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Leading Through Change

Leading through change is what separates the good from the great. Right now, thousands of school leaders across the nation are saying, “I cannot wait until next year. Next year will be different.”

My question to them is, “How do you know?”

When leading through change, it is all right for leaders to be uncertain about their process to get there, but it is not all right for leaders to be unclear about their overall vision. It is in time of change when people need their leaders the most. When people lack hope, the leader needs to provide hope. When people lack answers, the leader needs to have a vision and clearly communicate that vision.

A time of uncertainty is the hardest time to lead. Most people tend to freeze when the future is uncertain; unfortunately, this is when many leaders decide to take a step back rather than being at the forefront. When I was a principal, in times of change or adversity, I did not want to have to answer everyone’s questions for two main reasons:

  1. My confidence in communicating with clarity.
  2. My ability to control my emotions (emotions tend to lower my IQ!).

Instead, I froze and decided to seclude myself. As a result, these problems took on a life of their own, and I had to spend my time repairing rather than strategizing or implementing.

  • Leaders need to see things where they are (define reality).
  • Leaders need to communicate how they can be (possibility).
  • If you define reality without possibility, the result will be hopelessness.

The only way to give your people hope is to define reality and clearly communicate possibility.

When there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present. I remember a public charter school that hired our consulting team to assist them in pulling out of an impending financial crisis, academic demise, and anemic operational system. We immediately implemented a plan that included a monthly cash flow forecast (paying only fixed costs and payroll), weekly academic assessments, and a rebuilding of systems and processes. Every member of our team and the school’s leadership team had full autonomy with a weekly accountability check in. The staff worked diligently and flawlessly executed the game plan. The result: realizing a half of a million dollar turn around in the school’s cash position, earning the school’s highest report card grade, and exceeding academic growth as a school for the first time ever.

In spite of this amazing turnaround story, only twenty percent of the employees accepted their contract renewal to come back the next year. Why? There was no faith in the future of the school. By setting a vision, you not only set a course of action, you also begin to separate the “will” people from the “won’t” people – and that is a good thing. When you start heading into action, people “get off the fence,” and you begin to see who’s who. You never know your people’s commitment until you call them into action.  

What changes might your organization be going through?

  • Key staff changes: Every year that you fail to build systems and grow the capacity of your next leaders through mentoring and coaching programs, critical intellectual property walks right out the door.
  • Employee turnover: We are experiencing a massive teacher shortage across the country. Even the best schools are struggling to fill their needs with competent classroom leaders. If you are a school with a weak community perception, you may need to begin thinking of innovative ways to find teachers who meet the needs of your students rather than just hiring someone with a pulse.
  • Board Member Turnover: Having an effective team of board members is critical to the organization’s long term success.
  • Curriculum Changes: North Carolina will be shifting academic standards soon, so create a plan now and choose key players for your curriculum team.
  • New School Improvement Initiatives: Most people want change; they just do not want to change themselves to make it happen.
  • New Facility: Moving an entire school in a short notice is taxing on everyone.
  • Enrollment Growth or School Expansion: New students equate to more challenges and personalities.
  • Regulatory Changes: In North Carolina, the entire Exceptional Children’s reporting system is changing, and new laws are passed annually.

Great leaders know that they do not have to play the hands they are dealt. These leaders know that they can always throw the cards back into the pile and demand a new hand of cards. Make it a habit to study leaders who have been successful in times of uncertainty. Change is hard. For most people, when they feel the pressure of change, they revert back to what they find to be most comfortable. This is dangerous territory. My first step in any challenge is to find a mentor who has navigated through these similar challenges. Be sure this mentor has a strong track record. Too many times we find solace in those that are either in the same situation or are less successful than we are.

Planning Ahead

To get the results you desire you need to plan ahead and take intentional action. Use this PLAN-AHEAD acronym that I learned from John Maxwell’s book, Developing the Leader Within You, to achieve your school year goals:

Pre-Determine the Change that is needed: Leadership author Rick Warren said, “The greatest enemy of tomorrow’s success is yesterday’s success.” To be a great leader, you cannot be complacent. This means that you not only welcome change, you champion change! If you don’t, your team, department or organization will be in trouble. As a leader, you carry the responsibility of reviewing what your team does and looking for what needs to be changed.

Leadership expert John Maxwell suggests these standards for review:

  • If you’ve done something for one year – look at it carefully.
  • If you’ve done it for two years – look at it with suspicion.
  • If you’ve done it for five years – stop looking at it and do something to change it.

It takes vision to set goals.  

Focus Questions: If you were to watch a highlight video of the upcoming school year, what would we see? Write down what you see for 14 consecutive days, starting new each day. Within 14 days you will have a very clear vision to begin planning.

