Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays. 

RALEIGH – In this year of constant change, it’s understandable to feel depleted — especially if you’re in the C-suite, where you’re repeatedly asked to pivot, be optimistic, remain empathetic, keep it all together, set a good example and drive your team toward big wins. All while the regular stuff hasn’t gone away! You still need to meet compliance deadlines, develop and implement sustainable strategies, identify problems and opportunities, oversee good fiscal activity and try your best to plan for a future that is wildly uncertain. It’s a lot. 

Handling it all can sometimes feel impossible, but as a leader it is your personal responsibility to navigate the chaos and keep winning, no matter what obstacles are put into your path. When you feel stuck in the valley, that just means you need a hilltop — a place to stand for a new perspective about where you are and where you’re headed so you can navigate change, get back on track and keep pressing forward to a better future.

The primary resource I keep returning to this year is one that I’ve mentioned in this column before: Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges. The book was written in 1991 but was updated in 2017 and has been a constant comfort to me throughout 2020. Essentially, the authors lay out a three-stage model for leading through transition. While you should definitely read it, I’ll also give you a sneak peek here. 

Change versus transition

First, it’s important to understand the difference between change and transition. Change is usually quick and external: something that happens to you, not within you. Transition happens more slowly and internally. Both ideas are intertwined. On an organizational level, change could mean layoffs, a merger, a digital transformation, a new C-suite leader or a new diversity initiative. On a personal level, it might mean a promotion, a move, or a change to your marital or parenting status. 

We aren’t equipped for this but we can handle it

None of us was made to handle this much change so quickly and so drastically. The Harvard Business Review touched on this recently while exploring leadership and change. I loved this particular quote from the article: “Human minds evolved for thinking linearly and locally in the face of challenge, not exponentially and systemically.” That’s why the three-stage model is so powerful, because it gives you a linear framework for understanding transition. 

The three stages

The book shows you how to identify each stage and gives step-by-step strategies for managing in them. The stages are:

  1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go, when people mourn what they’ve lost and struggle to accept unwelcome change. This stage is full of resistance, frustration and fear so a leader’s role is to listen and communicate, focusing on the positive.
  2. The Neutral Zone, when people are getting used to the transition, resetting tones, behaviors and expectations but not yet settling in as their old selves. In the Neutral Zone, you’ll see low morale, low productivity, skepticism and sometimes resentment. Your role is to give firm direction and encourage people to talk about their experience. 
  3. The New Beginning, when people finally move toward transformation and acceptance. Here, you’ll see renewed interest, commitment, and enthusiasm as you reward your team and highlight their successes.
What it looks like in action

Imagine that your team is adopting a new digital process. At first, they’re likely to be resistant and anxious. They might feel frustrated with the learning curve required or worry that their role will be unnecessary in the future. Your job is to listen empathetically, communicate the value of the change, and let them know that you’ll do what you can to help them through the transition. 

As they learn the process and help to find its kinks, they slowly move into The Neutral Zone. They’re using it, but they’re still not happy about the process, and they miss the way things used to be because the old way seems easier. This is a great time to encourage creativity and patience. It’s important to remember that everyone moves at their own pace and, frankly, people can slip backwards if the change isn’t working. As they master the technology and make it their own, you’ll see renewed energy and greater productivity. 

Don’t rush the process

As a leader, it’s important to have a problem-solving mindset but also respect each of the three stages and let them play out naturally. As the authors point out, it is self-defeating “to try to overcome people’s resistance to change without addressing the threat that change poses to their world.” By moving too quickly, all you do is extend the first stage and make it harder for people to manage their own internal transitions.

Share, consider but don’t try to fix. 

A recent McKinsey report on organizational grief supports that idea, urging companies to face their loss and uncertainty head-on. “The grieving process lets us recognize and accept our emotions, easing the path toward healing and recovery.” Instead, let people yearn for what they miss. McKinsey even suggests asking your team “What’s one thing you miss about life before COVID-19?”

This too shall pass

Understanding the three stages of transition helped me form a mental model so I could understand what stage I was in, where my team was and how I could support them. For me, the three-stage model gives a clear perspective — a hilltop from which I can easily see myself, my team, and my businesses. It reminds me that absolutely everything is a phrase, so I can lead my team to win after win, despite whatever changes come our way. 


With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a serial entrepreneur, Certified Diversity Executive, CEO of Walk West, the fastest-growing digital marketing agency in NC, and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a data-driven diversity, equity and inclusion firm. Get more tips and hear from business leaders by listening to The Donald Thompson Podcast

A member of the National Speakers Association, Donald speaks frequently for businesses, organizations and universities and shares actionable insights and strategies across key functions of business strategy, entrepreneurship, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion in the workplace. To learn more, visit donaldthompson.com.

Some other recent Donald Thompson columns

Donald Thompson: How the next generations are changing leadership

Donald Thompson: Leading your team through election emotions