How to navigate – and win – in these chaotic, turbulent times of change

From the Vault: This fissure was originally published in November 2020. Despite the gap between then and now, the challenges are still eerily similar to those facing leaders today. The ideas touch on many of the topics I’ve heard and spoken to clients and C-suite executives while conducting a sort of mini-listening tour as we wrap up the year. I’ve made some changes, but the ideas are the ones we’re still exploring as we move from specific DEI initiatives to building resilient, culture-centric leaders and organizations.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about the opinions of our contributors. Please email: [email protected]


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In a year (or years) of constant change, it’s understandable to feel drained — especially when you’re in the C-suite. The challenges are immense: you have to constantly change your mind, be optimistic, remain empathetic, keep all moving parts together, set a good example and Drive your team to great victories.

All that pressure and daily demands haven’t gone away! You still need to meet compliance deadlines, develop and implement sustainable strategies, identify problems and opportunities, monitor good household activities, and do your best to plan for a future that is extremely uncertain. That is much. As the year draws to a close, you are tired, as are many of your teammates.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thomson

Coping with the demands can feel impossible at times, but as a leader, it’s your personal responsibility to navigate the chaos and keep winning. The obstacles really don’t matter. When you feel stuck in the valley, it just means you need a hill – a place to stand for a fresh perspective on where you are and where you are going so you can manage change, back on the get on the right track and keep pushing forward for a brighter future.

A resource that is in my constant rotation of leadership tools manage transitions by William and Susan Bridges. A true business classic, the authors present a three-step model to guide through the transition. I strongly encourage you to read manage transitionsbut I’ll give a little taste, hoping to cheer you on.


The bridges quickly notice the difference between change and transition. Change is usually rapid and external: something that happens to you, not inside you. In contrast, the transition happens more slowly and internally.

Both ideas are intertwined. At the organizational level, changes could mean layoffs, a merger, digital transformation, a new C-suite leader, or a new diversity program. On a personal level, this could mean a promotion, relocation, or a change in your family or parental status.


The immediate challenge is that during extremely difficult times – what we would often refer to as “chaos” – none of us are really built to handle so much, so quickly, or so drastically. Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman touch on this idea in an article in the Harvard Business Reviewabout leadership and change.

“The human mind has evolved to think linearly and locally, rather than exponentially and systemically, when faced with challenges,” they explain. Indeed, what Chima and Gutman explored reveals the power of the three-stage model manage transitions. The bridges provide a linear framework for understanding the transition.


manage transitions shows how each phase of the process can be identified and gives step-by-step strategies for overcoming them:

  1. Quitting, Losing and Letting Go is when people mourn what they have lost and struggle to accept unwanted changes. This phase brings resistance, frustration and fear, so a leader’s role is to listen and communicate and ultimately focus on the positive.
  2. The neutral zone occurs when people adjust to the transition and then reset tones, behaviors, and expectations, but have not yet returned to their old selves. In the neutral zone one finds low morale, poor productivity, skepticism and even resentment. At this point, the leader’s role is to provide clear direction and encourage people to share their experiences.
  3. The fresh start is when people finally move towards transformation and acceptance. Here you will experience renewed interest, engagement and enthusiasm as you reward your team and highlight their achievements.


Imagine your team introducing a new digital process. At first, they’re likely to be recalcitrant and anxious, frustrated with the learning curve required, or concerned that change will render their jobs redundant. As a leader, your job is to listen empathetically, communicate the value of the change, and let the team know you will do whatever it takes to help them through the transition.

During their learning process, the team will find challenges with the new process and gradually move into the neutral zone. Though busy with the new information, they are not happy with the process. In fact, they used to miss things that seemed easier. As a leader, your response should encourage both creativity and patience. It’s important to remember that everyone moves at their own pace, and honestly, people can fall behind when change doesn’t work. As you master the technology and embrace it, you will see renewed energy and increased productivity.


What sets you apart as a C-suite leader is your problem-solving mindset, but appropriate manage transitions, you will win during the chaos by respecting the three phases and allowing them to unfold naturally. As the authors point out, it is self-destructive to “try to overcome people’s resistance to change without addressing the threat that change poses to their world.” By moving too fast you simply lengthen the first phase and make it harder for people to manage their own internal transitions.


Sept 2020 McKinsey report on organizational grief urged leaders and their organizations to face their loss and uncertainty head-on. According to Senior Partner Aaron De Smet, “The grieving process allows us to recognize and accept our emotions, which eases the path to healing and recovery.” In other words, chaos creates uncertainty, but it can be contained, or at least addressed, by allowing coworkers to long for what they miss.

If we’ve learned anything from the chaos of chaos over the past few years, it’s that today’s high-profile leader must also be empathetic. De Smet points to the underlying aspects of today’s leadership that previous leaders barely noticed but are essential to success. “It’s all too easy to assume that if your colleagues and their families are healthy right now, there won’t be a problem,” he says. “Take a closer look. It’s a safe bet that members of your team are grieving at unacknowledged levels — the potential causes of human loss are as diverse as people themselves.”


Everything we’ve experienced over the past two years has transformed the organizational landscape, but also highlighted some profound challenges that continue to drive leadership in the 2020s. Understand the three stages of transition manage transitions helped me develop a mental model so I could understand what stage I was in, where my team was and how to support them.

As CEO, board member and executive coach, the three-tiered model that the Bridges have outlined offers a clear perspective. From this perspective I can see – and then lead – my team and the businesses I am responsible for or invested in, despite various turbulences. The phase aspect of manage transitions reminds me that this is the framework I can use to lead my team to victory after victory, no matter what changes we may face. It’s this leadership perspective that I keep returning to manage transitions.

About the author

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement. his leadership memories, Underestimated: A CEO’s unlikely path to success, is available now. He has extensive board and board member experience, including a digital marketing agency WalkWest. Donald is a thought leader in goal achievement, culture change and exponential growth. An entrepreneur, keynote speaker, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and executive coach, he also serves on the board of directors for organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology, and sports. Donald also hosts the “High octane leadership” Podcast. The Diversity Movement (TDM) empowers organizations to build and strengthen culture by connecting real-world business outcomes to diversity, equity and inclusion through a scalable employee experience platform. The Microlearning Library “Microvideos from The Diversity Movement“, was called a Fast company2022 World changing ideas.” DEI Navigator is a Chief Diversity Officer in a Box subscription service that empowers organizations to quickly scale DEI efforts, especially for diversity leaders who are a single department. Connect or follow Donald linkedin to learn more.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *