Leading Your Community Through Transition

However you look at it, the next decade will be marked by change and challenges that will test your ability to lead economic growth and prosperity for your community, region or state.

As is typical after the turn of a new year, there are a number of prognostications about what the future holds. At breakfast I was reading an article in USA Today that top lined key predictions from a CBS Report entitled “Where America Stands”.

Another article in the same paper really drove the point that we are facing a critical decade of transition home for me. The author claimed that in 2009 state leaders have made the “easy” cuts in budget and will need to tighten belts further in 2010 in order to address budget shortfalls. In fact, the prediction was that this situation would likely not ease up before 2012.

Intellectually I understand the authors point. Emotionally, I have trouble seeing how an effective economic development effort can be run for a community, region or state with further and deeper budget cuts. The truth is, you can’t if you hold onto past practices. You need to make and ending so you enter the neutral zone and have a shot at reaching a new beginning that will set your community, region or state economic development efforts up for success.

The big take-away for me was that Brand America will continue to be relevant and the effectiveness of economic development will be directly related to the ability of public and private sector leadership to lead in a period of significant transition.

Leading through transition is a particularly challenging task and, based on my experience, requires a unique skill set to do it well. Great leaders in calm and predictable periods of growth are not necessarily effective in periods of chaos when history is no longer a reliable indicator of expected outcome for a decision. The skills for success are not identical.

As an economic development professional you will have a unique role to play in helping lead your community, region or state through these uncertain times. How well you play your role can contribute to the success (or failure) of your economic growth plans. To help you better understand what the skills for success are, I suggest taking a look at the three-step Bridges Model for leading in periods of transition.

William Bridges is an expert in organizational change management. His book “Managing Transitions” is an easy read and a good guide. I would also encourage you to download his free paper entitled “Getting Them Through The Wilderness”. Since everybody likes quick reads, here are two additional general discussions of the Bridges model you may find helpful to better understand the unique leadership challenges of this new decade.



I think, one of the more liberating quotes for economic development professionals from the “Managing Transitions” book is –

“The key…is to look at the neutral zone as a chance to do something new and interesting–and to pursue that goal with energy and courage.”

I strongly suspect we all need to find new ways to win in today’s interdependent global economy.

Understanding the process of transition and how to facilitate it will help you prepare your community, region or state for economic success. You will learn about techniques needed to guide public and private sector leadership through the neutral zone where chaos and fear of loss reign. The Bridges model will help you be better prepared to create an effective economic development strategy that doesn’t cling to the past, but rather embraces the new reality and has a higher probability of success.

For perspective, the Bridges model is not new to most large company HR leaders. In fact, many will have internal experts on transition leadership. If, after reading a bit about William Bridges work, you feel this is an area the your community, region or state economic development plans could benefit from better understanding, you may want to consider reaching out to one of your business partners and seek in-kind support from their HR Director. Chances are they will have a training module already available that can be used to sensitize your EDO leadership to the challenges you will face in building an effective economic development plan for this new decade.

I would appreciate it if you’d share your experience or thoughts about leading through transition by leaving a comment to this post
. Your comments help enrich everybody’s understanding by providing important context to the discussion. Thank you in advance for contributing.

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7 Comments so far

  1. Brian Siegel

    January 5, 2010

    Great topic Ed. I feel that during any transition, it helps to have awareness of historical trends, information regarding current changes, and why we are in a transition.

    Whether our country going through economically challenging times, unemployment on the rise, our debt rising, taxes being taxed, being laid off, losing your house, financial obligations/distress, loans, car trouble, relationship issues, etc. one must have a knowledge economy consisting of historical data/patterns (to not repeat similar mistakes), information on current issues (the challenge in front of them), and they goal they strive for (transitional success bullet points).

    As with any change there arises a “suffering”, and therefore the stages of grief from a small situation to large. Once one is able to accept the challenge, and decides to move forward and surpass the pain, persist with a plan, and adapt along the way, a smooth transition (hopefully) occurs.

    If you, your bosses, or leaders in any power structure do not act with integrity, utilize the past to learn, and move forward with tenacious passionate focus, the transition will be like jumping off a cliff hoping by miracle you will have a safe landing. We have many issues that require a holistic strategy for a respectful resolution.

    If unification of discussion, committees to eliminate committees, and collaboration do not have an architect building them to consist of diverse and meaningful purpose driven opinions and thoughts, then we will have a saturated situation of challenges, and this will be Brand America’s Legacy, and the only sustainable entity will be constant challenges.

    Resolution is needed.

    Brian Siegel

    “How you react to obstacles defines your identity!”

  2. Cathy Belk

    January 5, 2010

    Ed, what a timely and relevant topic as we head into a new decade. I really enjoyed visiting the links that you reference too, and was reminded that so often, the best and most effective business or branding principles seem obvious when you initially read them, but are so darn hard to implement correctly! Elegant execution is to be admired.

    I particularly liked the sections regarding step one, which includes the articulation of transition as necessary. I often think that if this step is skipped or glossed over, the rest of the transition process never really recovers. In my experiences in traditional consumer brand management, the triggers for change have often been obvious – not hitting sales objectives, missing brand equity targets, or overspending. I’m sure in economic development we have metrics like this that help with identifying why the status quo can’t work.

    But I’ve also had past experiences when significant changes weren’t based on something obvious, and that lack of transparency and shared sense of “why” really held up the process of “getting to neutral”. I would bet there are often times in economic development – particularly given the variety of constituents who need to pull together around a shared vision to create dramatic changes – when the view of “why” is murky, or more clear to some people than others. Ensuring enough robust discussion and collaboration may help with creating both a collective agreement that transition as needed, as well as a sense of urgency for the task. (Easy to mention, hard to execute elegantly!)

