Leading to make a difference

Live a Life that leaves the world a better place because YOU Made a Difference

Category: education

Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

A couple of weeks ago, my executive leadership team and I spent all day together at a strategic planning session.  Our goal was to assess our team’s work and achievements over the past year and start to develop our strategic goals and objectives to set our course for the future.  As we talked about all the things we had accomplished over the past year, we were excited!  It was clear that we have a team of hard workers who are passionate about what they do and eager to make a difference in the lives of our students.

Over the past 1 ¾ years, we have made significant changes in the way we think about how we serve students and in the way, we approach supporting our students’ success.  As a result, our student success team has been in a constant state of transformation.  That’s a cool word for change, and unfortunately, change can be scary.

I am privileged to work with a group of outstanding leaders — our leadership team, we call it the Guiding Team – is committed to doing whatever it takes to create student success services that move us ever closer to our shared vision of:

Meeting students where they are;
Empowering them to see what their future can be; and
Helping them achieve their goals for a better tomorrow.

I strongly believe that fearing change is the enemy of success, but I also know that apprehension about the unknown is normal and natural.  Leading through change — creating true and lasting transformation — requires change agents — and all leaders are not change agents.  Being a change agent is difficult; many leaders can stay the course when the journey is along a familiar path, but those same good leaders find it challenging or even impossible to successfully navigate the way when the route is unknown or littered with obstacles.

When I met with my guiding team for our planning session, I gave them each a gift — a photo that I had taken of a beautiful afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Burnsville, NC.  The photo was captioned with this well-known leadership quote:

“If your actions inspire other to dream more,
learn more, do more, and become more,
you are a Leader.”
~John Quincy Adams

I wanted to thank them for the work they have already done in leading our division.  I also wanted to inspire them to keep moving forward, because we know that we are not done — in fact, we discussed how we will never ever be done.  If there are students to serve, we are a leadership team committed to transformation.  We don’t want to be in a constant state of change just for the sake of change, but we recognize that change is a constant of life.  If you are moving forward, you are changing; if you are not changing, you are falling behind.

We cannot afford to fall behind because we have students to serve.  We share a passion for harnessing the power of education to change lives by helping our students navigate their way forward to a better future.  We also share a belief that old ways won’t open new doors.  In today’s higher education landscape, that belief is the impetus behind our steadfast journey of transformation.  Everything in the 21st century world of community college education is changing; expectations for higher education are not the same today as they were even 5 or 10 years ago.  The old ways of delivering instruction and providing instructional support for students won’t open new doors of opportunity and possibility today.

We cannot merely “build it and they will come,” and our mission is much more than merely a focus on providing access to higher education for populations of students who may not otherwise have a postsecondary option.  We must reach out proactively to engage with our students in meaningful ways.  We must build relationships with them that help them not only understand how to access educational opportunity, but also how to be successful in their programs of study.  Additionally, today’s public sentiment of accountability is pushing us to do more than just help them succeed in their coursework; we are increasingly being pushed to ensure we are graduating students who will be successfully employed in jobs with sustainable, livable wages.

So, we don’t have time to fear change; change is coming whether we are ready for it or not.  As leaders who must assume the role of change agents, we must accept responsibility for steering our teams through innovative, data-informed transformation.  I have faith in my guiding team, their senior leadership teams, and all our team members — I know they are up for this challenge.  I also know that we will continue to face obstacles that will threaten to derail our change efforts.

As the division’s leader, it is my responsibility to lead us around, over, under, or through each and every barrier; to keep us moving forward as we build new ways to open new doors that advance access, success, and post-completion employment.  To that end, I have developed four guiding principles for leading transformational change.

Number One:  Be Intentionally Prepared.  Good leadership doesn’t just happen.  Anyone can be charged with leading, but not everyone is a good leader.  While I believe many great leaders possess natural talents and characteristics that help them be better leaders, I also believe that transformational leaders understand that they are not born with all-encompassing knowledge and their gut instincts and natural intuition is not always enough.  When it comes to transformational leadership, you cannot just “wing it.”  Successful leaders spend time studying and learning how to lead.  They study leadership theory; they read case studies to learn what has worked and what has not worked in other similar situations; they stay current in their respective fields; they intentionally prepare themselves to create transformation.

Number Two:  Be an Active Listener.  Just having the title Leader, doesn’t mean you know everything (also, many people who don’t have the title are the best leaders — but that is a topic for another blog and another day).  Great leaders and leaders who successfully lead transformational, lasting, and systemic change, understand the importance of listening to their team members, and more importantly, they know how to actively listen.  Active listening means you don’t just hear what someone is telling you, but rather you fully concentrate on who you are listening to and on understanding what they are saying.  Active listeners focus on building trust, demonstrating genuine concern for what they are hearing, and affirming that they understand.  This can be tricky for leaders.  Actively listening does not mean you should agree or act on everything that you hear; it does mean that you have a responsibility to your listener to take time to understand and to offer them honest feedback about what you can or will do with what they are telling you.  That leads us to the next principle . . . Be transparent.

Number Three:  Be Transparent.  I believe that being transparent is one of the most important characteristics for any leader because trust is a critical component of any relationship.  I believe that great leaders understand that they will never build trust if they are not willing to be transparent with those they are charged with leading.  I know that leaders cannot openly share everything — personnel matters are obviously private and any organization has confidential matters that cannot be openly shared.  However, in my opinion, top-down leadership structures all too often use a need for “confidentiality” as a cop-out, and a means for not directly and honestly, facing a difficult issue head-on.  As a change agent leader, you must be direct.  If, after actively listening to a team member’s idea, you know, for whatever reason, that you will not be able to do what they have proposed, tell them.  Don’t lead them to believe you will consider it if you won’t and don’t stay silent.  Be transparent — tell them the truth — and tell them why.

