Significant change within higher education institutions requires the input and cooperation of a wide variety of stakeholders. You can’t simply compel change. Successful change requires careful preparation and effective communication. In an interview with Academic Leader,Harold Hellenbrand, provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Northridge, offered the following recommendations on how to successfully lead change.
Prepare the culture for change.
If people hear about your proposed changes through governance or at a formal meeting, “It sets a recipe for disaster because you haven’t prepared the culture by seeding the conversation and getting people to think [in terms of the proposed change],” Hellenbrand says.
It’s important to describe your philosophy of change and failure and to provide support and funding for change efforts.
Do not dictate change.
“You always have to situate change so that it appears to be someone else’s idea, particularly someone who is a stakeholder. This way it becomes an idea that is coming from the group as a whole and not from authority,” Hellenbrand says.
During a budget crisis several years ago, Hellenbrand and the president scheduled some public forums to find ways to save money without eliminating majors. “We said, ‘We know what we don’t want to do. What should we do?’ Ideas came out of those discussions, and we ran with some,” he says. “We set the stage, but we didn’t determine the answer. We certainly limited the possibilities, and then we got some good ideas from the faculty and staff and we ran with those. And I think we had much more buy-in that way.
“I think it’s a matter of asking the right questions, getting the right context, and going with the ideas that seem the most promising.”
Seek early wins.
Large change efforts are complex and often have a rather long time frame of three to five years. Using a military analogy, Hellenbrand equates the overall change effort to a war, which is composed of battles, which are in turn made up of skirmishes. For example, if the war is graduation rates, a battle might be math and English success, and the skirmishes are the individual courses and testing mechanisms that address math and English success.
“As the leader, you are in charge of the overall strategy, and then the battles and skirmishes are pulled off by project managers,” Hellenbrand says. “[The change effort] has to be divided into parts that work in synchronicity with one another. If you just remain on the front of the war, nothing will happen. If you’re not making sure that everyone knows it’s a war, all the little things that are going on, the skirmishes, won’t add up to a consistent vision.”
Having effective project managers in place is an essential part of making progress in your change efforts. These are the people who have vision, motivation, and skills to get things done.
“Normally, if you’re at an institution long enough [potential project managers] identify themselves,” Hellenbrand says. “They are people who are impatient at meetings, biting at the bit to get things done. They tend to be people such as associate deans and chairs of complicated departments with a lot of moving parts.
“I’m really tempted to look at campus veterans, people who are either emeriti or senior professors, who have had a great deal of success and know how the place works. These are the people who command respect because of their experience. They are people who others have learned they can disagree with and everybody will live another day. There are a bunch of them on every campus. … They’re often quite generous. They realize that the change itself has to be articulated by the people to whom the institution is going to belong. … They have a sense of their own ticking clock, so they are more than committed to getting things done in a timely fashion.”
Address several problems at the same time.
“If you’re solving one problem, it’s not going to work,” Hellenbrand says. “The change effort has to address several problems at the same time, so if it’s not addressing a budget problem, a bureaucratic problem, and a political problem at the same time, it’s not worth doing. It has to be large and encompassing.”
For example, if your institution attempts to improve critical-thinking skills by assigning that task to a single course without coordinated efforts across departments, it won’t produce meaningful results. “What it comes down to is thinking of change not as singular but as change to a system, thinking of all the multiple parts that are working together at the same time,” Hellenbrand says.
Coordinating efforts across units is challenging. Cal State, Northridge, has been working on improving graduation rates. The key, says Hellenbrand, is to win the support of people who aren’t all that interested in the effort by clearly articulating how the effort can positively affect something they do care about, such as saving significant amounts of money (one of the effects of improving graduation rates).
Engage those who oppose the change.
Hellenbrand often harnesses the energy of those who oppose a particular change by asking them to engage in accountability activities. He tells them, “No one else can do a better job than you can because you are going to be looking for all the flaws.”
Opposition sometimes comes from disagreement over the means rather than with the goal of a change effort. “If the argument is really over the means, let them go ahead and experiment with alternate means and hold them to the ultimate goal,” Hellenbrand says.
There will be times when people will oppose the goals of the change effort. It’s important not only to be firm about the goals but also to provide justification. “If you’re reasonable, honest, and natural in your response, you’ll gain the respect of a lot of people,” Hellenbrand says. “I think it’s when you obfuscate, hide, dodge that you get into real trouble with the antagonists.”