Four things every change leader should know

Four Thiing Every Change Leader should knowMary was a new teacher, just out of college. Her first assignment was to a community based youth program that ran an alternative high school. She arrived her first day filled with enthusiasm and anticipation. She was excited to start her new career.

Her first glimpse of the program’s building filled her with apprehension, an apprehension that grew to disappointment and swelled to despair. It was ugly. The program occupied a storefront and the apartments above the storefront. It was clean, but still gave the impression of being dingy. The people –teachers and students—seemed nice enough, but still it was UGLY. All her ideas of her first day as teacher seemed to sink. She cried.

Fast forward to the end of the year and we see a different Mary. She no longer sees the “ugly” building but only the people, the mission, and the spirit. Years later she explained the change with four words:

·       Culture

·       Vision

·       Plan

·       Celebration


Even on Day One, Mary said she noticed the people were happy. She even asked herself, “How could they be so happy in such an ugly place?” The answer presented itself over the next few months. Staff and students together created a place where everyone felt accepted. Together teachers and students had written a “Declaration of Independence” that shared why they each had chosen an alternative setting—what had driven them to make such a decision and why it was important to them.

The school was joint project between the Board of Education and the private not for profit. It was new territory and that meant exploring new ideas and taking risks. Leadership rewarded this kind of thinking, even if it didn’t always work out. Leaders did not respond with “it can’t be done”, but “how do you think we can do it?” That same kind of thinking extended to students. Here is an example of how this culture reached down to the students.

Frank was a junior and recently elected president of the student body. Student government was a full partner in the creation of the school and the resulting culture. This was back in the 80’s and smoking was allowed in the building. There was a portion of students that wanted to ban smoking, but could never get the majority of votes. This went on for three years. Frank approached the problem from a “how can this get done” attitude, not a “no one has ever done this, so it can’t be done” attitude. He had a plan.

He approached all of the graduating seniors. They were graduating and wouldn’t be affected by the new rule. He said the new rule would not take effect until they did graduate. Would they give him the votes necessary to pass the smoking prohibition? Not everyone said yes, but enough did to pass the new rule.

Frank took a risk, because the culture established made it not only safe to take the risk, but encouraged it. Without risk there is often no growth or change.

Telling a story about the hope of the future

Change is about people. It starts with one person and then grows in ripples. Sal was a new student in the same program written about above. He was coming from a high school that didn’t want him. The story told to him for the last several years was one of failure. He was not going to amount to anything. He was not wanted.

When he came to the program he was asked where he wanted to be in a year, in two years. There was no judgment on his vision. There was realistic talk about what had to happen and what he needed to do if he wanted to succeed. Sal was told he was starting off with a clean slate. His story became his map.

Story telling was also an important part of inspiring and motivating staff. Leadership always shared a vision via stories—a story that encompassed 5 years and ten years. They spoke often and seriously about what services would be developed, what kind of new building they would find and move into. They spoke about the different ways these objectives could and would be reached. They dreamed, and just as important they acted on those dreams. Story telling was constant, ongoing process

Mary remembered those stories when three years later they moved into a new building. This building was a better facility with more room and right off the bay. Everyone had a beautiful view of the water and recess outside during the summer was great as people played handball and basketball on the black top. But if you asked them, they still held a special place in their hearts for the ugly building where they shared stories and made those stories reality.

Providing a Map

At the beginning of each semester there was registration. All of the content area teachers and the guidance counselors were set up in a room and student registered for courses. The guidance counselors were there to work with teachers and students and map out not only the coming semester, but the next few years (depending what grade they were in). This helped provide both teachers and students an idea of what had to be done by when for the student to secure a high school diploma. It was a road map they everyone referred to during the student’s tenure. Students gained a real understanding of their responsibilities and the consequences of their actions; in other words there was ownership.

In like manner, each year started off with a staff retreat. They reviewed data from the prior year, celebrated achievements and mapped out the coming year within the context of five and ten year stories mentioned above. There was an active and interactive discussion. They revisited their mutual vision. Identified the role each person played in achieving our goals. Identified mistakes and successes and celebrated both as learning experiences to be applied to the coming years. They adjusted objectives. They committed to weekly meetings throughout the year to monitor work and make sure they stayed on target. They accepted and renewed their commitment to their mission. They recognized that they were involved in work that would take years, and committed to being patient. They reminded ourselves of their STORY, edited and in some places re-wrote. Each staff person became a co-author of the story. Together, they owned that story.


Leadership, teachers, counselor and students identified things they wanted to celebrate and they did celebrate. In some cases it was something as simple as birthdays. In other cases it was graduating students going to college or better test scores or a new teacher joining the group or a loved teacher leaving for a new phase in their life. The celebrations brightened up even that dingy building. Change, especially change with improvement as the goal, is a constant, so take time to celebrate the victories along the way.


Change is not a one step process—in most cases it is an ongoing process with benchmarks along the way. It is a process that demands ongoing reflection and adjustments while at the same time keeping the focus on the change we want to achieve.

Four factors are essential and integral to the change process:

·       A culture that embraces all members and encourages responsible risk taking

·       Telling the story of your vision–Telling it often and getting others to share it as well.

·       Providing a map-let people know where they are going and what they should be doing to help everyone get there

·       Celebrate people, events, achievements or anything that is important to your group.

Change is about people.

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