Learning the Art of Smoother Transitions

If professional changes are inevitable, how can we manage them better?

Brian Bolwell, MD

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Doctors, nurses, researchers, CEOs and other highly accomplished professionals spend years learning the broad strokes and fine details of their disciplines. Many, however, are far less prepared to handle transitional events that can color work life, including job or career-path changes, promotions and layoffs, becoming a manager or relinquishing control over an important project.

Sooner or later, says Brian Bolwell, M.D., virtually everyone faces career transitions, and almost every transition offers both challenges and benefits. Bringing awareness and intention to the situation can significantly improve the experience and help it become a reference point for facing other changes.

As Chair of Physician Leadership and Development at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Global Leadership and Learning Institute at Cleveland Clinic, Bolwell’s role is to create opportunities for individuals to hone their leadership skills. He also is a natural student of leadership, and has earned plenty of experience in transitions over the years.

“I tend to be somebody who says yes to opportunities,” says Dr. Bolwell. “I think that it’s generally a good idea to try to learn new things. I was Chair of the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee. I was Chair of the Space Committee. I’ve been Vice Chief of Staff. I’ve done a lot of things, and I think saying yes is generally good because you can always course correct.”

Among the bigger changes in his career is his May 2021 departure from the Taussig Cancer Institute, where he had been Chair since 2010, so he could accept the position at the recently created Leadership Institute.

“I’m very proud of the Taussig Cancer Institute, and I felt very fortunate to have been chosen to lead it 11 years ago,” Dr. Bolwell says. “We have the best cancer center in the world, and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. So even thinking of leaving it was a major decision and one that I thought about a very long time.”

Dr. Bolwell’s initial conversations about the position took place about two years ago with Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Tomislav Mihaljevic, M.D., he says. At the time, Dr. Bolwell didn’t feel ready to leave the Cancer Institute. “In many ways, my professional identity is linked to the cancer center,” he says.

Over time, the evolution of his decision was influenced by two factors: the COVID-19 pandemic and hard thinking about what a positive departure from the Cancer Institute might look like.

“The pandemic has been a terrible thing for so many people across the world, but to some degree it changed my job last year,” Dr. Bolwell says. “There was an awful lot of anxiety from our caregivers as well as from patients. I spent a lot of time connecting in a very authentic way with the more than 1,000 employees of the Cancer Institute, and it was pretty cool. It started to change my thinking about what I wanted to do.”

Along with that, he knew that sooner or later, he would have to leave as Chair at Taussig Cancer Institute, and wanted it to be strong when he did. The time seemed right.  “I had great people around me, and they are going to continue to do very well,” he says.

Even prevailingly good transitions usually contain some discomfort. That has been true for this one as well, Dr. Bolwell says.

“It’s hard to articulate how important the cancer center has been for me. I have been very passionate about building it, having the right values and living them, having great people in it,” he says. “That’s never going to go away, and so leaving the position is going to feel like a bit of a loss. It does now. That doesn’t mean that the transition wasn’t the right thing to do. It just means there will be emotional issues that go along with it, and they are very real.”

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Change might not come easily for those in healthcare

Packed though it is with highly accomplished individuals, healthcare may have opportunities for growth when it comes to its practitioners managing professional change.

“I actually think other industries probably do transitions a little better,” Dr. Bolwell says.

In other industries, workers may be accustomed to frequently moving to different companies or institutions. In medicine, he says, some individuals still expect to spend their entire careers at one place.

Even if that happens, however, very few people have a totally linear career, he says. “Everybody has challenges. Everybody gets knocked down. Everybody experiences failure.”.

Those experiences can be defining and ultimately positive, Dr. Bolwell says, but they have to be managed well. “Some individuals get back up and resolve to learn why the setback happened and what they can do to improve,” he says. “Those are the people who tend to succeed over the long run. Those experiences wind up being transitions in and of themselves. “

Steps for assessing transitions with clear eyes

While promotions and other seemingly positive new changes can be invigorating and present growth opportunities, Bolwell encourages people to look closely before leaping.

“The first pitfall is making an assumption that the new position is going to be great,” he says. “It may be great, but nothing’s perfect. So the first step should be to try to get as much information as you can so you can see the whole picture.”

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The second step, he says, is to be mindful about what is being left behind. “It’s important to think through what you have before you decide to leave it,” Dr. Bolwell says.

The third step is to honestly examine one’s own impulse for making the change.

“Try to define what your values are, then follow them,” he says. “Are you’re making a change because you can make an impact? Because you think you can advance the field? These are important things to consider.”

Finally, Bolwell says, it pays to listen to one’s heart. “I think 90% of the decision needs to be intellectually based, but we all have that inner voice, that kind of knowledge that something feels right or not,” Dr. Bolwell says. “You have to listen that voice. There’s actually a fair amount of literature on this kind of perceptive ability.”

Adjusting to uninvited transitions

Some transitions are imposed on us, such as when organizational goals or leadership change, and the new situation seems less than ideal. Handling these changes with elegance starts with bringing empathy to new relationships, Dr. Bolwell says.

“Try to walk in the other person’s shoes. A new boss has to learn all sorts of things,” he says. “They’re not going to know you that well, and they’ll probably be a little insecure. Don’t expect them to know everything. Be patient and be supportive.”

Work and life are about relationships, he adds, and they need to be cultivated. That, in turns, requires grace with yourself and others.

“People around you will make mistakes for a variety of reasons,” he says. “Cut people a break. Don’t hold onto grudges. I think that’s the best way to manage transitions of people around you, a new boss or a new leader.”