The Challenge of Change At the Top

I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was on the phone with a veteran principal, someone who was considered to be of the more accomplished administrators within the orthodox Jewish day school community. He had agreed to mentor me during my first year as Head of School and he said something at that time that I will never forget.

I can’t remember the context that led to the comment. We may have been discussing some of my early challenges. I recall that I was roughly one month into the school year and had already been forced to deal with some significant issues, on top of the standard responsibilities of school leadership. (For one, the school’s main sewage line had backed up shortly before Yom Kippur, forcing us to rely on restrooms near the playing field in order to keep school open.) Whatever it was, the conversation shifted to the added burden that I carried in assuming a headship following a successor who had held the position for sixteen years and had developed the school from a small, fledgling startup to a full-fledged educational institution.

I know that my mentor was trying to be supportive (though I am not sure how) when he mentioned this jarring “fact”, which related to a refund policy commonly utilized within the recruitment industry (I have yet to verify the accuracy of the claim). Allegedly, when a headhunter places a new administrative candidate, they offer some form of refund if the candidate leaves or is fired. However, when the candidate is replacing someone who had occupied the position for 5 years or more, then no refund is offered because the assumption is that things very well may not work out.

The fundamental concept behind this policy is that organizational change, represented in the form of new administrative personnel or a new form of corporate function, can be extremely difficult for all stakeholders. When someone occupies a leadership position for many years, people around him begin to adjust to his style and expectations. They develop a comfort zone and maintain a basic sense of stability and equilibrium. When a new person assumes the position, regardless of whether he is fundamentally more or less capable or qualified than his predecessor, he represents change, something different and foreign. And that produces anxiety and nostalgic retrospection.The same can be said for the implementation of new programs or processes, particularly those that demand a new set of behaviors and skills.

We will elaborate more on the challenges of change in future blogs, with a specific focus on becoming a successful change agent within your respective organization.