7 Tips for Surviving Leadership in Transition (Edited)

"Miguel," a dear friend and colleague asked me, "have you read the new superintendent's book?" At my blank stare, she pointed to the purple book in her hand entitled, 5 Temptations of a CEO.
"Oh," I responded, "Yes, I have. But have you read the other 5 books he's proposed the Cabinet read?"
"No," she replied. "There's more?"

Unfortunately, there was. While I wasn't asked to read the books, I read them. In the end, it didn't matter because while my friend and I were ready to adhere to the principles of the books, no one else--including new leadership--was. The end result? Hypocrisy. 
Maybe we could revise Amy Mayer's tips and change them up...for 6 steps to make book studies sticky?
The books were great and would have brought about great changes in the organization, if the leaders who read them had bothered to put them into practice. In time, I learned that too many leaders read whole series of books with their teams but nothing sticks. Each leader ends up with a hodge-podge of self-help leadership advice that seldom is codified or institutionalized. That's not the approach I'd recommend.

What can new leaders do to get things going?  First, you have to decide what to do, then you have to hold the team accountable--yourself included--for doing it.

We're talking about a changing of the guard, or passing on the keys to the kingdom. What can a new leader do, no matter how experienced? I like these ideas from How To Get Things Done:
  1. Craft a 150-day plan that lets people know what to do and what not to do.
  2. Go public by being transparent about your goals.
Under #1, it's important to be accountable and I like every meeting agenda-action item to have an answer to this question:
Who will do what by when?
It's a straightforward way of setting each of us up for accountability. 

Under #2, going public and being transparent is critical. After all, one of the biggest complaints against new leaders is that no one knows what the heck they are thinking...and people want to please or remove ambiguity from their lives. 

So, now that we know what a new leader should do, what about the rest of us who have to "survive" the leadership transition?

Image Source: http://goo.gl/I43QCi
Having worked in multiple school districts, I've seen the reins of power change hands multiple times. Given the fact that superintendents change quite frequently these days--every 3.6 years as of 2010 according to one report, which cites that as an improvement from 2.5 years in 1999--having any one leader on hand for awhile can be fortunate.
...one of the key elements in running a successful district is stability. So if you have a revolving door, it's counterproductive, and there's never a chance to establish reforms or create programs that make a difference. Even a three-year period of time is inadequate." (Source)
I can't help but agree that 3 years is too short a time to bring about the desired changes. In my time, I've seen several types of leaders and witnessed the transition. For example, consider these types of transitions:

1) Visionary leader hands the reins to hatchet person.
In one district, I had the opportunity to work with a visionary leader who engaged well with staff and community. His words were honey and he backed it up one on one. In fact, I look back at my time with this leader as incredibly educational and inspiring.

When he left for another school district, all of us were shocked. What would happen next? For some, their worst fears were realized as the job passed to the second-in-command, the assistant superintendent who did all the "tough, dirty" jobs that the visionary leader appeared to side-step. One had velvet hands, the other, hands of steel. In fact, the latter's reputation was "hatchet man." In spite of this horrible reputation, the hatchet leader turned on his charm and established a firm foundation for future work. Those who had been frightened by his arrival realized that the job of superintendent came with its own demands and expectations, and those moved their once-feared "hatchet man" in a different direction. Instead of a despot with the power to execute, he became a beloved leader, an able executive.

2) Behind the scenes, hierarchical manager gives ways to EdReform Leader.
Alas, if all stories had happy endings, we might not have the opportunity to learn. A Behind-the-scenes leader or manager can be quite powerful, cutting deals and ensuring that projects get done in spite of the rivalries that exist between the powerful personalities of a superintendent's cabinet, especially in a large urban district. When the hierarchical manager left the organization, he queued up certain individuals for top leadership positions. Unfortunately, these individuals were cut from the same mold as the previous leader.
...a top-down reformer,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, an associate professor at the University of Texas who wrote one of the studies. “They come in with disruptive change. This is the management approach with a one-size fits all approach to every school in the district.” 
(Source: Research papers criticize Dallas ISD Superintendent (ouch, poor guy!)).
When the edreform leader arrives, he found himself overwhelmed by individuals who knew their power and weren't afraid to wield it to achieve their own ends. While he's trying to get them to read leadership change books (honestly, how many of these books do leaders need to read before they know what to do? After all, no doctor prescribes every medicine in the pharmacy, only what's needed...and that varies from patient to patient!), they are trying to anticipate how to soften the blow of that leadership.

It's a normal, human thing to do what every change agent has to be on guard for:
"How can I do the minimum to be compliant while still doing what I want to do and staying in my comfort zone?"
This ended up with a group of rivals who had learned to behave in public, but in private, whip-sawed the organization this way and advocating for their hidden agendas with associated budget. You have to wonder if the "edreform" leader was so blinded by the machinations of his underlings, an amiable team in his imagination that had great book studies, that he didn't see disaster looming on the horizon.
When you lack the power that comes from strong reporting relationships, you can supplement your influence by engaging responsible parties in going public with clear and measurable goals. (Source: How To Get Things Done)
Instead of mining for conflict, putting the skunks on the table for public airing, problems were buried and pressure built-up until the volcano exploded. Now, people can't wait to escape the lava-scarred landscape. When the Board tired of edreform leader's failed efforts, he was outed, and everyone wished for a strong, firm, friendly hand to provide direction.
Image Source: http://goo.gl/NXJj1P
Ah, if only he'd read Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations...before trying to implement a variety of "leadership self-help" strategies for large organizations.

