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Illustration by Carl Wiens

Navigating Transitions

​GE's legendary CEO, Jack Welch, stepped down in 2001 and was replaced by Jeff Immelt. Under Immelt's leadership, a massive restructuring initiative transformed GE from a large commodities player into the global corporation of infrastructure turnkey solutions it is today.

The transition was executed in distinct phases with measureable milestones. Everything changed, from branding to marketing to headcount. Entire divisions were consolidated, and that prompted the removal of layers of redundant leadership functions and the blending of resources. Hundreds of people were displaced. Some quit, some were fired, but many navigated the currents of change and are still around to muse over the "Great GE Transition." 

As a security director at GE, I was in the middle of this change: I was transferred from the GE rail division in Pennsylvania to the GE healthcare division in Wisconsin. I was not prepared and had to start from scratch, learning an entirely new market, new business model, and even a new technical language about medical devices. I had no idea how a computed tomography scanner worked, let alone how long it took to make one.

Even scarier than uprooting my family and moving to Wisconsin was the change from managing 60 mostly domestic facilities to managing more than 650 global sites, and doing so with a much leaner staff. Faced with this dramatic change in scope, I was forced to push the outer limits of my comfort zone and retool my entire thinking process to deal with the expanded workload.  Although I was nervous most of the way through, it turned out to be an exciting and rewarding adventure.

From these experiences at GE—as well as transition experiences from holding security positions in other organizations like Paramount Pictures—come some best-practice guidance for managers on navigating through change and keeping the ship sailing through rough waters. To be successful, managers must take control, build staff, communicate, know the field, and maintain their vision of security.​


The moment you learn about a transitional event taking place in your company, start asking questions and gather as much information as you can. Take some time to digest the developments and how they may impact your team's operations. Give some thought to how you want to communicate the necessary steps to support the transition. Anticipate questions and think about some logical responses

Then, exercise your people skills and manage by walking around, with the goal of being a positive influence and helping to alleviate counterproductive rumors and misinformation. Informally chatting with your team members about goals, objectives, and policies, along with offering informational resources, such as dedicated departmental intra­net pages or collaboration software, is an excellent way to improve performance throughout your department and help influence desired outcomes. Developing human relationships on a one-to-one level goes much farther than simply hammering out policy changes on paper. Focus on exploiting strengths rather than weaknesses.

Group meetings can also be an important source of information about employees. In group meetings I led at Paramount Pictures, I learned about the likes and dislikes of my staff regarding hours and security operations. After listening to employee concerns, I tailored their individual shifts around peak traffic hours, thus saving them time and gas money getting to and from work. I also tailored shifts around sound stage operations, so shift changes during the morning and evening rushes could be avoided.

Change is uncomfortable for everyone. Sometimes, transitional changes result not only in high turnover but staff uncertainty, low morale, fear, infighting, and the sinking feeling that other coworkers will soon be leaving. Leading with your human side under these conditions will help to alleviate much of the shared stress within a group, but that doesn't necessarily mean showing more emotion, which could fuel panic.

As a leader, the last thing you want to do is throw your hands up in the air in front of your team and say, "I can't believe management is doing this, it doesn't make sense." Such behavior does not generate confidence. People will gladly follow when you lead the way with honesty, confidence, and clarity; however, they will quickly seek alternative paths if there's no inviting path through the transition.

Successfully maneuvering through transitions means communicating frequently, taking time to listen closely and attentively, quickly addressing signs of abnormal behavior, and engaging as many resources as possible. During times of uncertainty, more individual human interaction is needed, rather than mass communication methods. Things that are important need to be told, not read. If goals and objectives are discussed and made clear, and staffers buy in, then small group cultures can influence the larger corporate culture. This is a beautiful thing to watch.

It's important to talk frequently during transitions, allowing for and answering lots of questions and concerns, regardless of how seemingly trivial. Frequent and open communication demonstrates your commitment to working as a team, and it sets the stage for sharing future goals and expectations.  ​


Run your entire department, not just the numbers. If you're managing people, it's crucial to keep them informed, focused, and energized. To lessen the impact of staffing turmoil, structure your security department wisely. Establish a lean core team and routinely cross-train them using half-day job rotations to encourage familiarization of all key processes and tasks. 

Strengthen your most critical positions using job-pairing—where two employees per shift are equally trained for slightly different jobs. Managers should also build a contingency pool of part-time staffers, consultants, and temporary hires to draw from during challenging times. This approach enhances stability by maintaining secondary and tertiary staffing levels.

For example, during the GE transition in 2003, the rail division endured a labor strike that lasted several weeks. Our security force was well prepared for the long hours and expanded posts because we had maintained a good number of part-timers and contract security officers. We also had contingency contracts in place for specialty support services to handle surveillance activities around the plant.

