Leading Through and For Change

By Drew Poppleton posted 11-27-2018 07:37


In my previous post, I shared in broad strokes the changes we’re undergoing here at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), and hopefully offered a sense of both the opportunities and challenges I foresaw as a result. We’re now four months into our new student success initiative and while most of the dust has settled—literally and figuratively—we are still very much in the midst of change.

To a large extent, being a leader in contemporary times means being a leader of change. Change occurs so rapidly and so frequently in organizations, that for many, it is a near constant state. If you are not helping your organization manage that change and navigate through it, then you are not actually leading.  

There are different forms of change, though, and each brings its own set of difficulties. For most leaders, these different forms can be grouped into two broad categories: 1) changes that have been thrust upon you and your team; and 2) changes that you call for yourself. In either case, it is your job as a leader to provide your team with the vision, support, and motivation necessary to succeed—at least that’s how I’ve viewed my role over the past several months as I’ve tried to lead both through and for change at CWRU.  

It certainly hasn’t been easy and we’ve stumbled at times along the way, but we’ve progressed more than we’ve faltered. Below are two of the biggest takeaways thus far:

  1. Sometimes you need to downshift in order to accelerate.  Anyone who has driven a car with a manual transmission knows that sometimes downshifting to a lower gear gives you the torque you need to speed up quickly and accelerate faster. The same principle can apply to leading new teams in times of change. When our new office was formed, I was so energized about and focused on moving us all forward with clear goals and scaling strategies that I didn’t fully appreciate how much of a transition it was for staff just to be part of a new structure. Our new office combined former career services professionals with colleagues in research and pre-professional advising. We came from different divisions, with different procedures, different cultures, different technologies, and different languages. Talking about scaling and team-based OKRs (objectives and key results) so soon after a major reorganization was understandably overwhelming for many. So, we slowed down, retreated off-site for two days, and spent time getting to know each other and each other’s work. We dedicated staff development time every other week to reviewing programs, troubleshooting technical difficulties, and asking questions big and small. Taking this small step back—downshifting just that one gear—allowed us to gather ourselves and our mental energy long enough that when the fall semester commenced, we could step on the gas and go, while still keeping control of the vehicle!          
  1. But don’t go down to first gear! While slowing down slightly proved beneficial for our team, had we downshifted too much—to, say, first gear—we likely would have struggled to get up to speed before the semester started. To avoid this mis-shift, we pushed forward with certain scaling initiatives, even if some weren’t fully ready. For example, we launched two new programs: a student-run career lab (similar to the career studio model) in a satellite location two days a week; and “Face Time Fridays,” which allows employers to take over our lounge space every Friday to connect with students as they see fit. We also set goals for getting all opportunities into a single database (research positions were housed on a different site previously) and extended online scheduling capabilities so students can now schedule with any staff member online (essentially consolidating three different scheduling mechanisms into one). Sure, the steering wheel started vibrating once we hit a certain speed and our clutch work wasn’t always the smoothest, but we made it through and learned to tweak things along the way. Because we didn’t wait until everything was perfect before launching and agreed to run with an experimental mentality, we were able to serve more students than ever before.  In the first seven weeks, we completed more than 1,000 appointments and hosted 118 events. 
Like every other institution, we’re still in the heart of recruitment season. The bulk of our appointments are shifting away from search strategies (not entirely, of course) and toward interview preparation and salary negotiation, which is always an exciting time of year. And while our fall career fairs are largely behind us, we’ll soon turn toward helping our new colleagues in undergraduate research prepare for their annual series of research showcase events. The work is never done, but with holidays approaching, a corresponding ebb in student traffic will hopefully allow us to revisit our priorities for the year and gear up for the second half. I’ll be sure to write again before the semester’s through, but in the meantime, please feel free to respond to this post and share some of your own experiences with leading through and for change at your institution or company.