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Four things every change leader should know

Lead Change


Mary was a new teacher, just out of college. Her first assignment was to a community based youth program that ran an alternative high school. She arrived her first day filled with enthusiasm and anticipation.  She was excited to start her new career.

Her first glimpse of the program’s building filled her with apprehension, an apprehension that grew to disappointment and swelled to despair.  It was ugly.  The program occupied a storefront and the apartments above the storefront. It was clean, but still gave the impression of being dingy.  The people –teachers and students—seemed nice enough, but still it was UGLY.  All her ideas of her first day as teacher seemed to sink. She cried. 

Fast forward to the end of the year and we see a different Mary.  She no longer sees the “ugly” building but only the people, the mission, and the spirit. Years later she explained the change with four words:

  • Culture
  • Vision
  • Plan
  • Celebration


Even on Day One, Mary said she noticed the people were happy. She even asked herself, “How could they be so happy in such an ugly place?”  The answer presented itself over the next few months. Staff and students together created a place where everyone felt accepted.  Together teachers and students had written a “Declaration of Independence” that shared why they each had chosen an alternative setting—what had driven them to make such a decision and why it was important to them. 

The school was joint project between the Board of Education and the private not for profit. It was new territory and that meant exploring new ideas and taking risks.  Leadership rewarded this kind of thinking, even if it didn’t always work out. Leaders did not respond with “it can’t be done”, but “how do you think we can do it?”  That same kind of thinking extended to students.  Here is an example of how this culture reached down to the students.  

Frank was a junior and recently elected president of the student body.  Student government was a full partner in the creation of the school and the resulting culture.  This was back in the 80’s and smoking was allowed in the building. There was a portion of students that wanted to ban smoking, but could never get the majority of votes.  This went on for three years.  Frank approached the problem from a “how can this get done” attitude, not a “no one has ever done this, so it can’t be done” attitude.  He had a plan. 

He approached all of the graduating seniors.  They were graduating and wouldn’t be affected by the new rule. He said the new rule would not take effect until they did graduate. Would they give him the votes necessary to pass the smoking prohibition?  Not everyone said yes, but enough did to pass the new rule. 

Frank took a risk, because the culture established made it not only safe to take the risk, but encouraged it.  Without risk there is often no growth or change.

Telling a story about the hope of the future

Change is about people. It starts with one person and then grows in ripples.  Sal was a new student in the same program written about above.  He was coming from a high school that didn’t want him. The story told to him for the last several years was one of failure.  He was not going to amount to anything. He was not wanted. 

When he came to the program he was asked where he wanted to be in a year, in two years.  There was no judgment on his vision. There was realistic talk about what had to happen and what he needed to do if he wanted to succeed.  Sal was told he was starting off with a clean slate. His story became his map.

Story telling was also an important part of inspiring and motivating staff. Leadership always shared a vision via stories—a story that encompassed 5 years and ten years.  They spoke often and seriously about what services would be developed, what kind of new building they would find and move into.  They spoke about the different ways these objectives could and would be reached. They dreamed, and just as important they acted on those dreams.  Story telling was constant, ongoing process

Mary remembered those stories when three years later they moved into a new building.  This building was a better facility with more room and right off the bay.  Everyone had a beautiful view of the water and recess outside during the summer was great as people played handball and basketball on the black top.  But if you asked them, they still held a special place in their hearts for the ugly building where they shared stories and made those stories reality.

Providing a Map

At the beginning of each semester there was registration.  All of the content area teachers and the guidance counselors were set up in a room and student registered for courses.  The guidance counselors were there to work with teachers and students and map out not only the coming semester, but the next few years (depending what grade they were in). This helped provide both teachers and students an idea of what had to be done by when for the student to secure a high school diploma.  It was a road map they everyone referred to during the student’s tenure.  Students gained a real understanding of their responsibilities and the consequences of their actions; in other words there was ownership.

In like manner, each year started off with a staff retreat.  They reviewed data from the prior year, celebrated achievements and mapped out the coming year within the context of five and ten year stories mentioned above. There was an active and interactive discussion. They revisited their mutual vision. Identified the role each person played in achieving our goals. Identified mistakes and successes and celebrated both as learning experiences to be applied to the coming years.  They adjusted objectives.  They committed to weekly meetings throughout the year to monitor work and make sure they stayed on target.  They accepted and renewed their commitment to their mission.  They recognized that they were involved in work that would take years, and committed to being patient.  They reminded ourselves of their STORY, edited and in some places re-wrote.  Each staff person became a co-author of the story.  Together, they owned that story. 


Leadership, teachers, counselor and students identified things they wanted to celebrate and they did celebrate.  In some cases it was something as simple as birthdays. In other cases it was graduating students going to college or better test scores or a new teacher joining the group or a loved teacher leaving for a new phase in their life. The celebrations brightened up even that dingy building.  Change, especially change with improvement as the goal, is a constant, so take time to celebrate the victories along the way.


Change is not a one step process—in most cases it is an ongoing process with benchmarks along the way.  It is processes that demand ongoing reflection and adjustments while at the same time keeping the focus on the change we want to achieve.

Four factors are essential and integral to the change process:

  • A culture that embraces all members and encourages responsible risk taking
  • Telling the story
  • Providing a map-let people know where they are going and what they should be doing to help everyone get there
  • Celebrate people, events, achievements or anything that is important to your group.

