Through the Provost’s Window: Supporting Change.

By Dr. Kristine Barnett

On my campus, the last few months have been marked by orange cones and yellow caution tape. Dumpsters have covered parking spots. The soundtrack to our work week is bulldozers and trucks. The campus is undergoing a bit of a facelift, with buildings being demolished or significantly renovated. We are sprucing the place up. And as is often the case, the timelines are fluid, with some projects taking longer than anticipated.

Campus construction is not the only change.  There are also new faces in leadership, new partners, and physical campus shifts; a lot of change for a small community. Some people (typically not the majority) find change exciting and invigorating. Others view change in terms of the loss of something meaningful and dear. Change is almost always exhausting and it can be demoralizing. As a leader, you may be quick to see that change means growth and opportunity. However, it’s important to recognize that not all experience change positively. Too much change happening at the same time can wreak havoc for morale and productivity. So how can you support your campus when change fatigue becomes all too real? Here are some of the small lessons I’ve learned when it comes to supporting a campus through change.

Picture the Change

Henry Ford, who is credited for mass-producing affordable automobiles, said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘Don’t change anything.’” Imagine the innovations we would have missed had Henry Ford and his team stuck with the original designs. Ford’s point highlights the fact that most of us can’t quite picture the other side of change. We need a little help envisioning how the future can connect to the past. I once worked at a college that shifted from being a single-gender institution to one that served all. This identity shift was met with pushback, especially from alumnae. At every opportunity, the president there intentionally painted a picture of why the change was needed, what would happen through the process, and what the institution could offer with a more diverse student body. By building a bridge from the past to the future, the president won over many more nay-sayers, which was one step to a smoother transition.  

Change is Personal

Most senior leaders spend considerable time thinking at a high level about strategy and deliverables. Senior level leaders have the opportunity for continual input, advocacy, and agency. This is typically not true for other campus stakeholders, many of whom are personally impacted by the decisions that get made elsewhere. Change is very personal for the staff whose offices are impacted by construction for months at a time. Change is unnerving for faculty who lose their work headquarters and have temporary offices. While we tried to plan for the consequences of the changes on campus this year, there were things we did not anticipate. For example, one group asked to have a final goodbye gathering at the building they had called their home away from home for many years, but by then, the building was off-limits. I regretted that we had not thought about ensuring that all who needed to symbolically mark the change had the opportunity. On a positive note, we did reserve other spaces on campus for those affected to use as a refuge when their office space became problematic.  Giving folks an alternative is a small step to indicate that we recognize the impact of these changes on a personal level.  

Communicate Early and Often

More than one person has reminded me that people fill in information when there is a communication vacuum. We have done our best to keep people up to speed on various projects, but with so many moving parts, this can be a challenge. When we considered communication strategies, we made sure to include extended audiences who might be interested or impacted, including our alumni and the surrounding community. From time to time, we sent photos of the progress. Taking the time to create an intentional, coordinated communication strategy is an integral part of the early planning process. When someone asks me, “Hey what’s going on with that project?” I am reminded that regular communication must remain a priority so that people are informed, and informed accurately.

Your action step this month is to consider a change you have coming up and sketch out a change management plan. How will you describe it to the various people on campus? What is the vision you want others to embrace? With whom do you need to communicate? How often? In what ways? What can you do to mitigate potential change fatigue so that their daily work lives are not negatively impacted? What might go wrong that you need to plan for ahead of time? When you can, confer with the folks whose day-to-day work experience might be altered by the change, and think through the small details with them. The small details matter.

Lastly, plan to celebrate. Eventually, major projects will be completed and the campus will find its groove again. We will retire the orange cones and hard hats until the next project. Understandably, change can be hard, but it’s almost always worth it. Keeping people focused, motivated, and informed helps settle the dust, in more ways than one.

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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