The Learning Accelerator Blog/Step 4: Championing Sustainable Change - Creating systems for leaders, teams, and their initiatives

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Step 4: Championing Sustainable Change - Creating systems for leaders, teams, and their initiatives

by Nicole Assisi & Shelli Kurth on August 3 2022

The never-ending cycle of growth and change in schools often elicits mixed reactions. Some see these new trends as much-needed progress, while others “see déjà vu all over again.” Evolving science and research, alongside increased complexity that spurs new trends, bring advancement to the field – but also challenges that can affect the whole community. Leaders can help their team persist through the hard work and celebrate change by creating a cycle of learning designed to support and inspire.

In the first three blogs of this series, we talked about how to set a vision, build a team, and work towards meaningful change. In this installment, we’ll tackle how to sustain that change by developing three key skills: building on what works, committing to learning, and telling the story of change. We’ll also share how to deepen the sustainability of change processes by furthering transformation and finding points for thoughtful team reflection and rejuvenation.

Build on what is already working.

Educators often feel fatigued by change because with new leadership (at any level) comes a series of new ideas, initiatives, and actions. Sustainable change leaders can avoid this fatigue by taking stock of what is already working and using this to fuel transformation. Rather than focusing on all that has yet to be done, leaders can lean into what their team is already doing well, highlight those bright spots, and use them as the starting point for future change.

“Shiny new things” can be tempting – especially when leaders have been pushed to their limits and want to believe that the newest tool or program might serve as a deus ex machina. However, change is often more meaningful and sustainable when leaders build upon systems and structures already in place. Research shows that building on existing schema and prior knowledge is not just important for students – it is also critical for adults. Leaders can dig into the history of their organizations – especially if they are a new leader, or new to the community they’re leading. During this historical exploration, they can ask themselves questions like:

  • What has happened in the past?

  • What happened in recent history?

  • What successes have already been elevated?

  • Where does this work intersect with my vision?

Strategy: Through asset mapping, leaders can identify all the moving parts and supports within their community to strengthen outcomes.

Tapping External Supports: External supports and services, such as consultants, can help to identify progress when a leader might not be able to see the growth easily themselves. Consultants can also stay objective about what they observe and notice, given their distance from personal and professional relationships among an already existing system, which may sometimes obscure objectivity for leaders on the inside.

Pro Tip: Leaders should not be afraid to ask the team what is working and what is not. Remember, the team is a leader’s greatest resource. By empowering a team and recognizing their expertise, leaders can build trust within their system.

Commit to learning.

Dewey (2018) taught us that “learning does not come from activity, but rather reflecting on activity.” Our best learning comes from both taking on a new perspective and analyzing our actions. Building a culture of learning within a school or system requires setting teamwide habits and goals, committing to hard work, and creating space for reflection. Making after-action reviews the norm, utilizing performance or executive coaches, and highlighting both lessons learned and celebrations will help prioritize collaborative learning to create an intentional, thoughtful culture.

Coaching is an oft-used asset in both the education and business sectors to help leaders and changemakers improve the well-being and performance of both leaders and their team. Working with a coach can help leaders gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve objectives, and unlock their potential. External supports like coaches aim to help leaders to sharpen their tools, make useful adaptations, and better serve the teams they support. Furthermore, training has been shown to be more effective when it is coupled with coaching. Olivero et al. (1997) found that management training led to a 22% improvement in employee productivity, and this increased to 88% when coaching supplemented training.

It is crucial for leaders to model the path through change and learning for their teams. Learning alongside their teams, being vulnerable and honest when things get difficult, and naming the supports they use as leaders to move forward is key. In other words, if leaders want to create effective change in their organizations, then that change needs to begin with them. Even for leaders who have accumulated years of tried-and-true practices and developed a record of success in schools, evolving and learning is important – for themselves and the school communities where they work. Below are three simple questions leaders should continuously ask themselves:

  • How am I learning about myself?

  • How am I identifying the shifts I need to make?

  • How do I build and use a network of people who can provide me support and feedback?

