William Bridges, Ph.D.
Founder, William Bridges Associates
William Bridges (1933–2013) was a preeminent authority on change and transition who transformed the way people think about change. As an author, speaker and consultant, his pioneering research provided a methodology to guide organizations and individuals during significant transitions that accompany a major change. His work offered fresh and humane perspectives on how people approach transition, both on a personal level and in organizations.
Bill advised CEOs, senior executives and managers, helping them to achieve clarity and purpose during periods of wrenching organizational transformation. His ten books included the best-selling Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change (25th Anniversary 2017)) and the updated and revised third edition of Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes (2019), which together have sold over one million copies. He published The Way of Transition (2000), a partly autobiographical study of coming to terms with profound changes in his own life and transforming them into times of self-renewal. He also published Creating You & Co., a handbook for creating a work-life that capitalizes on frequent and disruptive changes, and the groundbreaking JobShift.
Guiding organizations and individuals through transition
For over three decades, William Bridges has guided thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations through the maze of transitions that accompany change. The professional seminars he launched have certified thousands of managers, trainers and consultants worldwide to conduct Transition Management programs. Clients comprise a cross section of industries in the U.S., Canada, Australia, South America, Europe, China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Africa. His later work focused on bringing the principles of Transition Management into the non-profit world, most notably the Andrus Family Fund and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He was a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and corporate meetings in the United States and abroad. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal listed him as one of the top ten independent executive development presenters in America.
Bill’s ideas have affected educators, psychologists, non-profit leaders, and individuals who face the all-too-familiar challenges of personal change and life transition. Bill possessed a deeply human capacity to understand that transition is largely an internal process – a psychological and emotional period that requires sensitivity, awareness – and a plan to get through it productively.
Educational background and philosophy
Raised in New England, Bill received his BA in English with an interest in American Studies from Harvard, his MA in History from Columbia, and a PhD in American Civilization from Brown University.
With an education in American literature emphasizing 19th Century New England writers, Bill brought a historical and philosophical perspective to his highly practical work, along with an approachable style. His ability to develop theoretical insights that helped ordinary people better manage their daily lives placed him in the American tradition of pragmatic philosophy exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and William James. Throughout his life, Emerson remained Bill’s most important influence.
Discovering his life’s work
Bill’s experience trying to negotiate significant transitions in his own life was the catalyst for his investigations. As an observer and thinker whose knowledge and skills bridged many disciplines, he carved out a distinctive career path based on his passions and interests. He was an American Literature professor at Mills College in California, during the 1960s before taking a sabbatical from teaching to explore the psychology of literature.
It was a period of tremendous intellectual, spiritual, and psychological ferment. West Coast thinkers, especially in Berkeley and at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, were exploring the latest ideas of the human potential movement and depth psychology. There was a collective search for deeper meaning and a desire to understand the nature of the unconscious and conscious, and to develop greater capacities for happiness, creativity and satisfaction.
Bill, with his expertise in transcendentalist literature, was particularly interested in humanistic psychology, which emphasized the inherent human drive for authenticity and spiritual development. He immersed himself in depth psychology and human potential, becoming the first President for the Society for Humanistic Psychology.
Bill had discovered his life’s work – researching, writing about and living with transition. In 1974, he resigned from Mills College to pursue this interest, moving his family to an intentional community of psychologists in a rural area north of San Francisco. The aim was to seek greater meaning in their daily lives and personal and professional connection in a group setting.
Books by William Bridges
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes
In 1980, Bill published Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, in order to help individuals cope with the difficult, painful and confusing periods in their lives.
Transitions proposed that individuals experience change in three stages: first as an ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, and then followed by a new beginning. He noted that because Western culture offers few rituals or rites of passage to mark the passage through these stages, people often try to skip from the loss and pain of an ending directly to a new beginning, marked by enthusiasm, hope and acceptance.
Instead, Bill advocated that people spend time in what he called “the neutral zone” as a way of making a psychological transition from an ending to a new beginning. The neutral zone is a threshold state that exists between the old life and the new; it stands apart from everyday life. Reaching it requires going deeply within oneself, and keeping still enough to hear one’s inner signals. It is that period when something has ended, and a new beginning has yet to emerge.
The notion of a transition also sets forth the idea that while change is situational, transition is psychological. This was an important message, especially in America where change is both endemic and rapid, and people are expected to quickly adapt rather than look back.
Managing Transitions, Making the Most of Change
Bill drew on what he learned working with organizations in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Originally published in 1991, the book was updated and expanded; it went on to become a national bestseller. The 25th Anniversary revision by Susan Bridges was released in 2017. Whereas Transitions had looked at change from the perspective of individuals, Managing Transitions looked at the impact of major change on organizations, which were being increasingly affected by mergers, acquisitions, layoffs and restructuring.
In Managing Transitions, employees and managers were shown how to live through potentially destabilizing changes by managing the literal pragmatic consequences of change while also being attentive to its psychological dimension. Having seen first-hand how poorly managed transitions could impact the morale and even viability of organizations, Bill taught managers how to help people negotiate painful periods of disruption by having a purpose, a mental picture, a plan for, and a part to play in change.
The Way of Transition
In 2001, Bill published his most personal, intimate and searing book, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments. It was inspired by his experience of the death of his first wife, and explored the process of self-renewal by examining how painful experiences help us to grow. He was aware of the implicit demand people often make for one to move on from grief quickly. Instead, he allowed himself to spend time in solitude. In doing so, he prepared himself to become psychologically ready for new beginnings.
JobShift and Creating You & Co.
By the mid-90s Bill had worked with many organizations undergoing frequent mergers, acquisitions, layoffs and downsizing. He began to observe that the nature of work itself was changing. The relationship between employees and the workplace was undergoing a profound realignment.
He noted that this shift in the employment dynamic was not just cyclical, or tied to economic cycles. It was also the result of a fundamental shift in how goods and services were offered to the marketplace. He wanted to find a way for people to make the transition into this new, more fluid environment where traditional jobs were becoming scarcer and less stable.
In 1994, he published JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs. It was an immediate success and was featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine.
Bill accurately predicted the explosive growth of self-employment and self-directed careers. In 1997 he published Creating You & Co. in which he described the new landscape of work, while giving people a way to prepare for a far more flexible work future.
William Bridges Associates
Bill founded William Bridges Associates in 1985 in Mill Valley, California. Brought in as a strategic organizational consultant, Susan Bridges advised Bill in setting the direction of the business. After their marriage ten years later, Susan joined Bill as his partner and co-owner. She later merged her long-standing leadership development business with the company and became President in 2005. Together, they turned their focus to writing, consulting and speaking about the leader’s role in change and transition. Today, Susan continues to lead William Bridges Associates, as the Bridges work reaches new organizations and individuals across the globe.