I met a woman recently who happened to be part of a team I’d led years ago. Our conversation brought me back to the experience of walking into that job. I’d joined as the beloved prior leader, who had been there for many years, was moving onto a different role in the company. Within weeks of my arrival, I got a new boss who was under the gun to improve our team’s efficiency. The next two years involved an overhaul of our team’s processes, job descriptions, structure and how we measured success. Plenty of people wondered aloud – loudly – how I and all of the changes that came with me could possibly represent progress. I made plenty of mistakes.
I focused on process instead of people, under-communicated the what and the why and bulldozed instead of focusing on bringing the team along. I bemoaned my bad luck in joining the team during such a tumultuous time while the last leader had gone out on top.
That memory came back to me last night when I went to my daughters’ back to school night. The school principal had retired over the summer and the new one was speaking to the parents, two weeks into the school year. The past principal had been in her role for 10 years and many parents, some who’d had multiple kids attend under her leadership and had grown to know, like and trust her, had taken her retirement hard. She’d built far-ranging relationships within and outside the school community.
Last night was the new principal’s official ‘kickoff’ with the parents. In addition to being new, she’s also overseeing a major school reconstruction project that’s causing many changes to the way the school runs, where lunches are held, the amount of recess space, which extracurricular activities can continue, where fundraisers will be handled and so on. Each of these changes affects lots of someones, and rarely are they seen as welcome. While I’ll admit to not always going to hear the principal at these events, I went last night to hear from our new leader. Despite being a young school principal, I couldn’t have been more impressed.
She managed to balance candor, humor, optimism and insight while acknowledging head on that change is hard. She reflected on her own difficulty managing change in the past. She provided a plan for giving the kids a voice in developing the final design, letting them learn to navigate change and develop resilience skills. She recognized and genuinely appreciated the contributions of the many people who had stepped up to help steer through the change, addressed the concerns that parents had raised and was candid about answering what she could while letting us know how she’d keep us informed on those things that remain unanswered.
Perhaps most impressively, she demonstrated that even in a short time, she’d come to know what the community stood for: being there to work together to do the best for our kids. She tapped into the pride we all feel in the community we’ve helped shape to get the support needed to navigate the change ahead. Meanwhile, she acknowledged the past principal’s many contributions while very clearly demonstrating her own leadership style, one that hit the right chord to move forward with the changes happening around us.
As I left my daughters’ classroom and went to leave school, the person holding open the door for us was none other than our principal. Her gesture made me wonder if perhaps it’s worth revisiting our fear of change. Because sometimes it’s through change that our most impressive, and fitting, leaders emerge.