What happens when new leaders arrive?
In my experience, this is what happens when new leaders arrive:
"Put the skunk on the table."
  • An uneasy respect for the new leadership is granted by the governed, but few are willing to speak up...except for the kiss-ups or those willing to step up and say what they need to say. It's a bit funny to consider that the ones who speak up are often the ones who are retiring, have other jobs they can transition to.
  • The new leader either tries to maintain the status quo--and fails because new relationships have to be built that acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the team that s/he will have to rely on--or sets out boldly to create a new vision. The key is to try and accomplish both, building relationships AND creating a new vision that flows from the led and the needs of the organization.
7 Tips for Surviving Leadership in Transition
My plan for dealing with new leadership is the same as dealing with old leadership. Ready? Here we go:
  1. Establish a baseline for improvement based on researched needs. In other words, it's not YOUR initiative or idea, it's what the District needs. Take advantage of tools like these:
    1. Dr. Chris Moersch's Levels of Teaching Innovation (LOTI)
    2. Apple and Dr. Ruben Puentedura's Education Technology Profile (ETP) based on the SAMR Model (contact your Apple rep for more info)
    3. Have an outside firm (like Ed and Polly Gifford) do a technology assessment of your technology infrastructure and network.
  2. Be transparent and visible about what you're doing to address the District's needs and tell everyone about it as much as possible...especially when you or your team is goofing up or moving slow.
    1. Put together a web site (e.g. blog, google site announcement hooked up to IFTTT.com) that auto-tweets what you and your team are doing.
    2. Conduct webinars with anyone who will listen and/or attend.
    3. Send out those old-fashioned print newsletters with links to more information on your web site.
    4. Try to get teachers and students to present to the school board.
  3. Build infrastructure that will support instructional efforts, regardless of their source. Simply, it doesn't matter who the new leadership is--help them get done what needs to be done for a district to be successful.
    1. BYOD/BYOT wireless infrastructure (100% wireless district-wide)
    2. Sufficient, low-cost desktop computers to complete state-mandated assessments
    3. A plan for how to encourage the use of mobile learning technologies and the creation of online learning spaces that foster communication, collaboration and creativity in a highly connected, global learning environment.
  4. Encourage leaders around you. It's so easy to take the lead yourself, to fall for the "quarterback has the ball" approach. Just remember, nothing happens until he throws it or hands it off.  The truth is, I still like We Were Soldiers leadership (the part where the leader is taken out of the equation, and the next person has to step up and so-on). Make sure that you, as a leader, make yourself progressively unnecessary by building your team up. If they stink, then that's a reflection on you. If they are excellent, you shine, too.
    1. In a crisis, decide on communication plan so you aren't the weak link if you're unavailable, and 
    2. Empower them to figure out who will do what by when.
    3. Delegate your authority.While everyone can be responsible, delegating work enables individuals to take responsibility and be accountable to the group (and, ultimately, you).
    4. Be accountable to your team. Don't be afraid to admit when you've messed up and then take corrective action.
  5. Give all credit away to the people to whom it belongs--the ones doing the work. The best quote I heard came from my current superintendent (no, I'm not pandering or engaging in flattery). The quote goes something like this: "As leaders, you aren't remembered for what you do, but for what you get others to do." While some will argue that "get" is manipulative, it encompasses words like "empower, inspire, or enable." In my role as a team member, it was on me to bring my technical, how-to skills to the table to get the job done. In my role as a leader, it's critical I do everything I can to empower team members to give their all in ways I can't imagine because I'm not them...and not be afraid to praise them for being smarter (not hard) than me. 
  6. Connect to others outside and inside your District. It's so easy to be insular, to enjoy the comfort of "inside my district." The world is always changing and not only will the world benefit from your struggles but you will benefit from the feedback they provide.
    1. Take advantage of social media to share what your thinking is about a project.
    2. Present on what's going on in your district and don't be afraid to start with roadblocks and then elaborate on detours.
  7. Provide leadership with informational, short-n-sweet reports about what you're doing and how that aligns to the district's needs.
    1. Executive summaries are one page documents that present and quantify a need, explain what you intend to do about it, and identify funding sources available (or not). Consequences for inaction are also included.
    2. One page status updates on all initiatives aligned to district goals. I've seen--and made--some reports that include percentage complete, or feature Gannt charts. Again, what the metrics will look like depends on your situation.
What other tips would you offer? And, I'll offer my standard disclaimer...I'm not an expert at all of this. Even when following my own advice, I fall short. It's too easy to get caught up in one approach or another and stall. How would you grade yourself with these 7 tips?

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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