Lay Out Your Goals: Goals we set for ourselves and others must be challenging enough to activate our energy and our brains, but they must also be achievable and realistic. Those without goals will never fail. We have all heard the term SMART Goals, but do you truly understand this concept? Instead of stating your goal as, “I want to lose weight,” make it powerful by stating, “By June 30, 2019, I will lose 10 pounds.”

By being more specific and adding specific measurables to your goal, you give yourself a tool to track progress and make adjustments to your plan as necessary.

Adjust Priorities: To create change for the better and meet our goals, we need to revise our priorities. According to John Maxwell, one danger is to confuse cosmetic change for critical change. Cosmetic changes are easier to make but are not as effective because they do not address things that really matter. They occur from the outside in. Critical changes are made from the inside out, and they are always more difficult to facilitate.

Sit with your team and ask, “What is the real root cause of this problem?” Keep digging until you peel back all of the layers. Do not just address the low-hanging fruit. This will take some soul searching.

Asking questions is worth it because these type of critical changes make an impact.

Notify Key People: Good leaders do not share information about changes with everyone in the organization at one time. They make it strategic and inform the “key people” first. How do you identify the key people? Maxwell suggests that leaders ask themselves these two questions:

  • Who needs to get behind this to make it fly?
  • Who actually needs to fly it?

The answers to these questions will point you to the people who need to know about changes before anyone else. You will need to meet with these individuals or departments first because if they do not buy in, the plan is never going to work. By giving them this information, they feel special and empowered, and most importantly, they feel included on the journey. This personal approach also allows for open discussion, honest reactions, questions, and objections. If this meeting does not go well, it does not mean it is a bad plan. Take a step back, reflect, and meet again with the answers to their questions.

It’s important to share your goals and your plan with people who will hold you accountable and help you succeed.

Notifying takes care of the PLAN part of the process. Let’s start moving AHEAD!

Allow Time for Acceptance: People usually take a long time to accept change. Most people are more comfortable with old problems than new solutions because the new represents the unknown. People initially focus on what they will have to give up rather than the positive change that can occur. According to Maxwell, that acceptance goes through three phases:

  1. It will not work.
  2. It will cost too much.
  3. I thought it was a good idea all along.

Allowing time for acceptance is challenging for most leaders, including myself. Leaders see more, and they see more before their people do. It is good to take a breath and reflect on your plan so far. Good leaders always allow time for acceptance. If you find that acceptance is slow or chaos is occurring, try these three strategies:

  1. Slow down and go back for your team.
  2. Simplify your communication.
  3. Build time in the schedule for the team to process the ideas.

Acceptance is the key to getting results as a leader.

Head into Action: Once you have the buy-in of your key people, you can head into action. This doesn’t mean everyone will be 100% on board. When I was a principal, it always seemed like 20% of my people were against almost 100% of the initiatives we implemented. This is where your credibility of a leader is critical. Think of credibility in the same way that you think of change in your pocket. When you make good decisions, you earn change. When you make poor decisions, you give that change back. Remember, it takes change to make change. The more change you have in your pocket, the more opportunities you have to change the lives of others.

The less change involved, the harder it is to move into action.  

Expect Problems: Anytime you initiate any kind of movement, problems arise because motion causes friction. Some problems come from unforeseen circumstances; some come from people and their objections. As a leader, you need to not take these problems personally. The best solution to solving problems is to be proactive on the front end, so you can be less reactive on the back end. Try these strategies:

  • Think the worst first: Spend time running through every possible result, recruit your team to help.
  • Speak to the worst first: When you assure people that you know what’s happening and you’re working on it, it gives them a sense of security.
  • Answer the worst first: When people start to worry and ask questions, do not avoid the discussion or paint a rosy picture. Give answers.
  • Encourage them through the worst first: Work as a team to solve the root of the problem.

Leading through change is difficult enough without brining in unwanted emotions.

Always Point to Success: With all of the challenges, obstacles, conflict, and naysayers working against people’s efforts to implement change, we leaders must encourage our people to keep going and to do the right things. Celebrate each win no matter the size! Shout out your results and start the Flywheel Effect. You will inspire others to do the same.

People desire validation and encouragement. It’s human nature.

Daily Review of the Plan: This is the last step; in my opinion, it is the most important. By reviewing your plan and results daily you accomplish two things:

  1. Ensure you are on track with your goals; and,
  2. Remind you to keep communicating the message of change to your people.

John Maxwell declared, “That’s always a challenge because until the change becomes part of the organization’s or team’s culture, people lose sight of it and go back to their old way of doing things” (p. 91).

Talk about the change clearly, creatively and continually. If you do that along with your daily review of progress, the change will be lived, experienced, valued and shared.

Let your plan navigate you towards your destination.

If you prefer to listen to this teaching, download the audio here: Click Here

This blog was written by leadership coach, Dr. Thomas Miller. If you found the content valuable, please share. If you would like to learn more, reach out to Tom for a hassle-free consulting session at [email protected]

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