an eight-step change process in his book, “Leading Change.” I tailor his steps to fit the individual or organizational client, of course, yet always find it helpful to stick to the order of actions that Kotter recommends.

His first step – create urgency. In an organization, 75 percent of the management needs to “buy into” the change. The leaders need to begin honest, spirited dialogue about why the change is positive for the organization.

This is just as important in working with a private client. The decision to enter the change work needs to be as bold as that “Hollywood” sign. The client won’t step into action without that urgency. “I’m thinking about quitting smoking.” – a long way from buying into the change.

Step two is form a powerful coalition. In business, the influential people need to be on board. These influential people might have power because of status or expertise. They might have power because they’ve built circles of trust and respect, though they may be far removed from the executive level.

In coaching the individual, this step involves eliciting support from family and friends. Often the transition is just what the client needs, yet it will only happen with support – and sometimes sacrifice – on the part of others.

In step three, the task is to create a vision for change. In business, this entails a statement describing how the change syncs with the overall values and vision of the organization. Keep the statement short and clear and practice it often.

For individuals, it is just as important to consider the relationship between core values and the transition. It helps to develop a crystal clear vision of life after the change.

Kotter’s fourth step is to communicate the vision. In an organization, it is vital to keep the vision fresh for everyone. Tie it to all organizational functions, from training to annual meetings. For private clients, it is just as important to continually communicate – out loud – about the desired change. It keeps the motivation alive. In business and private work, it is essential to reward supporters. “Honey, I would never have been able to go back to school and get my master’s without you pitching in at home.”

Obstacles are usually identified in step one. In step five we figure out what to do about the obstacles. Resisting change is so natural. Here that resistance needs to be located and enlightened – with respect. There are often unforeseen obstacles, little or big stumbling blocks that will need to be recognized and removed or reframed.

Step six is one familiar when working toward any goal: create short-term wins. We need to meet and celebrate achievements along the way to the big goal to keep energy high and focused.

In Kotter’s step seven, he urges us to build on the change. Here he reminds us that real change runs deep. Most of us have felt the impact of declaring victory too early. In this step the work is to review progress, identify what went right and what didn’t, and adjust the process accordingly.

Lastly, Kotter says to anchor the changes in corporate culture. It helps to keep progress highly visible and keep recognizing everyone who participated in the successful transition. In personal or corporate work, this last step must not be overlooked. It includes reflection on navigating through the obstacles (those skills can be used again) and enjoying all the positive aspects of the change.

I’ve been blessed with a tendency to lean into change. It may well be a result of those many moves as I was growing up. New schools, new friends, new climates – all that. Certainly I embrace this terse statement of Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, “Change is the only constant.”

Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee resident. Her website is www.coachingconbrio.com and she can be reached at (414) 305-3459.

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