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Five essential steps for effective change leadership

Carrying innovation beyond the cabinet and across the institution

June 7, 2024, By Christina Hubbard, PhD, Senior Director, Research Advisory Services

One of the first signs that community colleges are ready to re-embrace their penchant for innovation has been the increase in requests we have received from our research partners seeking guidance on an upcoming change. As many institutions continue to reckon with relevance in a rapidly changing landscape, they’re laser-focused on seeking new ways to demonstrate their value to prospective, often skeptical, students; integrating technologies that improve student support while reducing their tech stack; and proactively avoiding critical strategic planning mistakes they’ve seen in the past.

The energy and enthusiasm are there – but how are the most successful change leaders carrying that innovation beyond the cabinet and building buy-in across the institution? In this blog, I’ll define five steps to help you successfully lead change on your campus, no matter the initiative.

Screenshot of EAB's change management framework for higher ed leaders

Be just as focused on change leadership as you are on change management

There’s a difference between change management and change leadership. Change management is tactical and emphasizes the steps and processes leaders should follow. A quick Google search will introduce you to various technologies, templates, and certifications to help you with the process. Tracking change with the right tools makes it much easier to measure progress and identify next steps.

Change leadership, on the other hand, emphasizes the interpersonal dynamics of change—how do you get buy-in from stakeholders, communicate strategy, and create accountability—and can be the biggest source of friction when it’s executed poorly. There are a lot of reasons higher education struggles with change leadership. For one, different parts of the organization are more averse to change than others. This may be due to psychological, cultural, or structural barriers.

Chart of types of barriers to change

Any of these barriers can derail innovation. Psychological barriers might mean new initiatives are rarely employed on campus at all. Cultural and structural barriers could cause changes to stall out or, over time, lead to change fatigue. What we hear most from community college leaders is that change fatigue happens when people feel like they are in a perpetual state of flux. This happens, not because these institutions are enacting more transformation than others, but rather because the teams aren’t given the tools they need to make progress. For many, ongoing staffing turnover makes it challenging to provide training on the new effort as well as clarity about roles and responsibilities. Other institutions are stalled by a dated belief that everyone must come to consensus on everything before moving forward.

Five steps for leading successful change initiatives

Step 1: Anticipate stakeholder needs

One of the biggest frustrations stakeholders on campus share when change is afoot is that their pain points aren’t considered. As a change leader, it’s important to consider how the initiative will affect various stakeholder groups. It can be helpful to reflect on their perspective: Will their workload increase? How about their roles or responsibilities? Will the change harm their wellbeing or morale? Answering these questions will help you to anticipate the kinds of concerns, questions, or reactions the group is likely to share. Knowing the likely reactions of groups affected by change allows you to address those needs proactively. People want their perspectives to be considered during significant changes.

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Step 2: Mobilize champions with stakeholder-centric communication

Once you know how the change will likely affect stakeholders, you can better understand how to pitch plans that will garner support. It’s important to explain how the change will address existing problems that matter to the stakeholder and how they may benefit. Yet, it’s important not to over-rely on logic-based rationale and expect the justification will resonate with your audience. Changes can be difficult, and if we overlook their emotional impact, we may alienate some individuals.

When preparing your communication strategy, it is also important to consider how this group would prefer to learn about the change. Perhaps it is best announced at an existing meeting, a town hall scheduled to discuss it, or via email with a scheduled time to learn more; determine the format based on what you know about the group you’re sharing with rather than your own preferences. You’ll also want to consider when other groups are being informed and the anticipated timeline, so that no one feels left in the dark. Crafting a stakeholder-centric communication about the benefits of the change and the thoughtful strategies that will be deployed can go a long way in garnering support for the change.

Download the toolkit to help you effectively advance change initiatives


Step 3: Empower your change champions to support the effort

Too often, change leaders spend time and resources trying to incentivize implementation of the change rather than removing barriers that can impede progress. Instead, look for ways to scale the initiative, by using a coalition of the willing to make progress and celebrate quick wins. The goal should be engaging stakeholders and giving them agency in the change process. Empower your change champions with meaningful contributions: Have them lead a taskforce or develop training. Using their skills while having them take ownership of the change will make them feel more bought in to the effort.

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Step 4: Sustain the effort with assessment and accountability

Once an initiative has been launched and they’ve empowered others to support the effort, many leaders mistakenly assume their work is done and the change will stick. Unfortunately, this is a critical (and common) inflection point in change leadership. To reach a steady state, stakeholders need to know how and when the initiative will be assessed. And the lessons learned about communication with various groups need to be applied in this step as well. People want to know what progress has been made to achieve identified goals, what to expect in coming months, and how they can share their feedback on the initiative.

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Step 5: Monitor and adapt to continue progress

As the saying goes: plans are made to be broken. We often see community college teams adhere rigidly to existing plans rather than monitoring progress and adjusting to new circumstances. The most successful change leaders continuously monitor implementation and outcomes and build in capacity to shift as they learn what’s working and what isn’t. When you make these adjustments, communicate them clearly to stakeholders to keep them mobilized and empowered (steps 2 and 3).

Revitalize institutional planning with these three steps

Effective change leadership is worth the work

When we launch new initiatives on campus, we want them to succeed. Change is not a one-and-done event; it is an iterative process, and your strategy for leading change must reflect that. The change leadership process requires time and capacity, but there are many institutions to inspire your work, as they have successfully undergone major change and are stronger for it.

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Christina Hubbard, PhD

Christina Hubbard, PhD

Senior Director, Research Advisory Services

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