The following is from an essay I wrote as part of my doctoral studies in educational leadership and management. It was a response to a prompt asking for the steps that should be taken upon stepping into a new leadership role. My organization will soon be going through a transition of leadership. Libraries and schools have a lot in common when it comes to managing people and resources. The concepts taught in an educational leadership program can be helpful when transitioning in a leadership role in a library as well….or really any organization.
According to Watkins, “[t]he actions you take during your first three months in a new job will largely determine whether you succeed or fail. Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh and make needed changes in an organization” (Gallos, 2008, pg. 293). To have a smooth transition, it is important that a new leader, follow a series of steps not just during the first year, but in the first ninety days. These include evaluating the program, collaborating with stakeholders, transitioning towards change within the organization, and reflecting on the process. As Fullan (2011) states, change can be scary. The leader’s role is to make this change as smooth of as transition as possible for stakeholders.
First Steps: Evaluation
According to Watkins, during the first ninety days, it is important to take a diagnostic look at the organization the leader is joining so as to understand the full scope of the challenges and opportunities (Gallos, 2008). He recommends having crucial conversations with stakeholders about the expectations the new leader has for those within the department. Fullan (2011) describes a situation where a new leader to an organization started his role by contacting others in the organization to ask what the organization meant to them. Before making any changes to the organization, this leader first took the time to have conversations about the importance of the organization and what the organization meant to the stakeholders within that organization. Doing this can not only help the new leader gain a clear picture of the organization, but also an understanding of the culture that makes up the backbone of the organization. Taking the time to listen to the stakeholders is also a way to inspire authentic leadership (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow; 2009; Gallos, 2008). These first initial steps are crucial to the developmental growth of the new leader.
Since it is important for the new leader to inspire trust and buy-in within the organization, an evaluation model using a collaborative and participatory approach is recommended (Ruft-Eft & Preskill, 2009). Using this type of approach can result in the inclusion of a large stakeholder group, a better understanding of the program and its effectiveness, and improved skills. By involving stakeholders, opportunities are created to help the leader and the new supervisors learn from those who are vested in the program. It also brings to the surface the values and beliefs that are inherent to the culture of the department.
Also important is to take a look at the roles of those in the organization; Watkins recommends that the leader look at team members and their roles to decide if some restructuring is needed (Gallos, 2008). Leaders should approach change carefully so that the people in the organization may adjust to the change. Overall, they must place building relationships as a priority before all else or the changes they hope to implement will be doomed to failure (Senge et al., 2012; Scharmer, 2008; Gallos, 2008; Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009).
It is important to also evaluate each situation and decision through a lens of inspiring trust within the organization. Evans (1996), states that leaders who are authentic are the ones who inspire trust and are followed. Goals and actions must be aligned, and there needs to be transparency behind the steps taken. The more open communication is, and the more information is shared, then the higher the probability of success for implementing changes. This can also be part of the crucial conversations with stakeholders. Holding conversations among the stakeholders can also lead to the development of better collaboration which leads to the next step in the process.
Second Steps: Collaboration
Watkins suggests that to build leadership capacity within the first ninety days, the leader must create coalitions where alliances are made with members of the organization who all have a shared vision of the success of the organization (Gallos, 2008). Relationships are very important to change initiatives. While having a coalition is great towards moving the change forward, there must be a clear vision of what the changes are and how the department plans to initiate them (Fullan, 2011). Senge (2012) recommends the practice of dialogue as a way to build alignment toward a shared vision and goals. In a dialogue session, people can talk safely about issues that may exist within the department. Once everyone’s thinking has been established, the organization can then begin to move towards establishing actions towards change.
When it comes to decision-making, a team would be established to come together when there are a large number of choices, typically four to ten, to evaluate. This evaluation would be done using an evaluation matrix (Pucchio, Mance, & Murdock; 2011). To complete the matrix, the team would look at the criterion that needs to be considered for the evaluation. The criteria could be looking at the purposes of a resource; for example, does it fit multiple needs or is it too subject specific? What is the return on investment? By involving the team in the decision and evaluation, the leader is acknowledging that everyone is part of a larger system (Senge et al., 2012). Before beginning the transition process, showing that the opinion of the people in the organization holds value is essential to establishing the authenticity of the leader (Fullan, 2011).
Third Steps: Transitioning
According to Bridges (2003) and Fullan (2011), change is a messy process that inspires fear in many people. Part of that fear is because there is too much that is unknown. In this scenario, the unknowns are the new leader coming in and how that will affect the organization. Bridges’ transition process can result in a relatively painless and simplified journey. Bridges (2003) says that there are three stages in the transition process: endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings.
Endings. To begin, one must start with the end. This is not looking at what may happen in the future, but rather saying goodbye to the way things were (Bridges, 2003; Scharmer, 2009). Some of the things that may need to be said goodbye to are the previous leader and old ways of doing things. This could initially cause tension within the organization because the staff is unsure of what will happen next. The conversations that were mentioned in the previous section are a good place to start for understanding what the concerns may be of the people in the organization. These conversations can help to clear up any misunderstanding that might exist from the confusion (Gallos, 2008).
