Transition: more than just a change

June 3, 2014 Scott Lane

Most of the compliance officers whom I have met come from excellent educational backgrounds and have worked in law firms and other big companies; however, over the last few years I have noticed that many of them come with “baggage”. That baggage might include:

  • rigidity from their previous employer, which comes across as negativity
  • frustration with people, processes and obfuscations
  • that they were too inwardly focused or locked into a certain company’s ways
  • clinging onto a legal approach and not wanting to positively incentivise employees to change their behaviour
  • being inflexible and having a negative outlook
  • that they simply needed to take a break and complete a compliance-detox course.

The most commonly observed case of baggage is when people hold on to their legal roles after they have assumed compliance roles and do not recognise that they need to manage the transition from one role to the next.

It became clear to me that many modern-day compliance officers not only needed to manage their inner selves much better, but also needed to understand that they would go through a transition when changing roles or companies, and that they had to manage this transition well. Success would be determined by whether that transition was effective and whether they completed it in a reasonable timeframe.

I started to look for the signs that would indicate whether somebody had the intellectual and emotional capacity to make the transition. That triggered me to look more carefully at what a transition actually was and whether any literature could help me determine which red flags to search for. At first I was thinking about change management and whether people had the ability to change, then I realised that almost everyone in corporate life had the ability to change. It was something else that they needed: the ability to transition. Transition is more than just a change. They needed to be able to change internally as well as identify what they needed to do – whether it was leaving a company, going into a new role or changing profession altogether – and make that change.

The starting point for my learning was a book recommended by my executive coach, Kent Porter. William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes was originally written in 1979 and, even after 35 years, the principles within are still very much applicable.

The framework that Bridges discusses in the book clarified the difference between change and transition:

Change is situational: the move to a new site, the retirement of a founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, the revisions to the pension plan. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

Transition means psychological change for the people involved: after a transition, people will adopt new behaviours, adapt their mental frameworks and adopt new identities. Transition means change on a personal, internal level, whereas change may not. Bridges argues that “it isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions”. That is, it is the personal and psychological side of change related to people’s transitions that is much more difficult to manage than the tangible activities such as rolling out a policy, putting in place new incentive programmes or restructuring a team. These tangible activities are frequently sought out first when people change jobs or move companies, often as an attempt to shake things up. Whether or not they actually contribute to a successful transition is debateable.

Applying this to compliance officers, the question is whether they could cut themselves off from their old world and move into a new world with minimal baggage, and whether what baggage they do bring could be managed effectively. A new compliance officer must accept and understand that transition is a process that starts with an ending and ends with a beginning. They must move on from their current role, their current employer and their current way of practicing compliance and begin a new role with a new title, new company, new processes, new skills and new goals. They need to do all of this without getting lost in an endless circle of frustration, depression or negativity.

Bridges describes the process of managing transitions in terms of three components of activity:

 - Ending, Losing, Letting Go

 - The Neutral Zone

 - The New Beginning

What this means is that most people need to spend a great deal of their transition time ending their old situation and leaving it behind: becoming detached from their old company or role and old ways. This transition can initially be marked by people becoming angry, sad, frightened, depressed or anxious.

Ending, losing and letting go

There are a number of techniques that a compliance officer could do to facilitate “the ending” of their previous role and move into the transition cycle. In essence, they need to let go of the past, and do it quickly. This will depend on the experience that they have had previously. However, to use the example of leaving a company before starting a new compliance role, they might have to:

  • take a long break between jobs – with no internet, no phones, no social media and no email
  • take a short business course or a course that is different from their previous role, and try to imagine themselves in their new role
  • cut access to their old company for some time, which means losing touch with friends at that company for a while
  • forgive people that were frustrating
  • get their head out of “the company” and think more globally
  • quickly change their social media presence and start rebranding into their new role
  • think about how they refer to their old role and how they will reflect on it in their new role – whether it is specifically or generally
  • throw away the old company’s t-shirts and surround themselves with marketing paraphernalia from the new company.

The bottom line is that they need to move their head out of the old company and forget about it. They must let bygones be bygones and work out what they need to walk away from, both physically and emotionally, to make that transition work. Grudges against management need to be released. Simply physically being away is not enough; they also need to move away emotionally. They may also need to ask the people around them to refrain from speaking about their old company in their presence and to coach them to not refer to it as well.


After someone has let go of the past, they enter what Bridges calls “the neutral zone”. The neutral zone “is a nowhere between two somewheres … while you are in it, forward motion seems to stop while you hang suspended between was and will be”.

The neutral zone is a place of both risk and opportunity. It is risky because people are unsure of the process and may become anxious, during which time productivity may fall. Old weaknesses may rise to the surface. However, the neutral zone is also a great opportunity: as people move on from old systems but have not yet settled into the new systems, there is tremendous opportunity to identify and realise changes and find new ways of doing things. This can be as simple as their outlook on life: instead of looking at the glass half empty, they should always look at it as half full. They need to train themselves in this period to look for the best in everybody, and to be positive, confident and assertive. They must rebuild whatever it is that the old world destroyed.

Beginning new

Finally, a new beginning is made.

Starts and beginnings are different. A start occurs when people start doing new things, when they start enacting the changes. A beginning only occurs when the personal psychological and behavioural change takes place and people take on new behaviours and identities. As Bridges puts it:

The beginning will take place only after they have come through the wilderness and are ready to make the emotional commitment to do things the new way and see themselves as new people … Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes and – most of all – new identities … A start can and should be carefully designed … A beginning can and should be nurtured, like a plant. Starts take place on a schedule as a result of decisions. They are signalled by announcements … Beginnings, on the other hand, are the final phase of this organic process that we call “transition”, and their timing is not set on the dates written on the implementation schedule. Beginnings follow the timing of the mind and the heart.

It is important to understand the fact that anyone can leave one job and start another. That is change, not a transition. Simply starting a new role doesn’t mean the transition is complete. It might be weeks or months before the compliance officer feels that they have made it. It is only then that they have got their old role out of their system.


Making a transition of whatever type is difficult. It can be beneficial for someone transitioning to consider an informal (or formal) transition monitoring team: a group whose sole purpose is to provide feedback on the status of the transition. This might involve a check-in session, a reminder, some coaching or talking to someone. The team might be made up of a new manager, an executive coach, a friend or spouse. Anyone who can be honest and challenge behaviours can be part of this group.

It is a fact that people need to change their behaviours in a transition, which means they need to change internally and advance their emotional state. There is no point someone starting a new role if the old role is still embedded and is affecting all that they have done to date. That is unless, of course, the new role is really the same (which would mean it is just a change, not a transition).

From my experience, there is about a 50 percent success rate in the transition of a lawyer moving into compliance. Those odds could be improved with observation and management.

We have all seen transitions fail. We have all done it. Yet, many of us have also been successful at it. How many of you went from outside counsel at a law firm to in-house? How many of you went from in-house roles to compliance? Ask yourself how you did in that transition. Some of you might have even moved from a corporate role to be an entrepreneur. These are all transitions and knowing what you are going through and understanding it will make it faster and easier.

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