Overcoming the transition challenge

By: Karl Daly


While looking to fill the void left by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2, I recently came across a programme on polar expeditions. The documentary talked about the various challenges travelling across the great polar ice caps and the huge danger presented with ice crevasses. As one of the team outlined: “it’s pretty straightforward when moving on compact ice shelves, the biggest risk is when transitioning from one to another.”

This got me thinking that it’s an interesting analogy for our work and personal lives. It’s all pretty straightforward when things are stable, it’s navigating the transitions that often presents the greatest challenges.

Think about how straightforward your first real job or career transition was. It could have been your first job after school or first time in a corporate setting. I still vividly remember my first people manager position. I had a clear job description and set of expectations, yet the day I started I felt totally exposed and unclear of what to do. How often do we see people really struggle to make the move from team member to manager?

And how about some other examples;

  • The Harvard Business Review found 40% of high potential internal job moves fail.
  • When transitioning up through different levels of leadership
  • Moving from one company or industry to another
  • In many cases coming back to work after maternity or sick leave.
  • And this of course extends beyond work – for example coming out of a tough personal or family situation

The list goes on and on. The risk of failure is very often greatest during the transition process.

The impact of not getting the transition right can be significant. Feeling demotivated and uncertain; questioning your capability; getting locked into career traps; even questioning your sense of identity. I think of an engineer friend of mine who had to move from a senior expert role on the front line, to a team leader in a corporate setting. Having been the “go to” person who made the last call on everything, he was now a smaller fish in a big pond having to deliver through others. Having to rebuild his sense of identity and how he now added value proved the biggest obstacle in his transition.

If that is the impact for one person making one transition, what is the aggregate impact at a workforce level? How much more productive could an organisation be if it could manage transitions more effectively and maintain levels of engagement and personal effectiveness?


So, what makes a difference between a successful transition and an unsuccessful one?

  • Creating structure around the situation.This is about defining what the change will look like, when it will happen, what is expected. This is the part that most organisations get right.
  • Helping people realign their sense of self to the new situation.This means focusing on the emotional and behavioural aspects. What do you need to let go of at a personal level? Are there things you enjoy currently that won’t be there anymore? Will there be any conflict with your values or self-image? And critically, as well as skills, what new behaviours you will need to adopt?
  • Making sense of the new world.This is about enabling people to understand, build and successfully navigate new relationships and stakeholder environments. Much of our self-image can be defined by the messages we get from others and the expectations they have of us.

The second two bullets often feel too difficult to manage and so get ignored. It’s important to have a process in place to capture all of these areas as our research suggests that these are the factors that will make or break a successful transition.

They are also the factors that generate the best learning. The opportunities for personal and professional growth are significant during a transition. Attending to all of the facets of transitions means not only successfully navigating the change but also accelerating your personal success and career and even life trajectory.


So how do you harness the opportunity that transitions present and avoid the problems? There are three important steps.

  1. Understand the change. The first step is in acknowledging that it’s the transition itself that can be as impactful as any other factor in moving from one state to another. What does this transition really mean for you and where you currently are? And this is not just in terms of skills and practicalities. What is expected of you that will be new or different? And what strengths can you capitalise on, perhaps by aligning them with the new position in a different way.
  2. Understand yourself. The second step is holding the mirror up. This is about you as a person – your identity, values, mind-set etc. That includes embracing how you feel, both the positive and the negative. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable during a transition and be open about potential pit falls.
  3. Navigating the new world successfully. What can you do for yourself or get from someone else to help with? How do you start to build relationships and establish new networks that will help you? You are not expected to have all of the answers – how do you build connections that will support you during and after this transition?

Fundamentally, it’s really about being more mindful about the transition. It’s about avoiding jumping from one thing to another and being aware and present as you are going through a transition. Being in tune with the thoughts, experiences and feelings you encounter. And in an ongoing manner, checking in as to progress and recognising successes and learnings. With change more constant and transitions more frequent than ever before, we need to equip people will the skills they need to navigate these transitions successfully.

As Sir Edmund Hilary said “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

Karl Daly

Karl has 15+ years of experience within consulting and in-house leadership roles which cross geographies, sectors and industries. Most recently he has led a global team of experts to develop and deliver innovative development interventions across Asia, the Americas, Europe and Australia.