As our society passed through its second spring equinox under a global pandemic, I took personal stock of my spring renewal achieved by successfully leading a team through a significant transition last year. Since change is constant and accelerating, two luminary leaders guided my daily journey of being a leader in transition. They are, President Theodore Roosevelt and author William Bridges, who pioneered “Managing Transitions,” a guidepost for leading a change process.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are,” and William Bridges reminds us that before leading a team through transition, one must fully accept their (and our) change in circumstances. Importantly, as leaders, we must first accept the reality before we can lead our team through change. If we don’t, then colleagues and team members will sense our uncertainty and hesitancy. Leaders who do this effectively pivot to a new future using every available resource in our toolbox, including our passion and sense of purposeful energy.
As an Associate Vice President at Virginia Tech, I’ve been fortunate to have more than five years of continuity working with the same Vice President of Advancement. When asked to take over the leadership of a newly formed engagement team in January 2020, my first reaction was one of loss for the team and successes that I had enjoyed in my previous five years. After reflection for a day, I placed my trust in our organizational values, specifically striving for continuous program innovation, the transparency of feedback, and support from our division leader and my supervisor to fully commit myself to this new role.
The next step steps were the hardest. In “Managing Transitions,” William Bridges describes a natural and structured way to organize a change process that builds on human behavior. All significant change starts with an ending, an adjustment phase, or a neutral zone before an actual new beginning commences.
In starting this process, it is critical to focus both on your own behavior as a leader, and also the team’s future success as measured against specific work plans and management objectives. At the outset, together with my sub-team leaders, we defined the single most important overall objective to complete in the first 90-days and one for each area of the engagement team. With four sub-teams, this collectively turned into our “top-five” focus, with the most important being the team-wide goal to launch an updated branding, strategic programming, and events plan for our Old Guard Society, now Cornerstone Alumni program.
Having a clear focus at the outset on the future-looking and most important objectives assisted individual team members in dealing with feelings of grief or loss of the old structure. During this initial three-month phase of the transition, I listened carefully and communicated openly to create the environment necessary to moving forward. I’ve learned that individuals must accept that something is ending before embracing a new structure. As a leader, acknowledging each team member’s emotions is critical to removing resistance throughout the entire transition and change process.
With a focus on empathetic listening, more frequent open communication during the early months of the pandemic, and our overall new “top five” objectives, the team moved to the neutral zone of the transition process. Once our sub-teams came together in a new way, the next step was building deeper collaboration throughout the new structure with all individuals. Through collaboration focused on specific work with individuals across sub-teams, new working relationships formed naturally, empowering individuals to associate with the new engagement team structure and our new objectives.
Specifically, we combined the essential objective of the old structure, focusing on young alumni engagement and giving, with the most critical aim of the new design, our Cornerstone alumni engagement and giving efforts, to move forward in the new academic year. One of the sub-team leaders not specifically accountable for those two key engagement objectives took the lead in organizing this new work collaboration.
Bridging the old and the new together is a critical technique for moving through the neutral zone of a transition process. In this stage, individuals impacted by the change are often confused, uncertain, and impatient. The global pandemic further heightened feelings of uncertainty. We created ways to overcome the neutral zone, increasing individual and group interactions using video meetings with greater frequency than otherwise.
Another critical skill we used during this time in the neutral zone was increasing our awareness that we were in flux and then managing with adaptability. This skill involves the ability to recognize something has changed and then to generate alternatives.
In leadership meetings for our engagement team, we focused our agendas on what had changed along with our ability to deliver giving and engagement opportunities to our young alumni and Cornerstone alumni audiences.
Finally, after recognizing the ending and traveling through the neutral zone, it was time for the new beginning. Critical at this last stage as a leader is to be positive and celebrate. In recognition of the new brand launch of our Cornerstone Alumni program last November, we planned and enjoyed our first in-person team meeting made possible by the late fall warm weather and a socially distant, safe with masks on, meeting and celebration.
Given the reality of work and life in constant change, this also marked a new transition process for our team with the addition of our gift planning area to our Engagement team. While change never stops, with the skills to manage transitions and a purposeful can-do attitude, you will be prepared as a leader to increase your positive impact on measurable vital goals and objectives and the individuals under your care as a leader.
About the Author
John Torget has over twenty-five years of leadership experience in both the corporate and higher education sectors. He currently serves as Associate Vice President for Engagement within Virginia Tech’s Advancement Division. In this role, John leads experiential, philanthropic, and volunteer programs to engage a wide range of audiences, including alumni and friends, necessary for success in the current $1.5 billion comprehensive campaign and beyond. Before working in higher education, Torget worked in leadership roles for more than a decade in the private sector at global leaders such as Accenture and JPMorgan Chase. John earned his MBA from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College and his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.