  3. JL Mealer

    January 6, 2010

    Hopefully you are not suggesting that Obama’s “transition” to a socialized, monopolistic, mega-corporate run SEIU workforce and business sytem is a good thing that should be ushered in.

    That is un-American and must be stopped.

    A leader does not agree to follow or assist in evil changes. “Brand America” is not a game or a cute phrase… It is a way of life and the way we willnot allow change to something that is not American by nature.

    The world is made up of multiple and various economies that are unique and special in themselves. The USA is one of those individual economies split into various state’s economies and they do not blend together.

    When the economies of the world are considered as ONE ECONOMY, the world’s individual economies fails as we have just witnessed. This is not a time of transition and of accepting the downfalls of smaller less capable econbomies of the world, this is the time that the American economy rears up and puts the others in their place.

    We cannot grow and survive by pretending to be like everyone else. We are Americans and we will cancel out competition through our sheer will to survive and be better. I would hope the lesser economies would strive to do the same (without the socialized wealth redistribution and global warming scam).

    JL Mealer
    Mealer Companies LLC
    America’s Next Major Automaker
    & 100% Self-Regenerative-Fueled
    High Capacity Electricity Producing Device MFG

  4. Randall Witte

    January 6, 2010

    Very early in my career I came upon a quote that has supported me through many changes in my life and career- most self-inflicted. While I do not remember the precise wording, I totally wrapped myself around it when I read it. It goes something like-

    “Nothing is harder to pursue or to see an immediate positive result or is more ultimately satisfying in the end than taking the lead in changing the way a system operates.”

    We have all heard the mantra- “Change or Die” but most of us never really believed that or worked toward that result. BUT- somehow we had to make changes just to survive.

    I have fought many battles about the need for change when many folks thought that everything was pretty good overall. Until I started to ask pointed questions or call out how the status quo was not actually being very “nice” to them. Then, the “devil we don’t know began” to look a bit more attractive than the “devil we do know”, especially if you have the opportunity to make some of the impending changes fit your needs.

    We all need to constantly look around and ask ourselves- “Is this the best that is available?” or “Could there be a better way to do this?” or the ULTIMATE “What If…?”. If we maintain that constantly questioning attitude, we will find that things WILL begin to get better.

    One American asked those questions openly several years ago, and got chased out of the country (at least figuratively). Then the folks in Japan heard what Dr. Demming was saying and thought he made sense. Now- The Japanese are teaching the world how to do things better, and making a lot of money as well.

    Randall E Witte
    Emc2 ConServ, Inc.
    Applying 6-Sigma methodology to building utility systems to find 50% to 70% annual cost, energy and environmental savings.

  5. mcl

    January 14, 2010

    Leading change in any organization is a choice. This choice should be clearly driven by a thorough assessment of the current state with a critical emphasis placed on the external factors affecting your business or organization. This step should help solidify the why for change and help start to establish an end state or destination as a result of the change. Moving through the change process requires a very holistic approach which includes commitment from the leaders of the organization to continuously share their perspective, continuously communicate the vison of the future as well as be visible and supportive. You can not ignore how important communciation is in this process. In many times it can be the most important factor of the process. However it can not be seen as communication for communications sake. It must be timely, targeted and relevant. I am sure those invloved in change management can argue if communication is the most important versus creating a vision of the future, moving with a sense of urgency, creating a team empowered to guide the change…etc, but I do not think anyone will suppress the importance.

    Included in the change process should be a transition phase..i.e how to get from the current to the future. You can sometimes accelerate this phase based on need or scope of the project, but certainly do not ignore it or underestimate the impact. Executing this pahse helps build enrollment to your purpose.

    Regardless of the type of business or organization you are involved with, leading change can be difficult but also very rewarding. The components or process of change can work well irrespective of the scope or circumstances driving the change, but you can not discount or divorce yourself of the discipline and leadership required every step of the way.

  6. Joe Hensler

    January 17, 2010

    Ed —

    Great topic and posting, and you’ve enticed me to jump into the discussion thread…

    Two thoughts come to mind based on my experience with the change & transition model you talk about in your post:

    1. I’ve never seen an organization make a change until a critical mass of its members recognizes that the status quo is untenable. I think this is why so many good ideas fail the first time they are tried: the organization simply doesn’t yet perceive that its current situation is “bad enough” to make the change worthwhile.

    Then, months or even years later, the same idea is often implemented – even embraced – by the same folks who rejected it the first time around, simply because perceptions of the status quo have finally caught up to reality.

    Thus — I think two key elements in change management are patience and a good sense of timing.

    2. I tend to overestimate our ability to sell change to a large organization, and underestimate the impact of a small, early win. Instead of focusing on making a change work with a manageable, visible small group (and thus showing the benefits of change quickly), I think a common trap is to try to convert my entire Company or organization in one sweeping revolution.

    But getting quick wins often works better — I’m reminded of a quote from Gene Hackman’s character in “Crimson Tide” as he tried to regain command of his sub from Denzel Washington (his XO)…As he plotted with a couple of his junior officers, he reminded them, “DON’T TRY TO RECRUIT THE WHOLE SHIP.”

  7. J. Oppold

    January 18, 2010


    Of all the changes we have endured in pharma over the years, and all of the change management courses we provided, I think dealing with change boils down to a few simple principles:

    1) Develop a consistent message track

    2) Communicate the need for change up front (problem/need statement) involve as many folks as possible in the change process

    3)Communicate often…even if you don’t have a lot to tell folks, just reaching out to them to provide a status report is good

    4) Give folks affected by the change a chance to be heard

    5) Stick to the message track and time line

    6)Be honest…at the end of the day, this is what folks want

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