Among all the things leaders are expected to do, one duty has risen to the top in terms of most difficult to accomplish with great success: managing systemic change.
Far too many leaders see their attempts at change backfire because they lack the patience and the understanding to go through all the steps needed to effectively lead change.
Like many leaders, I originally struggled implementing change. As I reflect on my early years as a school administrator, and I cringe at how poorly I led change efforts in my buildings.
One story that comes to mind is when I led the implementation of middle school students wearing lanyards with ID badges. Not understanding the complexity of leading systemic change, I recklessly emailed faculty over the summer telling them to be prepared to enforce these new protocols upon returning.
My assumption was that teachers could easily enforce these rules in their classroom. “How hard could it be?” I imagined. However - because I failed to engage employees in the change process - the new policy was a complete train wreck. Students hated wearing the lanyards, and teachers felt little motivation to hold students accountable. This resulted in adversarial relationships between faculty and administration, which killed workplace morale.
Similar scenarios unfold in every school district. Leaders decide a change is necessary and then quickly implement the change without considering the work that is needed for change to be effective. And when the change fails, many leaders are quick to blame employees rather than reflect on their own shortcomings.
The following paragraphs contain nine steps to effectively lead systemic change. To be clear, change is complex and all situations require nuanced approaches. Therefore, these ideas should be viewed as general principles rather than precise actions:
Establish Relationships: A lot of books and articles discuss change without mentioning one of the most important parts of the change process: establishing strong relationships. When employees are asked to change their behavior, they must trust that their boss has their best interest in mind. Leaders who invest time building social capital find the change process to be much more manageable than leaders who have done little to strengthen bonds with employees.
Seek to Understand Current Reality: Rather than assume change is necessary, leaders must get out of the office and into the trenches to understand employee perspectives. You can probably think of a freshly hired school leader who insisted on making sweeping changes without taking time to ask questions and understand the current reality. Unfortunately, this hasty approach often ends in disaster for new leaders.
Honor Employee Readiness for Change: Once a leader has gathered enough qualitative evidence, the best leaders seek quantitative data to support the case for change. The easiest way to do this is to survey employees, asking them whether or not they support the change. When the survey is sent, employees should be assured that there are no wrong answers, as some changes are highly political. Finally, leaders should only move forward with changes when at least 60% of staff (better known as a supermajority) support the change.
Explain The Change: Once it has been determined that a change will be made, leaders must communicate the why and the how with employees. Why is a change being made? What is the timeline for a change? How will employees be impacted by the change? While some changes may feel like no-brainers, there will always be some employees who push back on change. Open and transparent communication is one of the best ways to keep even the harshest critics quiet.
Form a Committee: Effective leaders understand that top-down decisions are a recipe for disaster in today’s workplace environment. Furthermore, the best leaders have the uncanny ability to make employees feel like a decision is their idea. To mesh these ideas, leaders would be wise to empower a group of employees to lead the change process. Depending on the significance of the issue, some leaders may want to remove themselves completely from the process and bring in a third-party consultant to facilitate the conversation.
A committee of 40-plus individuals were empowered to make student dress code changes.
Generate Employee Buy-In: In most cases, the committee will be a small representation of the larger group of individuals affected by the change. Therefore, proposed changes must be presented to the broader audience for feedback. While gathering input from all affected employees could be difficult, simply giving staff an opportunity to see the plans before the change is announced helps employees feel like a part of the process ... thus increasing support.
Give Leaders Final Say on Proposal: Once a proposal for change has worked its way through the committee, leaders should have the opportunity to give the final blessing on the plan. The key here is not to shred the plan to pieces - which would undermine the value of the committee - but rather to look for small tweaks and revisions that ensure the plan is feasible.
Communicate and Give Time to Prepare: Once a change has been outlined, leaders must share details of the plans with employees. Whenever possible, leaders should communicate the changes to employees both in person (meeting) and in writing (email). Furthermore, leaders must give employees time to prepare for the changes. In most cases, there is little reason to rush change. Leaders who give plenty of lead time on changes find that employees are more supportive and bought into the change.
Revisit Changes and Make Tweaks: One of the best tricks for leaders to do when leading change is to remind staff that changes are always reversible. I often use the line “Remember, this isn’t a life sentence” when trying to convince employees to support a change. This approach lightens the mood and helps get people who are on the fence over to your side. However, this can’t just be lip service; you truly must be willing to discuss how changes are going and what tweaks need to be made.
Machiavelli once said, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
My years in educational leadership confirm that leading change is the most complex and difficult job for a school leader.
However, leaders who take their time and use best practices often find that change can be transformative.
If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.