In terms of overall staffing decisions, it also helps to weed out the noncontributors—not the B players, but those whose oars are completely out of the water. Encourage them to move on.

At GE, we used a typical bell-shaped performance rating curve where the top 20 percent of performers were rewarded, the middle 70 percent retained, and the bottom 10 percent replaced or dropped, with few exceptions. At Paramount, we trimmed our team by 10 percent during a transition. At both organizations, maintaining a core staff of efficient and productive employees was a big help in weathering change.


As leaders, we need to become connected and grounded within the organization as quickly as possible, and stay that way during times of transition. This can be challenging when the transition means a major organizational change.

For example, the GE rail factory was huge, loud, and dirty, with 400,000-pound locomotives and workers wearing hardhats and carrying lunch boxes. I started work in the morning with a white collar and went home with a brown collar. Still, after two years with GE rail, I was happily grounded in the organization there.

The transfer to GE's healthcare division was shocking. The division was more than 10 times the size of GE rail, and the focus was on high-tech medical systems—an industry I had no experience with. 

Open communication, and constantly striving to avoid misunderstandings, was crucial to my success in making this organizational transition and regrounding myself in the new business.

But open communication, free of misunderstandings, is not easy to achieve. Everything we say and do may be interpreted differently than we intended, and how we see things doesn't always match how others may view us. 

Given this, I made an effort to double-­check whether my messages and expected outcomes were being understood correctly, free of interference from my quirkiness or joke-laden style of communicating. I followed an active feedback loop process—after communicating a message, I had it repeated back, and then checked it to ensure it was not misunderstood.

In the collaborative digital environment of the workplace, this type of feedback loop can be tracked. At GE, the entire company's intranet effectively enabled feedback looping. Every page, every screen, every database, and every process had an identified content owner with a posted e-mail link going directly to the person who could provide an answer or make a change or correct an error.

Such feedback opportunities are extremely valuable. I recall a shareholders meeting at another company where a shop steward, who refused to leave the meeting, was yelling at the CEO for not taking action on dozens of complaints to correct safety hazards. The CEO was speechless—unaware of any complaints regarding safety systems. Had there been a feedback loop in place, the CEO would have been aware of the issues and could have responded appropriately or taken action to remedy the safety issues. 

Ultimately at GE, my security group's overall ability to communicate clearly and stay focused on our objectives became easier, almost second nature, through the use of this feedback loop process.

By using a dashboard to track everything from incidents to attendance to performance measurements, creating our own security page on the GE intranet, managing a suggestion program, establishing group meetings for all levels of operations, and having an open-door policy, we achieved a solid feedback loop within the company and within the team. It was rare that something needing a fix did not get reported. As a bonus, the approach generated a strong sense of confidence within the group because fewer mistakes were being made.

Sometimes, successful communication takes more than one try. When I started at Paramount Pictures, I restructured the security, safety, medical, and firefighting departments into one consolidated environmental health, safety, and security team.

I learned quickly that the separate teams were not talking to each other during emergencies, let alone having advance discussions. The teams weren't sharing resources, and each response event seemed more like a competition for recognition rather than an effort to support the business. It was obvious that my managers were distracted by the consolidation and were focused on highlighting the importance of their individual functions over others.

It became clear that the consolidation plan needed more communication. Even though I had thoroughly explained and mapped out the plan to the entire team, I found myself having to review it with my managers repeatedly.

Within a few weeks, each manager began embracing the plan. The more they understood it, the less fear they had.  Then, they started sharing their strengths among themselves as a team. Most importantly of all, they began talking more and communicating openly.  ​


You can gain a significant competitive advantage in your ability to lead and manage your team during transitions when you fully understand the financial aspects of your business and its vertical market. When you are in tune with the CEO's vision and understand the motivation behind the decisions being made, you will be better able to forecast where the rough waters will come and be able to prepare accordingly by developing solutions in advance.

Knowing the business and its corporate culture gives you a greater perspective to see and recognize what's needed, who needs it, when it will be needed, and where the business should go both during and after a period of change.

In my case, understanding GE's corporate culture helped me successfully manage my own personal transition from locomotives to medical systems, and also manage the multiple transitional events underway when I arrived at GE healthcare. 

For example, one of my first challenges was to establish a global network of regionally based security groups, link all of the regional security and emergency operations centers to business continuity resources, and standardize the company's security systems.

With my corporate knowledge, I was able to recruit the support of all stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of each service provided by our team. Connecting with all stakeholders has another benefit—it shows you what's appreciated and what's needed.

