Transformation, not transition

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By Renee Jensen

The topic of career transition is something that strong, successful leaders rarely talk about, despite the fact that it is something that almost every professional will experience in some way, at some point in their career. 

Transition isn’t something you are going to learn about in business school, and chances are

you won’t even know you need to know about it until you find yourself in a situation

where your career or life are undergoing a major change.

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about career transitions, and what I thought I knew wasn’t even close to reality. I have experienced many changes and seasons in my life; I assumed a career transition wouldn’t be much different. But I’ve learned that career transitions are distinct from other major life events, and require a different approach to successfully

navigate the turbulent waters ahead.

Focus on transformation.

I am surprised that CEOs and top executives are not more fluent in this topic. The average time in one location for healthcare CEOs in my region of the Pacific Northwest is only about three to five years. So even if you don’t find yourself in transition, it is very likely that one of your closest colleagues or even your spouse is on the cusp of change.

If this experience is so common, then why the silence on the subject? Is it because we are afraid it means we are admitting failure? Is it because we don’t want to be judged? Is it because we are ashamed or embarrassed? I say, let’s talk about what people are not talking about.

It is interesting that once you have the opportunity to experience career transition, suddenly people you have known and respected for years will come out of the woodwork and offer to tell their story of transition as a way to console you. Some of the colleagues who reached out to me, I had no idea they had a transition story. Some who have been through this journey are so successful in their current roles that you may have thought their transition was all part of their plan.

The details and circumstances of every transition story is different, but I have found that every transition journey, at its core, is the same. No matter the path that leads to the career transition—whether unplanned, quick, lengthy, on good terms, or the decision of the individual leaving the organization—the feelings, emotions, and ups and downs are similar. From my own and my colleagues’ experiences in transition, it seems the key to coming out of this season better than when you entered it is in the decision to embrace the opportunity, and view the process as transformation instead of transition.

I am currently reading a book titled “Peak Performance.” It was assigned reading by one of my mentors who has encouraged me to embrace this time as one of transformation, and really focus on making the best of the opportunity. One of the key concepts in the book relates to the performance of top athletes. The authors describe how the key difference between good and elite athletes is how they harness the stress or nerves of competition. The best athletes treat that anxious feeling as a good thing that will enhance their performance. They welcome those competition day “butterflies,” as my eight-year-old daughter calls them.

Top executives are very much “elite athletes” in their own field. There are many feelings and emotions that come with transition. Dig deep, wrangle all of those feelings and emotions, and put them to good use as you navigate the next chapter in your life. If executives searching for their next step are able to “embrace the suck,” as I like to say, they will experience transformation instead of transition. 

Bring the career transition into the light.

Now that I have experienced a career transition myself, I believe more firmly than ever that every executive should know what to expect during this time of change, and that you should talk openly about it with others before it happens.

One of my closest friends and colleagues, Jim Geist, and I became CEOs at our first hospitals about the same time. We grew in our roles and experience together over the years, helping each other when we could. We knew each other before we met our spouses or had our children. Not only did we love our careers in the same ways, but we also enjoyed good wine, riding motorcycles, and supporting one another with challenges that would arise at work.

Jim had been successful in his position for about eight years when he wanted to diversify his experience and take on a new challenge. Unfortunately for Jim, he joined an unstable leadership team and in less than two years found himself in transition after moving his family to a new community, for a job he had thought would be for many years to come. 

When he left that organization, he didn’t call me. I heard through the grapevine. He also didn’t ask for help; I thought he was doing fine and going to take the time granted to him in his contract to take a little time off and regroup. Looking back now, I can see how Jim was struggling to redefine what his future was going to look like. He did take another job but it was a temporary position and not aligned with his true passions. 

About six months before my career transition, my friend Jim took his own life, leaving behind a beautiful young wife and a grade school daughter who was friends with and the same age as my daughter. There were many factors besides the career transition that played a role in Jim’s decision, but I can’t help to think that as his friend, I was not prepared to support him and assist him in the way he needed during this time.

The painful loss of my friend left me believing that not only should executives be more familiar with transition, but it should be our personal and professional responsibility.  Here are a few things I have learned that will help you be more prepared to support a colleague (or potentially yourself) during this difficult time:

  • If a friend or colleague finds themselves in career transition, don’t be silent or afraid to talk about it. Call them, text them, invite them to lunch. And don’t wait. The first few weeks are the worst. Knowing someone cares is a huge help during this time. Don’t worry if your invitation is declined. Just knowing that someone reached out and cares makes a difference when your world has been turned upside down.
  • When the leader of an organization is transitioned out, sometimes there is fear among those left behind at the organization that there will be retribution for speaking to that person. But don’t worry, you won’t get fired for being kind or saying something encouraging. Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell them thank you or that you appreciated working with them. 
  • Keep good leaders engaged. Just because someone leaves an organization doesn’t mean they aren’t good at what they do. Invite them to continue to participate on boards, in organizations, special projects and community activities.  Take a look at the bylaws of boards you currently sit on; do the bylaws allow someone in transition to continue participating?  Should we consider making changes that will support people in transition rather than creating one more organization they no longer belong to?
  • In most cases, I have found that the person in transition will not be completely honest about their true feelings or the situation. I personally feel like this is a protective mechanism that will delay the person’s ability to fully embrace transformation instead of transition. If you are a trusted person in their lives, ask them the tough questions. Don’t let them get away with saying everything is fine—it’s not! It will be, but not until they work through the process.
  • Know who your resources and inner circle are before transition happens. I have mentioned before that having trusted colleagues outside of your organization that you can lean on for help and advice is key to success. Transition is no different. Identify a few people that are within your inner circle of trust and talk to them about transition. What if it happens to me? What if it happened to you? What would be your transformation plan? Having this conversation before transition happens will allow you the courage to call this person if you ever need to, and they will know they can call you to help.
  • Find a way to harness the emotions, feelings, and thoughts. What are you going to do that is all about making you a better person post-transition? When challenged with this task from someone I truly respected, I found I had been so focused on my work and family that there was no space for anything that was just about me. It was challenging to let go of this and find just the right thing that helped me process, relieved stress, and gave me the space to start planning forward instead of reflecting on the past. This will be different for everyone. I recommend straying away from merely checking things off a list, and instead focus on what will truly begin to help you find the true transformation you are looking for.
  • When someone transitions from a job, it doesn’t just impact their career or them personally. Transitions impact the entire family; kids, spouses, friends. As much as we would like to keep it in our little bubbles of comfort, the reality is that career transitions are hard on our families too. The people that love you the most, want the best for you and believe in you. They will want to help, so let them. They will be transitioning too; be mindful of that. It’s not all about you.

Let’s start being open about career transitions—if not for you, for your colleagues or the generations of leaders that will come behind us. Instead of perpetuating an undertone of shame around transition by keeping silent about our experiences, let’s start celebrating the transformations that have resulted from transition. I believe everything happens for a good reason. Our goal in these times of transition should be to find the path forward that leaves you saying, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me!”

About Renee Jensen

Renee Jensen is a healthcare executive leader with over 19 years of experience in public hospital district operations and integrated healthcare systems. She writes about leadership and building high-performing teams at jensen2solutions.com.

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