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Tolerating workplace transitions

How leaders can best handle work transitions and grow from them.

5 min read

Educational Leadership

tolerating workplace transitions

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Any transition is a potential challenge. Transitions mean change, and while we can tolerate change, often, we may find it hard to welcome it. But all leaders have to recognize that transitions are just part of the way of the world we live in.

Later this month, a long-time staff member who has done amazing things for the team I lead, will be retiring. She has been a foundational member of our agency and has kept us focused on effective practices since she joined the team years ago. Personally, she has taught me much, and her departure will leave a large hole in both our team identity and my way of work. That said, this is an amazing opportunity for her and a great space for our agency to be in. Learning to tolerate transitions (and grow with them) is key to successful learning and leading.

Her transition has loomed over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about my own growth in response to this change, and that of the organization that I serve. I’ve highlighted three key practices that I believe are necessary for us to tolerate transitions and move closer to seeing them as the beneficial changes they can be.

Call it like it is

One of the first moves I made to normalize the change after my colleague shared that she was retiring was to give her space. I wanted her to be able to share her decision with our staff in whatever way she felt most comfortable. 

Once those details were shared, I spoke about it regularly. I made sure to always connect it to topics of conversation (rather than bringing it up out of the blue), as I did not want my colleague to feel more of the burden of the change than she needed to. 

I also encouraged others to think through the transition with me and invited varied staff members to sit in on interview committee meetings. I made sure, as the process unfolded, to keep everyone in the loop through regular updates. 

My hope was to help everyone recognize that, despite the difficulty of the shift, we were all moving through it together, and everyone was a player in how the process would unfold. Ultimately, I recognized the shift was nothing to be scared of or anxious about. Staffing changes are par for the course; the more comfortable we can get with them, the easier they become for everyone.

Look to transitions for opportunity

When I took a moment to consider my colleague’s decision, I recognized that the way we operate would never be the same. At first, I only saw the negative aspects of this. But with time, I realized it allowed multiple chances to explore new ways of doing our work. 

For instance, a testing service we run had been designed to rest explicitly around the skillset of the colleague who is retiring. While the service really did benefit from her abilities, it prevented us from using other staff members’ expertise to change the way the service is performed. 

In short, it was definitely a bit of, “If it isn’t broken, why fix it?” While that has value, a better question can always be, “Even if it isn’t broken, can we make it better?” 

With the chance to now consider how we can lead this service in a different way, we can see this transition as an opportunity in the short and long term.

Build redundancies

While we like to think we are indispensable, in most cases, that is far from the truth. And the sooner we realize that as leaders, the better off we will be, and the better off our teams and organizations will be. Legacies aren’t made based on what we can do that others can’t. Rather, they are made based on what others can do when we are no longer around. 

To that end, my colleague’s retirement has helped me remember the importance of building redundancies. I don’t ask people to do the same work as someone else; instead I make sure that others can step in if necessary. None of our remaining staff members can tackle the finance and personnel details as well as our retiring colleague, but the ones who can step in illustrate our flexibility and resilience. It’s a key to our success. 

I will dearly miss my colleague when she retires at the end of this month. I also know that the lessons she has taught all of us will help us be better than we could have in the past. 

Now will be a great moment of truth. How will we respond? What growth will we be able to make in her absence? I’m happy to say that simply through writing this piece, I’m seeing myself moving from tolerating transition to recognizing all that it can do. I’m excited for what is to come.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.


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