This business knowledge is also essential for those charged with developing a company's business continuity plans. To gain this business knowledge, a security manager must start by researching everything possible about the company: its leadership, its products and services, and its customers.

Get involved by volunteering on projects that can be supported by the security department. Help the safety department during training events, manage external security operations at corporate gatherings, or conduct facility surveys for the real estate group.

All of these require interaction with other departments; a critical step to building personal relationships with the senior leaders of finance, operations, legal, human relations, and facilities. Attend their departmental staff meetings when appropriate. I learned the most by attending the sales and marketing meetings, because employees in this division were plugged in to the latest corporate trends.

Lastly, don't forget to feed your own brain by taking a few executive-level business development courses and by maintaining at least two professional certifications.


The CSO is the visionary for the security function; this is your most important role. Your vision sales pitch, which should be taken from security's mission statement, must be concise and constant in its delivery, and resonate throughout everything you do. 

For example, you should often begin discussions by subtly reiterating your vision through phrases such as: "In addition to providing a safe and secure workplace for our employees and visitors, our security team can help by…" or "While our goal is to promote safety and help protect our global business operations, we can contribute more by…" 

Repeating the vision and repeating the mission helps remind everyone of your security department's purpose. Every meeting and every greeting is an opportunity to highlight the achievements made toward fulfilling your mission and vision. Using this approach at GE quickly established me as a resource and referee for security matters. 

In implementing security's vision, it's best to stay focused on what the department provides as a core service to its stakeholders, to ensure that you demonstrate a return on investment to the company. This includes implementing sound project management practices to achieve the agreed milestones during the transitional period, to help the company become the new organization envisioned within the allotted time frame. ​


The operational hiccup of a transitional stage can create vulnerability, and many companies are highly susceptible to fraudulent activity while the attention from managers is focused elsewhere. And once vulnerability is realized, fraud knows no limit. As the corporate sheriff, CSOs must keep their eyes wide open and their integrity intact.

Rest assured, fraud and corruption will escalate when companies experience hard times, whether by fault of the leadership or the situation. For instance, I worked at a company where the CEO was accused of fabricating expense vouchers to hide personal expenditures. The CEO, along with other senior leaders, eventually left the company as a result of an internal audit. The entire company then fell into an emotional slump. In a matter of days, it was no longer a happy place to work, and many of my peers began searching for job opportunities elsewhere.

In response, I gathered my team, explained the facts as shared with me, and kept everyone focused on what needed to be done. I reassured everyone on my team that it was illogical to believe our department would be eliminated as a result of this particular incident, or from any subsequent restructuring. 

Most importantly, I reminded everyone of the benefits that our company provided to its customers, and reiterated that the company was still in sound financial condition thanks to the guidance of the existing board members. As it turned out, our team was directed to play an even greater corporate role in the future.

In these difficult situations, security managers must know when to be quiet and when to speak out. Some transitional events cannot be discussed if they are confidential in nature or restricted by regulation or law, such as closures, mergers, or acquisitions. There were many times at GE where I could not brief my team, nor even mention an upcoming acquisition or planned restructuring, because of the possible ramifications to organized labor agreements, brand reputation, regulatory restrictions, and so forth.

However, as I experienced with other companies, some transitions can hide fraudulent activity. There are many possible examples of this; a few include acquiring a fictitious business  to inflate the company's worth prior to an acquisition, covering up a theft of funds by initiating an unwarranted restructuring to replace the loss through reduced expenses, and destroying or altering company records during the replacement of multiple layers of management. When fraud is suspected or detected, it is a security manager's duty to speak out on behalf of the company.

Using these tips as a guide while you navigate the seas of transition should bring about some positive results, such as finding equilibrium a bit faster, meeting incremental targets ahead of schedule, capturing process improvements along the way, and experiencing less day-to-day stress. 

At GE, the massive restructuring initiative entailed many component transitions, with each transition typically taking between three and nine months to complete. 

Each of these mini-transitions would start with a kick-off meeting, followed by frequent progress reports, and ended with a touchdown ceremony. Subtle transitional changes were happening and being celebrated all the time, every day.

In the end, GE's transitions consistently resulted in leaner, more-efficient, modular business units that cleanly plugged into the company's larger structure, with a clearly defined mission statement and purpose. In part, GE's success in managing transitions can be attributed to the practical application of the guidance offered above.

Change is the only constant in the corporate world, and these tips will help you tackle it.


Clint Hilbert is CSO and global account manager for Betafence. He has served as a security executive for General Electric, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Paramount Pictures. Earlier in his career, he was a commander of protective services for the U.S. Delegation to NATO for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. He is a member of ASIS International and the CSO roundtable