Leading Change for the First Year Superintendent

Posted by Charles Young on July 27, 2015

People meeting around table.My mother was fond of sayings. This was most likely her way of having a ready response to the countless interactions and sometimes chaotic doings in a house of six kids, five of them boys, and a myriad array of pets, most of which were poorly behaved, but loving dogs. Being the youngest child, I had a front row seat to the exciting events produced by my mischievous brothers and eye-rolling sister.

The two sayings I remember Mother using the most were (and at first glance they appear entirely contradictory):

“Don’t worry, it may never happen.”

“There is nothing as constant as change.”

As I move through the early days of my new role as a superintendent of the Benicia Unified School District, my mother’s sayings come back to me as I contemplate, most specifically, the first 100 days.

The research on change is long and deep. The names that come to mind include Kurt Lewin (often referred to as the father of organizational change theory), Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Wayne Dyer. While it would be presumptuous of me to assume that I can add much of anything that is new,  I can point out a few ideas that are jumping out at me as I process what I have read over the years in terms of my new role and context, and how I might apply what I’ve learned— complemented, of course, by a bit of my mother’s wisdom!

Balance Being with Doing

While change is inevitable, and the desire to enact change as a superintendent is a strong force, the importance of being fully present—being—and truly learning about the organization’s norms and culturedoing—are critical to long term success. Time must be spent learning deeply about the new system, its successes, goals, challenges and opportunities for growth. Being centers on building relationships and cultivating the trust that will enable the doing of new things and the fulfillment of new goals.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Change efforts, small or large, can be complicated and necessitate careful consideration. While we worry about variables that may or may not happen, allowing ourselves to slow down, build capacity, establish clarity and develop a clearly articulated action plan will ensure greater levels of success. The go-slow part of this effort can include an important element for a new superintendent, and that is gaining early wins, even if small ones. These early wins can build enthusiasm, energy and confidence in your ability to lead in general, and specifically, in relation to change efforts.

Transitional vs. Transformational Change

Knowing the difference between these two major change categories helps shape the inevitability of change and assuage our sense of fear of the unknown. Transitional change includes modifying important parts of the system that need  improvement but won’t disrupt the organizaiton or move it in dramatically different directions. These change efforts are usually small in scale but important to growth and improvement and might include a change in meeting times and structures or defining and implementing different types of decision-making structures.

Transformational change efforts are larger in scale and influence greater numbers of people. Exaples might include the full implementation of professional learning communities, restructuring the student day, redesigning learning environments, or utilizing technology to truly differentiate the learning experience and challenge students to experience 21st Century skills on a deeper level.

While just twelve days into the job, my mother’s flashing light insights return to me. She reminds me that while change is inevitable, grounding myself in sound theory will help me navigate successful change efforts and manage the natural inclination to worry about elements that may seem outside our control.