As leaders of independent schools, it is the rarest of situations that we are expected to maintain the status quo. Boards did not hire the head of school, and your head did not hire the business officer to keep all processes, programs and approaches the same. It’s up to us to meet today’s many challenges and help our schools succeed despite them.
Personally, I like change. My optimism leads me to believe that internal processes or services to members can always be improved upon. That’s why a recent article in Forbes magazine titled, “Why Change Why Change Management Really Fails: 4 Shocking Causes and How to Fix Them," caught my eye. Author Mark Murphy conducted research with more than 1,000 board members from various organizations that fired or forced out their chief executive. In almost every organization the CEO had led an organizational change, and in 50% of the cases, board members believed that the process did not go well.
This confirms not only that boards expect change from their senior leaders but also that the success or failure of that effort can have serious consequences. A transformative change initiative is difficult for any organization, so why do some efforts succeed while others fail? And what can leaders do better to ensure that a change delivers on its promise?
Murphy sheds light on four leadership blind spots that contribute to innovation efforts failing.
Employees don’t understand the rationale behind the change management effort. Leaders must make the case for change. Otherwise, they can expect their colleagues on staff to not understand why a shift is necessary in the first place. This may be particularly true coming out of the pandemic, when so much work was conducted virtually (though not at our schools!) for nearly 18 months. It’s not rare for staff leaders to hear, “We were successful during the pandemic, so why do we need to go back to the office?” or perhaps “Why can’t we continue to teach virtually?” And too often, leaders don’t share the data, information or experience that is undergirding the reason for the change. Murphy encourages leaders to share their “intellectual journey” so that those around you can understand what led to the decision. Sharing the rationale, and the steps that led you there, are key to success.
Leaders like change, but more than likely, their staffs do not. Murphy’s research found that CEOs are 66% more likely to want an audacious change management strategy than frontline employees. Leaders must understand this mindset and bring along those who are satisfied with and maybe even defensive regarding today’s norms. If you are announcing a change to your school’s health insurance program to a group of school administrators, for example, you can be sure that a notable part of your audience will not be on board. And it is your responsibility to help get them there.
Part of authentic leadership is sharing what is going well, what needs to change, and what is keeping us up at night.
Leaders aren’t candidly sharing their challenges. It’s clear when an organization is in crisis that change is necessary. But even successful organizations aren’t perfect. And leaders need to be candid about communicating those concerns without creating unnecessary alarm. For example, you might explain that your school is raising money to build a new performing arts center because the current facilities have not kept up with competitor schools in our market, and we are beginning to see an impact on our enrollment. Clarifying that the new building is to maintain the school’s quality programming and healthy enrollment may help others understand why the school needs to channel efforts to fundraise make the new center a priority, while acknowledging that construction is disruptive to campus. And this should not be a one-off for leaders. Part of authentic leadership is sharing what is going well, what needs to change, and what is keeping us up at night.
Employee personalities aren’t receptive to change. According to Murphy, there are five major motivators in the workplace: achievement, power, affiliation, security and adventure. Understand how your school culture is generally motivated and how it reacts to change of any kind. If the primary motivator in your school’s culture is affiliation, staff and faculty will want relationships to be preserved. If your colleagues are motivated primarily by security, they will resist unpredictability in the work environment.
We are surrounded by calls for change within independent schools for many legitimate reasons. Leaders must answer these calls but determine how best to navigate the circumstances and optimize success for their schools, faculty and staff. This isn’t to say change can’t occur unless your entire community is on board, but it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to approach change conscientiously, for the betterment of our students and families.
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.