How Leaders Can Make Change Stick: 3 Phases of Transitional Success

Leaders cannot be effective in their organizations without the understanding and tools to help make change stick.

Unfortunately, as has been touted by change experts for years – and blasted in media headlines – many significant business changes do NOT stick nor achieve the intended financial or market results.

As a human resources professional of 20+ years, I assisted with a variety of organizational changes – acquisitions, downsizings, spin-offs, mergers, integrations – and when the theories of change are appropriately applied, the change STICKS and provides the optimal results that led to the decision to make the change.

Most leaders are assessed and rewarded based on executing the change – i.e. incorporating new technology, integrating an acquisition, launching a new business model.  Change management plans are usually developed and focused on how quickly and adeptly the mechanics of the change can be accomplished.

One of my favorite authorities on change, William Bridges (Author) teaches that change is situational and externally focused; however, transition is personal and internally focused. Without the appropriate focus on culture and people transition, sustainable change is likely to fail.

So how do leaders get from simply change management to transitional success – and what can we do as coaches to guide them?

3 Phases of Transition

1. Ending: Go where the door is open

As a coach, this may now be my favorite mantra. The first step is assessing whether or not the leader is committed and able to make the change happen. This includes assessing the leader’s readiness as well as the organization’s. Like with any coaching assessment, this must be evaluated before a coach can attempt to be involved.

The other aspect of this phase is defining the end game plan – why the need for change, what needs to change, how to prepare for the effort required to get from current to future state. The use of effective coaching approaches can provide a framework for guiding a leader through this stage of acknowledgement, preparation and goal setting.

2. The Neutral Zone: Nowhere between two somewheres

According to Bridges, this is a dangerous time for organizations going through change, but it is also a time when innovation and experiments have a chance to succeed.

The Zone is where the coach can really make a difference. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.  A coach is critical in assisting the leader in navigating the storms that s/he or the team will face. The experienced coach can provide effective tools to ensure leaders don’t get “stuck” or immobilized to the extent that the transition will not happen; therefore, the change will fail. First, the leader must help his/her team let go of the past. I have experienced too many times an organizational change where old policies, outdated forms and other remnants of the past culture were allowed to stay in the environment.  Leaders must help the team let go in order to move forward while being able to celebrate and bring forward the successes of the prior life.

Secondly, a great way to keep the past from creeping into the future is through the use of celebratory events.  Some may refer to these events as milestones or small wins for the team.  As the change journey moves through the Zone, it is important that there is acknowledgement of progressive steps leading to the new reality.  Again, this is where a coach can play a key role in working with the leader to help identify meaningful milestones along the journey and to develop a plan to gauge where the team/organization is at various points of the transition.

3. The New Beginning: Every act of creation is first an act of destruction  

Getting to the “new” will consist of starts and stops, uncertainties, ambivalence and anxiety. The key for the leader – with help from the coach is to — (a) anticipate that this will happen, (b) realize that this is normal and embrace it, (c) increase personal connection and communications with the team to develop trust throughout the transition. The key in this stage is to create a culture where people are learning, developing, feel valued and are rewarded for getting to and thriving in the new environment.

Ultimately, the role of a coach is to prepare the leader to successfully navigate his/her organization through the change. The best leaders understand that transition is personal to each person involved, can provide a safe space when employees get ‘stuck’ and create a collaborative culture that honors its history and celebrates successes along its change journey.


Ready to learn more about Change Management for Leaders? Learn more now.

For Shelle, coaching is not just her job…it is her passion. With over 25 years of experience in leading and creating meaningful change in high performance organizations, Shelle has collaborated with leaders across a wide spectrum. From CEOs and C-suite executives to developing leaders to aspiring or future leaders, Shelle uses her diverse background to instill change with her clients to achieve desired results.