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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Leaders need tools to manage change
Maximizing trust, transparency and communication can help reduce barriers to change
By Holly Edds | November | December 2021
Leading through Change – We’ve just been through one of the most challenging years that we will ever face in education. This year has forced us to learn new skills and continually adapt — as leaders, teachers, students and community members. We have an opportunity to apply what we have learned during the past year and create sustained improvement. If we fail to do this, it will be a huge miss. There are things that we have been doing for years and years and years because that’s the way it’s always been done — not because they continue to serve a compelling purpose. Now is our chance to let some of those things go, now is our opportunity to get those things that worked well, things we did not even know about before, and incorporate them into our system. Letting go of what no longer works can be just as important as learning from what does.
Let’s face it: Change is not easy. It never has been, and for most it never will be. However, there are ways to make change more agreeable. Maximizing trust, transparency and communication helps reduce barriers to change. Involving others in decision-making and using a common language builds trust and understanding. Giving leadership the right tools to do this helps them usher in change with success and the support necessary to ensure a solid implementation.
In the beginning – a quick history lesson
Back in 2004-05 when I was a principal in the Orcutt Union School District, we were facing a significant and painful change: We had to close a school building with a long and storied history. Our superintendent at the time, Sharon Klempen, was a big believer in the importance of stakeholder collaboration and communication in getting solutions with support and buy-in. She brought in an organization, TregoED, to train our leadership in four different processes: decision analysis, situation appraisal, potential problem (risk) analysis and problem analysis. Each of these processes provided a framework for tough conversations when making a potentially divisive and emotionally packed change. Using these processes, we witnessed the strength of building understanding and having strong, fact-based rationale. The processes made a huge difference in the outcome. Some skeptics worried about the time it would take to work through the process, but we quickly learned that the time was well spent. Taking the time to get and use the necessary input, information and feedback from stakeholders not only ensured a higher-quality decision, it saved untold time and resources during implementation. In the end, we had a decision that the board was comfortable with, and we were able to clearly articulate to the community why a particular path was chosen. The transparency of the decision-making process allowed us to retain relations and retain community trust throughout this big change and beyond.
Cut to 2021: 15 years later
Now I am the new superintendent in this same district and we are facing challenges never imagined before and unprecedented opportunities for change. We still have leadership in the district that has continued to use these timeless process tools to formally and informally approach the everyday situations that staff face in a school district. But we also have new staff at all levels and a potentially VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. Where do you start?
Building coherence
My first goal is to build coherence at every level and in every action — we want coherence with our vision and in our actions moving forward. We want coherence between our strategic plan and what’s happening in our schools. We do not want any confusion about where we are going and why — we want a laser light focus on where we are headed, and we want to have a common framework and language in which that dialog can take place. As with the work we did in the past, we want everyone to have the opportunity to contribute and to hear different perspectives as we build consensus. We do not want a top-down model where I am saying “this is where we are going” — we want to able to say, “this is where we are going together.”
Building a common language and management skills
A first step in building coherence is to build a common language for our leadership team and provide a structure for their decision making and problem solving. We believe in the power of professional development and that it be purpose-driven and enduring. So, we invited TregoED to facilitate a conversation examining the potential opportunities of the past year: for example, our accelerated use of instructional technology and how we might identify and capitalize on those opportunities. This provided leadership with a purposeful and organic way to demonstrate how these structures work and see the potential for using these tools within their own departments. By providing these systematic steps, inexperienced managers began building leadership skills and gained insight as to how to include staff in decisions.
We believe that having leaders who are capable of addressing and ushering in change with confidence and clarity is the key to success.
Building confidence and accountability
Before you can expect leaders to be comfortable using this system of thinking, you need to have them begin to look at where it makes sense to bring the framework into their work. We modeled the articulated steps of the processes by embedding them in cabinet and department meetings, thus providing a structured environment for our leaders to work in. As they learn to apply these skills, they are expected to report out what worked, what they would do differently, etc. Our expectations would then be that they find a purposeful opportunity to use the skills and reflect on their impact. We expect that using this common set of tools fosters clear communication within and between departments and continues to move us all forward in the same direction.
Building lifelong skills
We are delighted to have been offered funds at unprecedented levels due to COVID this year but are looking for where we can get long-term benefits from short-term funding. We have already seen our leadership continue to utilize these processes 15 years after the first exposure (or training), so we are confident that investing in building these leadership skills is a way to achieve long-term benefits.
Meeting the challenges of change to come
Our biggest challenges ahead may be ones we don’t even know about yet. Certainly we must continue to navigate the COVID world, and all that that entails. We will need to meet the needs of students and staff — both mentally and physically, and systematically target instruction to make sure students are achieving at the highest level possible. Balancing all these needs with limited resources is going to mean change is the one constant we will face. We believe that having leaders who are capable of addressing and ushering in change with confidence and clarity is the key to success. We are committed to giving our staff those capabilities as one way to achieve systemic change and impact every decision that is to come.

Holly Edds is the superintendent of Orcutt Union School District.
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