In a memorable scene from A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks is pleading with Geena Davis’ character not to leave the team, and when she protests, “It just got too hard” he responds, tersely, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
We might say the same thing about leading well through periods of organizational change. All leaders are faced with this challenge at some point in the careers—often at many points—but only a few do it with the kind of competence, resilience and optimism that inspires others to follow.
We asked leaders in one federal agency to tell us what works for them when it comes to navigating the hard transitions. Here is what they said:
• Take deep breaths and maintain your cool.
• Keep your focus on what you do for the agency, and set the example for others. What brought you here in the first place? A passion for the environment, for protecting public health, for defending our nation? It is likely that a similar passion brought your people to the organization. This is a strength to tap into.
• Acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with organizational change, both to yourself and to your people. It must be endured, and that starts with recognizing and naming it.
• Send your questions up the chain of command. Never stop asking questions. In the words of Kevin McCarthy, author of The On-purpose Person, “The quality of your leadership is determined by the quality of your questions.”
• Look to the past for success stories in dealing with transition, and share those stories.
• Constantly seek more information and share that information with others.
Lastly, remember that transition is different than change. Change is what happens externally; transition is what happens internally, the mental process people go through in adapting to the change. As with anything involving human beings, different people manage transitions differently, and at different speeds. Remember that just because some will embrace the change and get on board quickly does not mean that someone else who is fearful and resistant is being difficult. Many factors play a role, including personality type, past experiences with change, and one’s level of knowledge about and involvement in the change. Your role is to identify what kind of support each member of the team needs in order to move through his or her own transition. That’s not easy, and that’s why so many organizational change initiatives fail. Navigating the hard is what makes you great as a leader.