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The Human Element in Organizational Transition

Ken Saxon, Carrie Randolph and Peter Karoff

By Ken Saxon, Leading From Within Board Chair

In times of transition, people feel all kinds of feelings – excitement for what’s ahead, anxiety about changes to come, fear about their place in the new system, sadness about what and who may be lost, and much more. These feelings are all real and normal and people need healthy opportunities to process them.

Early in my career, I admit that I didn’t see it that way. People’s feelings about inevitable change seemed beside the point to me. My focus was on the future, and I had no desire to waste a bunch of time for folks to process what I saw as unproductive emotions. I basically wanted them to suck it up, deal with their emotions themselves, and get on the bus to wherever we were going. But I quickly learned that my approach was ineffective.

As Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) used to say,“unexpressed feelings never die; they’re buried alive and come forth later in uglier ways.” I learned that the hard way. In my earliest change efforts, I saw some of these unexpressed feelings manifest as resistance to change, cynicism, paranoia, and “fight or flight” responses. And such negative emotions could spread like a virus from person to person.

Even positive transition efforts have their sense of loss, including ours this year at Leading From Within as we hire our first full-time Executive Director.  In the words of French writer Anatole France, “all changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.”

What is this melancholy about? Despite the success and growth of our organization, some may remember fondly when we were smaller and the work was simpler and we didn’t need so much in the way of formalized process and procedures. Others may miss when it felt like we were able to be nimbler and to try new things without feeling so capacity or resource constrained.

And the loss of certain individuals can trigger a sense of loss in people. Carrie Randolph (our departing, part-time E.D.) has meant a huge deal to all of us at Leading From Within, and now she won’t be around every day as Executive Director. Despite the addition of a full-time Executive Director and all that will make possible, we will miss Carrie and so many of the gifts she brought to our organization.

So, if asking people to suck up and bury their feelings in times of transition is not a success strategy, how can we as leaders constructively work with and hold space for the inevitable feelings that emerge in people during times of transition and change? I have three suggestions – overcommunicate, make space for feelings, and celebrate endings.


In our Executive Director Search, we have engaged our staff and other stakeholders actively in the process as we’ve gone along. We included our small LFW staff team in our organizational assessment process, met with them about the transition and answered their questions, and had them meet our E.D. finalist candidates and invited their input. As for our broader constituent group, like our LFW network of alumni and supporters, we have kept them in the loop, shared our job profile and selection process with them, and I’ve been writing these monthly columns as a way to keep them somewhat updated about what is going on.

For sure there are many things that have to remain confidential in a hiring process, and complete transparency is neither realistic nor constructive. But neither is keeping one’s cards too close to the vest and not communicating. For a leader like myself whose instinct is to have things completely figured out before I share them aloud, I try to err in the direction of what feels to me like over communication. And I remind people that my door is open should they have any questions, concerns or suggestions.

Making Space for Feelings

As I indicated above, I have learned through trial and error (mostly error!) not to dismiss people’s feelings in times of change and transition. Covey’s notion about unexpressed feelings turned out to be right on. Thus I make it a priority to normalize feelings of anxiety, stress and loss, and to invite them out into the open. I check in with people individually, as well as to make space to invite feelings into team gatherings.

I’ve seen time and again that simply being able to communicate one’s fears, anxiety and sadness in the open helps people process those feelings. They learn they can share them without negative consequences, that other people feel the same things, and that sometimes it can make you feel a little better to just say what’s on your heart rather than holding it inside.

Celebrating Endings

Our fast-paced, productivity-oriented society has led many of us to lose touch with the power of ritual and celebration. Celebrating endings is a critical part of what prepares the ground for healthy beginnings. You need to own where you’ve been before you can successfully move on to where you need to go.

Last week 50+ of our LFW stakeholders gathered at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum to celebrate Carrie Randolph and all she has meant to our organization over the past 7 years. It’s natural that we feel a sadness Carrie won’t be in this role going forward. But being able to talk about what was achieved under her leadership, and about our appreciation for her, made everyone involved feel good and proud. It was a lovely and fitting ending to her E.D. tenure. Soon enough we will be focusing on new beginnings; but first things first. 

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