Developing a Culture of Change

By Carol Riley
October 2013, Volume 37, Issue 2

Understanding change theory is critical for principals to develop successful relationships, especially mentoring partnerships.

Change theory refers to a pathway of steps to advance short- or long-term goals. It’s the process of moving an organization to improve through a complex web of activities. It applies to leaders and mentors, who must understand how adults process personal change. But it also applies to staff members and mentees, who must embrace change professionally and personally.

Whether you’re a formal mentor, an informal mentor, or the leader of your staff, take these actions to cultivate a culture of change in your relationships.

Establish a common understanding of change.

All organizations go through periods of small continuous shifts as well as periods of extreme change. With your staff or your mentee, hold an open and free exchange about personal perceptions of change. What does change mean to each member of a team? What beliefs must someone embrace to be open to change? Is there a common language about change that everyone can use?

To introduce a common “change language” to her staff, Tina Acker, principal of Vernon School in Portland Oregon, is going to show a video called “Change Is Good… You Go First: 21 Ways to Inspire Change.” She hopes that developing a clear understanding of the concept of change will help her staff come together.

“I am looking forward to exploring change with my staff. We are currently facing a few changes that will not be easy,” says Acker, who is also a NAESP Mentor Program coach.

Gain collective commitment.

Effectively implementing change in an organization requires stakeholders to learn together and engage in a common goal, says NAESP Mentor Program coach Stephanie Daugherty.

Leaders must have buy-in from all stakeholders to create a culture of shared leadership. Being dedicated to the change process can make the difference between success and mediocrity in instituting improvements.

Wisdom comes from listening, not speaking.

In the change process, what a leader does matters just as much, if not more, than what he or she says. For instance, leaders should demonstrate their commitment to the process through listening well and demonstrating engaged body language, including eye contact. Listening—and then responding with a positive attitude—helps a leader or mentor encourage direction and focus, develop an open culture for sharing opinions, and maintain optimism.

The ideal climate, says NAESP Mentor Program coach Melissa Patschke, is inclusive and open-minded. Practicing scenarios that require intentional listening and interpretation of interactions among and between team members can help mentees and staff members build leadership.

Build a deep relationship around the moral purpose.

Mentors and leaders should clearly identify an organization’s moral purpose, around which each mentee and organization member can commit themselves. What does our organization stand for? Is there a connection between conversations, actions, and the common vision? Is there follow-through on goal-setting and decision-making that clearly ties to the purpose of why each person comes to work each day? Professional relationships that are built on common ground are long lasting, and are key for developing a positive culture that supports change.

Model the change.

Leaders model the characteristics that contribute to the change process. For instance, a mentor can help a mentee model reflection and feedback, share ideas that work well, and encourage collaboration.

Do not forget to celebrate accomplishments, as well.

“A leaders must champion all the gifts the staff brings,” says Kathleen Sciarappa, NAESP Mentor Program coach and mentor program coordinator for the New Hampshire Association of School Principals. “[An] organization grows as all ideas are explored.”

The video mentioned earlier, “Change is Good… You Go First,” explains that either we manage change or it manages us. Sameness is the fast-track to mediocrity. By establishing a strong, positive culture of change, leaders and mentors can deepen their relationships, and help their schools keep making forward progress.

Carol Riley is director of the NAESP Mentor Program.

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