Hire a Change Agent; Prepare for Change

By Peggy Hinckley

“We want a superintendent who can think out of the box.”

Have you heard that from your fellow school board members as you begin the search for a new superintendent? Has your board made that request of the current superintendent? Have you ever wondered if everyone has the same definition of “thinking out of the box”?

Usually, this phrase means that people want change, and they want a leader that will produce it. But do they really know what they’re seeking?

Think through the process

Suzanne Bailey, a consultant, once defined change as “discomfort divided by dissatisfaction multiplied by vision multiplied by first steps is greater than resistance.” Most of us assume the change agent will produce a vision that everyone will embrace. We think of the charisma of John F. Kennedy or Jack Welch, the General Electric CEO who could sell a wagon to a race car driver. We think everyone will love the new vision, buy into the new vision, and march forward.

Not exactly. The only person who likes change is a wet baby.

For example, the board and superintendent decide to create a dropout prevention program and name it an early college academy. To allow staff to think “outside the box,” they seek to make the academy a charter school. Students would have a chance to earn both high school and college credit. Sounds great!

The superintendent builds the program, basing it on the stated vision. The board provides unanimous support to the academy by identifying and allocating resources to it. As the change moves forward, the union steps in, asking questions about seniority for staff who want to transfer to the academy. Charter schools are not governed by the collective bargaining agreement, however, so the union blocks the move of district teachers to the academy.

Now the superintendent must hire new teachers unfamiliar with the district’s culture and expectations. According to the state’s charter rules, enrollment must be open to students who live outside the district’s traditional boundaries. New at-risk students bring old issues from their previous schools into a new academy with new staff. The result is predictable -- failure.

What went wrong? Why did this change fail? The district’s culture, primarily the one fostered with the teacher’s union, created turf issues that prevented the academy from being successful.

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