Neutral zone. The neutral zone, according to Bridges (2003) is the in-between zone of the transition caused by change. In this phase of the transition, people are uncomfortable. Because of this discomfort, some people will try to rush forward before they are ready, and others will try to go back to the past. It is inevitable that they cannot return to where they were, but they also cannot move forward too fast, or they will be doomed to failure (Bridges, 2003; Scharmer, 2009). By taking their time in the neutral zone, they can prepare themselves for moving forward by changing their mindsets. Watkins suggests that it is the role of the leader to make sure the organization is up to speed on what they need to know so they do not lag behind too long (Gallos, 2008). Communication during the transition is crucial to the success of the change initiative.
New beginnings. In the final phase, people need to accept that things are different and change their behavior to succeed where change is concerned. According to Bridges (2003), many people freeze when they are faced with a change to how they have done things. They did not want to let go of the past and accept that things are different. However, new beginnings should be celebrated rather than feared. It is a time for new starts and acceptance. Watkins suggests achieving early wins by identifying opportunities in the organization where good things are happening (Gallos, 2008). Celebrating these small wins is a way to build momentum within the department, but it also helps towards establishing the authenticity of the new leader.
Because the transition stage is part of a process, it can overlap with the other steps. The leader must make sure to pause along the way to make sure that everyone in the organization is receiving accurate information and communication about the process and the changes being made. It is also important to note that the change process of transition is not a speedy one. While it may be tempting to push forward, the leader must recognize that not everyone in the organization will be in the same zone (Bridges, 2003). The leader’s role is to guide people through the process, listen, and reflect upon the actions made (Bridges, 2003; Scharmer, 2009).
Fourth Steps: Reflection
An important goal of the leadership transition in the organization is to maintain or improve the same level of quality, satisfaction, and program success that existed within the previous leadership. Senge (2010) states that “[a] society without a way to value its past naturally discounts its future” (pg. 373). Yes, while it is important in a transition process to let go of the things of the past (Bridges, 2003; Scharmer, 2009), that does not mean that there are not still things that can be learned from what was done. To maintain the sustainability of any change the organization initiates, the organization needs to step back and reflect upon the change initiative and the actions that were taken (Scharmer, 2009). There may be some comparison that needs to be made between the two approaches. The leader can hurt their authenticity if they do not acknowledge that there were things that were working under the previous leadership (Gallos, 2008).
Reflection is an important part of any leadership process, but especially when trialing new ideas that have not been tried before in the organization (Scharmer, 2009). As the leader, it is also important to reflect upon mistakes to see what can be learned (Pucchio, Mance, & Murdock; 2011). Scharmer (2009) and Senge (2012) both argue that internal listening, or presencing, are ways of connecting to people and your change initiative. This is a process that involves not just listening to the self but also having an open mind, open heart, and listening to others. In addition to the leader looking inside, the leader should also hold additional reflective dialogues with the stakeholders within the organization. It is always a possibility that the change effort could result in failure, but there are still lessons that can be learned from these failures. It is important to reflect upon those to see what the organization, or system, can learn from them (Scharmer, 2009; Gallos, 2008). This is different from the dialogues that were held during the evaluation stage of the process. In that stage, the leader was trying to learn about the culture and the people within the organization. This reflective stage takes place after the transition; the purpose of this reflection is to evaluate whether the change is working or if something needs to be tweaked in the process. Change is a process that might not work out the first time. If the leader hopes to remain authentic and sustain success, then they must be prepared for the possibility that the process could take a while (Gallos, 2008; Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009).
While the steps illustrated here focus on the first ninety days of undertaking the role of leader within an organization, it is a process that will not end in three months or even in the first year. The value of taking an adaptive and authentic approach to leadership is that the leader is always learning (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009; Gallos, 2008. If the leader is coming from outside of the organization, they must first learn what they can about the culture and listen to the concerns of the people who make up the system. Listening to the people in the organization shows them that their opinions are valued and it can help to lessen any fears that they may have during the transition process (Senge et al., 2012; Scharmer, 2009). Before making any changes, first gain their trust (Evans, 1996). Once implementing the changes, make sure to maintain open communication and collaboration between those in the organization (Bridges, 2003; Scharmer, 2009). There is a goal of continuous improvement and collaboration where everyone in the organization has a voice and an important role (Gallos, 2008). After the change process is started, then again reflect on the changes that were made to decide if they are working. This is a process that may loop back on itself, but to maintain sustainability, it must be accepted that things might not work. The organization was successful under the previous leader; however, the only constant is change which means that the organization cannot keep doing things as they were previously done. Together through open hearts, open minds, and open will; changes can be successful.
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