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  • The Anatomy of a Transition
    July 26 2017 BY Vishwanath P

    The Anatomy of a Transition 

    Navigating the space between “no longer” and “not yet”


    It’s a funny place, this! The void between a past gone by and a future yet to emerge. A crossroad in the woods, where the roads diverge. A space full of potential and possibilities. 

    It’s a space filled with anxiety and dread.  And is often layered with excitement and anticipation. Yes, as most would attest to, the times of transition are often  the most dramatic and defining moments of our lives. 

    And yet, as I have discovered in my personal experience and working with several coachees over the years, the space is also rife with cul-de-sacs, blind alleys and roadblocks. It’s fraught with feelings of frustration and helplessness.  An intense, often disquieting confrontation with feelings of one’s own self-worth is never too far away. As you probably have experienced, deep transitions often involve not only a change in circumstances (change in role/ context /career) but a deeper reshaping of one’s own identity - a transformative shift in the story we tell ourselves of who we are. 

    In my experience, there are four key anchors that need to be systematically explored and re-crafted during the process of transition. 

    The Know-Why: 

    This is one of the key identity elements and perhaps needs the most attention in a deep transition. In involuntary transitions- loss of job, loss of a loved one, movement into a new career-you can be left experiencing an acute lack of ‘purpose’ and an inability to craft a new one. 

    There is often a re-questioning at this stage of ‘what this is all about’/ ‘is this what I want do in my life’/ ‘who am I without the other’.  This can sometimes leave you feeling paralyzed and ambivalent about the future. Often one experiences this as a ‘crisis of meaning’ with associated feelings of despair or lack of will. 

    This is the best time to revisit your purpose, your passions and move toward a renewed commitment to them as the way to energize yourself and bring a deeper motivation required for this shift to occur. 

    In some cases, you might feel like you are fairly clear on your purpose while seeking a shift to a new career. However, you might confront a reality that looks very different from what you had envisaged. Responses could range from the alarmist “Oh God!, what have I done” to a more mature “Perhaps, I am in the wrong place”. In such cases, there is a tendency to quickly retreat and  retrace your steps to the old and familiar. 

    Marvin, who left a lucrative corporate career to focus on doing socially relevant work, faced the same challenge. During his first month with the non-profit world, I received at least  three rantic calls all of which started with “I have decided to quit”. This new world was apparently rife with politics (who would have thought that !?), slow to move and did not seem to appreciate his talents. Over the next few months, as we worked together, Marvin was able to see the new context is a more accepting way and move with renewed intention towards what really mattered for him. 

    As a coach, I believe what is most crucial here is to reconnect to your purpose. Often, you will discover that the “idealist / romantic” in you and begin to move toward a more realistic sense of the what is possible. Once you are able to reaffirm the key elements of your purpose, you can then move your emphasis toward the “what to” and the “how to” aspects of the changed role. 

    The Know-How: 

    Another critical element of a successful transition is to re-examine the core expertise that you have and how it can be relevant in the changed scenario. Often the new job or position requires a completely different set of skills than the previous one. As Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s most renowned coaches,  aptly puts it,  “What got you here, won’t get you there”. In essence, you will need greater focus on your unlearning in favor of learning the new skills required for success.  

    Often, people in this zone are beset with ‘learning anxiety’, and may continue relying on past ways of working and taking decisions based on their zone of expertise. For example, Steve, a CFO I worked with, had significant challenges transitioning into the CEO role. He continued to look at the company from a financial lens (which happened to be the very reason for his success) and did not invest into brand building or new products leading the company into decline. Learning agility, as Lombardo and Lominger define it, becomes a key attribute to becoming successful. It’s also important to understand that the knowhow is not only “cognitive” (functional understanding) but also emotive - opening oneself up to understanding other people’s beliefs and mindsets as much as one’s own. 

    Here, it becomes important for you to unearth and explore your skill gaps and also look at the fundamental assumptions you hold about the changed context. Validating these assumptions with deep stakeholder conversations and realigning them become a huge step toward moving ahead. 

    The Know-Who: 

    In a time where the power of the network defines the success for companies, the same holds true for the individual. Be it within a corporation or outside, ‘who’ you know is crucial part of the success. This is not about having friends or acquaintances but really about whether you are able to transition to a different network of colleagues and peers that are more relevant to your new role or context. For example , if you wish to move from being a product designer towards becoming a music producer, the people you need to have in your network must change to those who are sound engineers, sound designers, music studios, advertising and core members of the music industry.  

    I often recommend having two kinds of networks - the operational and the strategic. The operational referring to those who are of immediate help, who can get things done. Think of strategic network as your personal ‘Board of Directors’. These are individuals of stature and repute, who can advise and guide you at important points of your life. 

    With every transition, a focused effort to build both an operational and a strategic network can be the difference between failure and success. Apart from helping you reach your goals, the association with this network also helps you understand and concretize your own story better. 

    The Know-What: 

    This becomes important, especially where there is a big shift in the context that you are operating in. For example, in international transfers, understanding the culture and appropriate cultural norms becomes a defining determinant of success. In organizations, this also includes understanding the informal network of relationships and the political landscape. 

    An inability to do this will leave you feeling tentative and at sea. Every context evolves its own set of informal rules, ‘in’ groups, ‘out’ groups etc. To be fully effective, you will need to observe, study and understand the fundamental assumptions and unstated norms of the context. This will help you ease in and  allay your feelings of helplessness and anxiety. 

    I must reiterate that transitions are never sequential and one or all of the anchors may need focus at the same time. Deep psychological transitions are never easy and require time, reflective space and copious amounts of patience. The effort here was to provide a structure and road map to help you navigate through this process. 

    For those already engaged in a transition process, let me wish you the most expansive and meaningful moments. And for those on the brink of one - take the leap, with many small steps!

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