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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Planning for the Unplanned: How to Manage Personal & Professional Transitions

Change management is often synonymous with progress and great leadership. It’s also notoriously difficult to manage gracefully. But there’s a difference between going through change and going through a transition; namely, that one is far more difficult than the other.

One of the core tenets of good leadership is the ability to both drive and adapt to change. There are several simple practices leaders should use – although many are easier said than done – to manage change effectively:

  • Involve as many of those who will be impacted as possible in the decision to make a change.

  • Communicate the change as soon and as transparently as possible.

  • It’s human nature to resist change, especially when the consequences are completely unknown to us. So, tell the people involved how change will affect them and involve them in implementing the change.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

  • Find formal and informal leaders to help reduce resistance.

  • Be prepared to change course if it is not working the way you thought it would.

  • Measure the impact of the change on the organization, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

  • Avoid over-commitment to an unsuccessful change and start the cycle of change over if need be.

These are sound principles of change leadership. However, transition leadership presents a greater challenge. What are some examples of transition? Throughout our lives, we make several personal and professional transitions. We transition from high school to college, from college to a profession, from job to job, and eventually to our post-career time.


Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events but rather the inner reorientation or self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes in your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work.

- William Bridges


Thus, simply managing change isn’t enough. To be effective leaders, we must navigate transitions thoughtfully and deliberately. The success of a transition is often a function of the amount of thought and planning that went into it. Even when transition is thrust upon us, such as an involuntary termination, we can be better prepared to handle it if we plan ahead.

The first step is to have a plan, written in your mind and preferably on paper. As life progresses, these plans inevitably change. Be prepared for this. Answer these questions for yourself:

  • What do I want to do next that is meaningful and full of purpose?

  • How does it align with what makes me and my loved ones happy?

  • What excites me about what I am doing now?

  • What do I need to do to further prepare myself and grow in my personal and professional “being”?

  • What can I tolerate?

  • What won’t I tolerate?

  • What is my personal vision and what growth is needed to achieve it?

This exercise is sometimes difficult to do. Many of us tell ourselves that the future is out of our control, or that we lack the ability to achieve our goals. That’s why making a plan – visualizing what we want and what we need to do to get there – is an important step to start combating our subconscious saboteurs.

If you have that plan in your mind, then when the boss calls you into the office and tells you it is time to move on, or the recruiter calls with an interesting possibility, or your organization merges with another, or the retirement “runway” begins to shorten, your thinking won’t be clouded by the stress of the moment. You’ll have a foundation of what’s best for you already in place.

As you give serious thought to your next transition, it is important to confide in the people you trust most, so that they can help you along the way. A spouse, partner, mentor, or colleague who knows you well can be invaluable.

When I went through my own transition from a long-time CEO to a certified executive coach, I leaned on friends and mentors as well. I consulted with fellow CEOs who had made the transition to (mostly) retirement. I enlisted my own coach who knew me well, personally and professionally. He helped me dig deep into my value structure, ensuring that I kept perspective and balance as I became a coach in my own right.

Over time, our own experiences teach us how to better handle transition. When we need a little extra help, there are colleagues and coaches who can lend a hand. A good executive coach will guide you through a transition with an objective eye, helping you clarify what your aspirations are and develop a plan for how to achieve them.

Please feel free to reach out if you believe I could help with your own upcoming transitions, formally or informally. But either way, start making a plan for yourself – today!

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