ESPN does many things well. They’re the best in the business when it comes to delivering daily highlights, news, and expert analysis. They’ve got the best college sports coverage, and with the launch of the 30 for 30 series, they’re even leading the way in documentary film. They’re also pretty good at making commercials, many of which feature self-deprecating cameos from star athletes who trade in their cleats and sneakers for a desk (or a copier).
Unfortunately for us, life and work transitions can often feel much like this commercial. Whether it’s leaving a career and launching out on our own or simply taking on new responsibility in our current role, one thing seems to hold true: transitions rarely go exactly as we planned. The challenges tend to be more difficult, the hurdles higher, and our weaknesses more acute. Many a newly-minted small business owner has sat alone in his office and echoed the words of Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy, “I immediately regret this decision.”
So, how can you succeed? How can you smooth the transition and soften the landing?
It starts with identifying what kind of transition you’re dealing with. In my experience, nearly every transition falls into one of three categories: a road extension, a lane change, or a highway transfer.
For the past fifteen years, Northwest Arkansas (my home) has invested millions of dollars in the Razorback Greenway—a biking/running trail that snakes for thirty-six miles through four cities. Over the years, I’ve probably sweated out my body weight biking on that trail.
I imagine they could have done the whole thing in a year or so, but instead, they’ve simply added to the trail, a little at a time, extending the road a bit further ahead each month and year. In fact, for years I’ve driven past groups of workers in one town or another pushing the path forward. Same path mind you … just an extension.
This is exactly what happens when you take a promotion doing the same kind of work you’re already doing, only with a little more responsibility and a little wider scope. It’s what happens when you inherit a new wrinkle or nuance of your business. At the end of the day, despite the change, it’s really just more of the same.
A “road extension” is usually the lowest impact transition because nothing has changed in the core competency of your business. You’re still the same person, doing the same work, in the same place … just doing things a little differently. Don’t be fooled, though. These transitions still test your foresight and preparation.
3 Questions to Ask:
- Am I extending the road because I have nothing better to do or because it’s really worth it?
- Can I stay engaged and committed to this type of task for another run?
- What roadblocks and detours might lie ahead?
A “lane change” is what every successful television star does when they go from the small screen to the big screen. Some make it (Will Smith). Some don’t (the cast of Friends).
It’s staying on the same highway system, but changing lanes for one reason or another. It’s the marketing executive who changes companies but stays in marketing. It’s the EVP who becomes the CEO of a company she is very familiar with and has years of experience in. It’s an assistant coach jumping to a head-coaching job at a new school. It’s a business integrating horizontally, like PepsiCo moving into the sports drink business with Gatorade (it’s the same highway of drinks).
A lane change necessarily has more variables than a road extension. There’s an entirely new set of relationships you have to develop, new skills to master, and old ones to sharpen. Even if you’re using the same business muscles, you’re using them in an entirely new way.
3 Questions to Ask:
- How clear is the new assignment in regard to expectations, roles, and rewards?
- How will my experience and capabilities transfer to this new lane? What is the same and what is different?
- What can I do to increase the probability of a smooth transition?
This is the most radical of the three kinds of transitions. A “highway transfer” is a person in one career jumping to a completely different sector or kind of business. In other words, you exit your current highway system to travel on an entirely new one. This could be a new structure, new market, new setting, or new role.
In my coaching business, I’ve helped dozens of leaders navigate this type of transition. I’ve helped business owners leave to take a subordinate role in another industry. I’ve worked with corporate executives making the jump to launch their own business. I’ve seen health care professionals jump out of the surgery center and try their hand at building the next technological breakthrough. I’ve even counseled academics walking away from tenured positions to chase their chance at business innovation.
These men and women have to learn skills they never knew or have long forgotten. They have to pick tax structures and design processes from scratch. They have to learn the cultural, relational, and even political nuances of their new station. They may even have to transition from a steady stream of income to a bootstrap mentality and uncertain revenue. It’s a totally different ride!
3 Questions to Ask:
- Who should I go to for wisdom? Who has driven this highway before?
- How much gas do I have? In other words, how are all my resources looking (time, money, energy, knowledge, etc.)?
- How does this highway change line up strategically with my calling?
No matter what kind of transition you’re beginning or about to approach, the key is to pause and ask some key questions before you make the change. Pause too long and you may miss the opportunity, but if you don’t pause at all, you risk calamity.