Building a Bridge from Past to Future

Posted by Sally Dellow
19 Sep

(Is there a better way to navigate through tricky transitions?)

I’ve recently returned from the UK, where I dropped my firstborn child – now an adult of 18 years old – at university. She was so excited and ready to start her own life; I was so excited for her, but it was also tinged with anxiety about what this change means for MY life. To have this major shift happening against the backdrop of protests in Hong Kong, and just a few months short of my 30th anniversary living here… Well, it’s got me thinking hard about transitions, and how tricky they can be.

Tackling Transitions

Transitions are those spaces between one thing and the next: not quite the old familiar thing, but also not fully the new. Transitions are full of ambiguities, and most of us fill the space with worry, fear, anxiety and a spiralling, desperate craving for clarity.

As a coach, I often find myself working with clients who are in or approaching a transition. 

For example, one constant refrain in my practice is “There’s going to be another organisational restructure”: clients find themselves transitioning into new roles, product sets or geographies. 

I am currently supporting a senior executive who is struggling along a 3-month path to redundancy after more than 25 years with his employer. “What to do next?” is the turbulent river he needs to cross. 

The same self-searching plagues another client who has taken her start-up through to a very successful buy-out. Sitting in her secure, senior role in the acquiring organization, she finds herself bewildered by a desire to return to something small where she needs to jump constantly between tasks and roles.

Others are struggling with new generation teams, or digitalization, or major market shifts.

Like me, some clients are facing transitions as parents of children entering school, or flying the nest. Some are switching from a life of high independence to care-giving for elderly parents. And many, certainly in places like Hong Kong and the UK, are juggling questions around (re)location.

No matter the challenge or question, all these individuals are wreathed in a fog of uncertainty and hoping for ‘the answer’ to become clear. As their coach I often find the sun breaks through those clouds when the client can get into action. 

Generally this action initially takes the form of:

  • Clearly and pragmatically stating their key question(s);
  • Generating a range of options, choices and areas of research;
  • Defining a timeline (and sometimes multiple parallel timelines) to take action on the options or do the research so they can begin to move from current state to future.

Reframing the Question

My clients are full of questions, as they look at their changing future…

Redundancy:

Why didn’t I take control of the organisational change earlier and secure my own position, instead of focusing only on caring for my team? Why did I naïvely think the organisation would be as loyal to me as I have been to them?

Buy-out:

What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be satisfied with security, which is what so many others see as success?

Children / Elderly parents:

Why is this happening to me? Why didn’t I do something different to prepare for this?

“Why?” questions are often implicitly loaded with judgement, blame and shame. As a coach, I frequently reframe clients’ “why” questions. My goal is to reverse the direction of their negative question spiral. Instead, I want their questions to propel them forwards one (often small) action at a time. In coaching we call this “creating momentum”.

Examples of reframing the questions above might be:

Redundancy:

Who can I talk to for advice who has been through a similar situation?

What are (at least) three options I have for using these three months while I still work somewhere I am well-known and well-connected?

Buy-out:

What strengths did I use in a small nimble organisation that I use less now?

When, in my current role, do I feel most dynamic and creative?

Children / Elderly parents:

Who else can offer any support to my parents, when and how? What did I miss when I was raising my children and how can I reconnect with that activity?

Asking such questions prompts small immediate actions that shift us out of powerless waiting and into empowered path-finding. (Note that I used the word ’empowered’, not ‘powerful’ because even if we still feel small, afraid and unhappy, we are no longer a passive hostage to the situation; we are doing what we can and creating/exploring what is within our control – even if it’s just a Google search, a phone call or half an hour sitting on a sofa thinking or journaling.

The questions I’ve reframed above aim simply to put the next plank in the bridge between what used to be and what will be next. They shift focus away from the unknowns in the future and on to the transition itself.  Of course, after a few rounds of asking questions and taking the next small action (with or without a coach) it’s helpful to review how far you’ve come and to check that the bridge you’re building is taking you in the right direction. Seeking another person’s perspective on this (a coach, a mentor, a challenging friend or a wise spouse/partner) is a smart move at this stage.

As Dramatic Difference coaches, we use our proprietary C4 model when we map and support client transitions. The C4 model weaves together Connection, Curiosity, Courage and Clarity. We use the model to diagnose areas of weakness and doubt so our clients can take concrete actions to strengthen themselves. We dare to explore how you feel alone or unsupported and we help you identify people with whom you could connect. We highlight your assumptions and negative judgements and encourage curious reframing and discovery. We look for zones of fear and anxiety in order to identify what gives you the guts to look them squarely in the eye (“feel the fear and do it anyway”). All this builds clarity about where you are in your transition, what options are available, and what your next best move is.

No-one can promise that every transition will work out well. But experience tells us that bringing a C4 approach to the change ahead is a good way to maximise your chances of success. In the words of Oprah Winfrey: “Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”

If you’d like to talk to us about career coaching or tackling any other kind of professional or personal transition, please do get in touch.