Number Four:  Be Willing to Take Risks.  The final guiding principle for leading transformational change is to be willing to take risks.  Transformational leaders are rarely risk-adverse.  They understand that the “safe” path is not always the path that will lead to innovation and transformation.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you throw all caution to the wind by acting careless or foolish.  What I am suggesting, is that change agents understand how to weigh the benefits and the risks, and take reasoned risks if the results to be achieved will substantially move the needle towards necessary change.  As we continue to transform our student success services, we will take data-informed risks as warranted to improve student success — our ability to make a positive difference for our students’ futures is worth the right risk.

It is hard to step out of our comfort zone; it’s much easier to maintain the status quo by doing what we know and what makes us comfortable.  But, if we stay in our comfort zone and keep doing what we have always done, we miss great opportunities for new experiences and new possibilities.

Transformational leaders are never content with the status quo — instead they are constantly striving to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.  They encourage us to take paths that we had never imagined and they challenge us to open ourselves up to whole new worlds of possibilities.

Transformational leaders are bold; they are courageous; and they lead to make a difference.

After all, they understand the importance of opening new doors to new possibilities and they know that . . . Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors.

Authentically yours,

Janet

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Take the First Step: Your Destiny Awaits

Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Yesterday was an important day in my life and the culmination of a life-long dream and a life-changing journey that certainly felt like it took a thousand miles.  Yesterday, I earned my Doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University.

My journey began in Fall 2014 with a single step.  I confess that, at my age, (I was 52 years old when I took that step), walking into that first class in Charlotte at our weekend intensive was more than a little scary.  I worried about being “too old”. . . I worried I wasn’t “smart enough” . . . I worried I would not be able to keep the pace of the combination of a full-time job and a two-class per term doctoral program . . . I “worried” about a lot of things, but I took the step anyway.

Last night, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my accomplishment and thinking about my journey, which along the way felt as if it would never end, yet now feels like it began just yesterday.  As I reflected on the past 3 ½ years, I couldn’t help but think about the students from my thesis — the eight incredible men and women with eight incredible stories who took the time to share their experiences with me.  My study explored persistence among successful low-income community college students in North Carolina.  The ultimate goal of my research was connected to my life’s passion for sharing the power of education to change lives.  I aimed to understand the experiences of low-income community college students, in hopes that their experiences could inform how community college practitioners, like me, might be able to build better support systems to help our students overcome obstacles to successfully complete their educational journeys.

My students faced so many barriers and challenges.  Almost all of them had to work, often full-time, while attending school and they had children and husbands or wives, or sometimes even fathers or mothers to take care of while they worked and attended school.  Three of the students faced serious health issues and three of them were finishing school while their fathers or mothers were dealing with terminal illnesses.  Additionally, the students were all low-income students, so going to college presented a financial challenge as well.  Yet, every one of these amazing men and women persevered.  They set a goal; they developed a plan; they took that first step . . . And they kept going until they had traversed those thousand miles and completed their goal.

Yes, every one of those students had help along the way.  They had a supportive family, peers, and college faculty and staff.  They received financial aid to help them pay for tuition and books.  But the most remarkable finding from my study was that, what they had more than anything else, was self-motivation and self-determination.  It began with a dream to create a better life for themselves and their families, and their inherent motivation and determination to follow their dream was a dominant factor of their success.  Just like me, the students in my study had a dream, and they found a way to achieve their dream.  Most of them didn’t start out with a plan in place — but they quickly developed a plan, either through their own initiative or with the help of their support system.  In the end, every one of those students overcame substantial barriers and quite honestly, beat the odds, to reach their destination and walk across the stage at our college’s graduation ceremony.  And it all began with that single step.

My students are important to me.  Not only because they helped me achieve my life-long dream, but because we are kindred spirits, since a long time ago, I was one of them.  I was that low-income student who had a dream but also had a lot of obstacles standing between me and that dream.  I know how hard it is when it seems like the deck is stacked against you, but just like my students, and thanks to so many people along the way who offered their support and guidance, I too found a way to overcome the barriers and realize my dream.  And it all began with that single step.

As I reflected on my journey last night, I was filled with a mix of emotions, and I was definitely proud of my accomplishment.  I thought back to all those years ago when I was just that poor, little girl, growing up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina.  I was so very happy as a little girl — blessed to have a big family filled with lots of people who loved me unconditionally.  I was blessed and I was happy, but I always felt like there was a destiny waiting for me that looked different somehow than what I could see just then.  Not necessarily, a destiny of greatness, but something different than I could imagine with my frame of reference at the time.

So here’s the moral of this story, in the words of William Jennings Bryan:  “Destiny is no matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.  It is not to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”  My students could have accepted their lot in life, or they could have waited around for “success” to find them; or they could have just complained about their circumstances. But they didn’t.

I could have kept dreaming about that doctorate.  But I didn’t.  My students and I took that first step.  We made a plan.  We recognized that our dream would not come to fruition by chance — we had to make a choice and pursue our goals instead of waiting for chance to find us.

I am so incredibly proud of the students from my study.  Their journey to completion was not easy, but they all told me it was worth it.  Achieving your destiny is always worth it.

If you have been waiting for something before taking that first step . . . My advice is to just go ahead and take the first step.  The journey cannot begin until you do and your destiny awaits.

Authentically yours,

Janet

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