Leaders often ask their teams to engage in internal coaching work, but they also need to take it on themselves. Tapping external supports, such as a consultant or coach, is one way to address these questions and plan for ongoing work. Coaches can help leaders identify a need or area for growth, provide external input and feedback, and also name when they see things going well.

Strategy: Leaders can use this leadership journey activity to understand where they have been, integrate journaling as part of their work to reflect and process learning, or engage in an after-action review process to reflect on the success of an activity.

Tapping External Supports: A leadership coach can be a confidential thought partner to help leaders develop skills, gain confidence and evaluate progress. Leadership coaches not only help leaders, they can have a positive effect on the entire team culture and work.

Pro Tip: Leaders can also take executive leadership courses (e.g., Immunity to Change) to learn more about where they might be getting stuck in their change management processes.

Make time for storytelling and celebration.

An often overlooked but crucial skill in sustaining change is telling the story of an organization in a way that inspires people to action and keeps them moving forward. By highlighting even the smallest wins, leaders lift up their teams, celebrate their communities, and shift mindsets about the work. These stories can often become part of leaders’ senses of identity in their school communities and can help inspire teams through the hardest parts of change.

In order to be effective storytellers, leaders must critically evaluate the stories they tell. Questions leaders can ask themselves to assess their stories include:

  • What am I really saying and conveying through my story?

  • Am I doubling down on negative factors (e.g., low student performance measures, faltering teacher engagement, facility improvements that have yet to be made), or am I sharing a story of the positive changes that have already happened?

  • Am I painting a clear picture of the ideal future this community has in mind?

  • Are my words inspiring others to want to be a part of this work? Am I motivating the entire school community to contribute to this process?

We find the work of Ganz (2013) to be particularly inspiring. Ganz emphasized that leaders should commit to telling stories about why the work is important to them personally, to the team, and to the future of students. People often do not follow leaders simply because of the data they present – rather, they follow leaders who have connected to their hearts with a clear call-to-action. Leaders can tell their stories through blogging, full-team discussions, newsletter share-outs, events, and one-on-one with team members.

Strategy: Leaders should create time and space during routine meetings to celebrate small wins. Leaders can create a social media page to share positive examples they’ve encountered throughout the school day. Even small boosts like this can convey gratitude and pride, and further serve to recognize and motivate your team.

Tapping External Supports: Consultants can help leaders define and refine their stories, highlight the most relevant and inspiring pieces, and take the time to observe, capture, and share broad learnings and bright spots.

Pro Tip: Leaders can take a course from Marshall Ganz and learn more about his expertise in the realm of public narrative.

Leading change doesn’t have to be painful. Sustainable systems and structures can help ease the process and make it enjoyable for both leaders and their teams. Leaders must remember to develop themselves as leaders, build their teams, and celebrate progress to effectively ignite and propel sustainable change.

This blog series was brought to us by Thrive, a nonprofit consulting firm that leads innovative partnerships and change in K-12 schools across the country. To learn more about Thrive and the team, visit their website.

About the Author

Nicole Assisi is the founding CEO for Thrive. She has over 20 years of experience working in innovative education and was a founding leader for multiple high-profile schools. She has been recognized as a “40 under 40” leader in San Diego and was a finalist for the San Diego Business Journal’s CEO of the Year. As a coach and consultant, she supports hundreds of aspiring and established leaders and their organizations in increasing their capacity. Nicole has grown nonprofits from two to over 150 staff members and taught at UCLA, Cal State Dominguez Hills, and the University of San Diego. Nicole holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern California as well as two master’s degrees from the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Shelli Kurth is the Chief Innovation Officer at Thrive. Shelli has deep school-site leadership expertise and brings a broad range of experience as a nonprofit founder, grassroots organizer, school leader, and coach. Shelli’s passion for the people she serves has made her a sought-after coach, trainer, and consultant. Shelli co-hosts an award-winning statewide parent education show on UCTV and is driven by a deep belief in equity, access, and opportunity for all through the empowerment of individuals. She is also a national speaker and writer. As a consultant, Shelli brings intuition and joy to her work and is skilled at working through thorny relationships, creating consensus, and moving teams toward greater collaborative outcomes.