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Handle change with care

Changing leadership can be messy. Here's how to ease the process.

5 min read


Handle change with care


Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series on school leadership. Check out Naphtali’s last post on leadership soft skills, where he focuses on developing strong relationships.

I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was on the phone with a veteran principal–a man who was considered one of the more accomplished administrators within the school network to which I belonged. He had agreed to mentor me during my first year as head of school, and he said something at that time that I will never forget.

We were talking about the burden I carried in assuming the headship following a decorated, beloved principal. My mentor told me that it was common practice among recruiters to offer some form of refund if an administrator they place leaves or is fired soon after taking the position. But, if a candidate is replacing someone who has occupied the position for five years or more, they don’t offer a refund because it’s understood that things might not work out. (In case you’re wondering, he really was trying to be supportive. His point was to underscore the challenges of succeeding an established predecessor.)

The idea behind this practice is that organizational change–be it new personnel or processes–can be difficult for all stakeholders. Change messes with our routines, raises questions about proper procedure and protocol, and forces us to modify our behaviors. Worst of all, it can create uncertainty that causes some to descend into fear and doubt.

So how do you overcome this? One critical factor in a successful change initiative is how people feel about the person leading it. John C. Maxwell wrote, “You can’t separate the leader from the cause he promotes. It can’t be done, no matter how hard you try. It is not an either/or proposition. The two always go together.” The first thing your people will see when you introduce change is you. If they like what they see and feel that you have taken the time to connect with and understand them, then the process you promote will move forward with much greater ease.

In a similar vein, PriceWaterhouseCoopers suggests that change efforts flop when leaders do not create the necessary groundswell of support among their employees. This includes failing to bring employees into the conversation in a manner that makes them feel valued and critical to the project’s success.

We know the importance of being a good listener. Leaders who listen foster trust and loyalty among their teams. Nowhere is this more important than when considering change.

Leaders should take steps to elicit genuine feedback, such as by having coffee with small focus groups or by distributing questionnaires to larger workforces. Leaders who do this find that they are better informed of what people are thinking and how they may respond when change is introduced. They can also learn more about personal passions, which may be useful when considering role and committee assignments. The next step is to share what you learned so that you can make the case that the change was driven by them and their feedback, and not by some outside driver.

Change guru John P. Kotter has written that 70% of change initiatives in organizations and businesses do not succeed, wholly or in part. Kotter outlines eight reasons for such failure, including leaders not establishing a sense of urgency, not developing a vision for change, and/or not effectively communicating their vision.

Leadership consultant Deborah Mackin, citing research from Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher, suggests that leaders should align with their primary stakeholders to build a case for change. This increases buy-in and mitigates fears of future second-guessing. As part of the case, Mackin suggests that stakeholders consider the following questions:

  1. What is the background for the change? 
  2. What challenges or problems do we face in the current situation that will cripple us if we don’t begin addressing them today?
  3. What will the change require? What will it cost us to change? 
  1. What are we going to have to let go of and why?
  2. How will we know when we have succeeded?

Engaging in an honest, comprehensive process that looks at all angles associated with the desired change gives principals greater clarity about the risks and rewards associated with their objectives. It lets them craft a more compelling vision that they can sell to others within the school—a vision that takes others’ thoughts and fears into consideration. Most importantly, it demonstrates that the principal’s agenda is really the school agenda—a necessary, consensus-driven process that will provide benefit for the collective enterprise.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”


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