I spent much of last week in Washington DC meeting with the UPCEA Executive Committee and Board, discussing and voting on a new strategic plan for UPCEA.

No matter how many books I’ve read about leadership and change, when you find yourself personally in the middle of trying provide leadership for a significant organizational change, for some reason all the textbook responses seem to fly out the window.  I am very proud of what was accomplished last week by UPCEA, and it was a great opportunity for me to re-learn some lessons about change.

Change is hard.  I can see why organizations resist change. It’s hard work to effect change.  It seems to start simply enough: looking at the current state and thinking you know we can do better, we can do better if we are organized differently, we can do better if we used different, more streamlined procedures.  In the end, we will be better by changing.  After that, everything becomes much more complicated.  Once you have the vision for the change, you need to be able to communicate the “why” for the change, and what the end state will look like.  Then comes building the plan, followed by vetting the plan, and then assuring that the plan is fully communicated to the stakeholders, and finally building support for the plan.  Well, that isn’t really “finally” because then comes the hardest step: implementing the plan.  No matter how well you do in the previous steps in change, you cannot falter in the implementation of the plan.

Change should NOT be a zero sum game.  This can best be summed up by the phrase “don’t through the baby out with the bath water.”  When I find myself completely caught up in the change process, I’ve found that I need to stop and assure that I understand “what is working” and build upon it in making the change.  I’ve been lucky, I’ve surrounded myself with people who are not shrinking violets, and who don’t hesitate to remind me that we often have a firm foundation on which to build change.

Change is messy.  I’ve found that there are no straight lines in making change.  Instead, leading and making changes is a series of fits and starts, as well as a process of moving forward while spending time circling back to assure we are moving in the right direction. (I’m dizzy just writing that sentence.) Part of this is because if we are really seeking input and buy-in for the change, we must stop and really listen to what people have to say and make modifications (circling back) based on the input and then move forward.

Change requires making hard decisions.  For change to actually happen, at some point you must make hard decisions.  Certainly one of the greatest challenges in leadership is making the tough decisions, because there are consequences in those decisions.  For example, change entails shifting priorities, and with that there will be organizational changes, i.e., some offices and/or program areas may be eliminated and/or refocused.   In making these changes, it is difficult to avoid hurt feelings, a sense of loss, the unintended result of giving some a sense of being disenfranchised.  I hate that, but leading change requires having the courage to make tough decisions.

Change requires a personal touch.  Taking into consideration the feelings of those impacted by change, I find that we need a variety of ways of communicating the reasons for the change, and what the end state will be.  We’ve become so accustomed to “just sending an email” or responding to questions through email, but I’ve found a phone call or two helps me to not only better express my thoughts but it truly is the best way for me to better understand the thoughts of others.  As Covey reminds us, “seek first to understand, then be understood.”  I am the first to admit this is hard to do, it is a continuing aspiration for me and one that I know I don’t reach with consistency.

Change is good.  I do believe that change is good.  Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe in change for change’s sake.  Heavens, I’ve been in higher education for over 30 years, I’ve seen my share of change for change’s sake.  I do, however, believe that an organization that is not changing is falling behind.  As one of my friends reminds me, if you are standing still you are falling backwards because everyone else is passing you with new ideas. 

While I recognize that change is all the things I suggested above and more, I for one am more than willing to deal with the ambiguity that change brings. Our organizations are well served by reinventing ourselves, and by reinventing ourselves we discover and develop new programming and services to better assist those we serve.

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One Response to Change

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    Good job Jim,
    What I saw in this writing was a lot of well thought through learning and self study on your part about change. I also believe that it is good therapy for you to express it. Having gone through my share of organizational change over my career and I can understand much of what you have internalized and expressed. I guess the only lesson you didn’t express, probably because its so self evident by we who have been through much change, is that the only constant that organizations can be sure of IS change. And the best way to deal with it is just what you have led so well. Involve the stakeholders, discuss thoroughly, question often, set the best current path to move ahead for what the majority feels is best for the organization, and implement with as much passion as you put into determining the plan. All the while understanding that people change, leadership changes, circumstances change, the environment changes, and, guess what, there will be organizational changes to come in the future. As for now, move with the confidence that you have done your best, and we should expect no less from our leaders. Good job.

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