Change is about people. 

Three lessons I learned from running a poor community group


35 years ago, I found myself the Executive Director of a local youth program. Great sounding title, right? What I learned was that there was a budget of $38,000 per year—including my salary!  What I also learned was that there were a myriad of issues which needed to be addressed.  What did I do?

Three rules guided my (and later on my staff’s) actions:


  • Set high expectations—a culture of can do, not can’t do
  • Learn how to do more with less and teach others how to do the same
  • Don’t wait for perfection-get moving!

Now, would I have given you these three points if you had asked me 35 years ago?  No. It is by looking back and reflecting that these three guidelines became evident—just a quick commercial for the gentle art of reflection!


There is a great activity I use in leadership development training that makes this point. The group is divided into small groups of 5 or 7.  All the groups are given the same list of tasks. Each group is also given a packet of resources.  The packets vary in the supplies that are provided. Some packets contain an excess of supplies—well funded groups. Some packets contain just enough supplies—adequately funded. Finally, some packets contain not enough supplies—poorly funded organizations.


Almost without fail, in general, the well-funded groups complete the task quickly, but squander resources.  The adequately funded groups produce adequate results, while the poorly funded groups almost always produce innovative results using their limited resources in unique ways. They followed these three rules:


Set High expectations—think as if you have the resources and work from there

Start by sharing these guidelines with your team:

  • We have a task and we are going to accomplish it.  Our job is to figure out how
  • We are going to plan as if we have all the resources—and the best resource is ourselves
  • All ideas should be welcomed and encouraged by the group
  • No is not an option-tie the project into your mission, into the moral purpose of your group


This begins the development of a “Can Do” culture, as opposed to one where ideas are presented and people immediately start saying why it can’t be done or won’t work. 



If you your team starts to go down the road of saying something can’t be done bring them back to the four guidelines above.  Keep encouraging them to brainstorm and generate ideas.  Let them know all ideas are welcome.  I always ask people to applaud when people make a suggestion. Let them know they and their ideas are recognized, valued and celebrated.



Teach how to do more with less—Necessity is the mother of invention. 

Just like in the activity described above, when you have an abundance of resources, you are not challenged. It is great to have an excess of what we need, but at the same time excess doesn’t promote creativity, in fact it may more accurately nudge toward complacency.  We have become accustomed to requesting more resources, and then blaming the lack of resources for our lack of success. Here is a question.  If you were given limited or even insufficient resources to accomplish a project, and told if you did achieve the goals set you would get a $10,000 bonus, would you find a way to accomplish the tasks?  Most of us would say, “Yes.”  So, then it becomes a question of motivation, doesn’t it?



As part of the process, guide your group through an inventory of the resources available.  Challenge them to look beyond the usual resource, money.  Consider people in your organization, people in their network, people from the community, existing services in your community, etc.  Create a chart on a whiteboard or a flip chart that provides a visual for your team lining up identified resources and tasks.


Go slow to go fast, but move

Your plan doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need a plan and you do need to start the work. This doesn’t mean you don’t do your due diligence and produce the best plan you can.  It does mean that if you wait for it to be perfect, you will never have a plan.  Sometimes we put off implementing, waiting for everything to be perfect, because we fear failure. Fear paralyzes.  The time we spend fearing failure is time we are not spending actually doing something.



The secret is to prepare and plan as best you can with the resources available—put the time and work in upfront and then implement—start, but don’t be reckless. Have a goal in mind, while at the same time taking it step by step.  Implement your plan in stages taking time to collect data, evaluate how the plan is going and adjust as needed making sure to celebrate the successes along the way.  



Most of us believe that more resources equals better performance—and in some cases that may be true. However resources alone don’t make for success.  They must be coupled with a culture of learning and risk taking.  How resources are used is just as important as what the resources are.  In the hands of innovators and thinkers even limited resources can result in success. 

Are you a Strategic Leader? Answer these Four Questions

Strategic Leadership


“Most of my day is spent addressing behavior problems and making phone calls to parents,” shared Mr. Guiness, “I can’t get anything done.”

Mr. Guiness ended each week meeting with his leadership team reflecting and creating a list of tasks and objectives for the next week. They were doing all the right things: reflecting, discussing, setting priorities and even scheduling specific times for each task.  What was missing? Strategic thinking. 

How did they resolve the problem? Strategy. After analyzing the situation, Mr. Guiness made one strategic change. He asked the teachers to call the parents when there was a behavior problem. The teacher had a clearer idea of what had happened, the communication strengthened the teacher/parent relationship and it freed up time for Mr. Guiness. 

Strategic leaders not only plan what has to be done, but also how to do them.  They navigate the obstacles that pop up.  The develop strategies that help reach both short term objectives and long term goals.

Am I a Strategic Leader?

Here are four questions that you should ask yourself to determine if you are a strategic leader:

Question One: Are you able to both clearly define your long term goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them?

Strategic leaders have a deep understanding of what they want to achieve, how they plan to get there, and how they are going to communicate that information clearly and concisely.  They have taken the time up front to plan, to explore potential challenges and identify alternative paths. They are concrete in their approach, while at the same time remaining flexible as the plan unfolds and obstacles pop up. The emphasis is on achieving goals not staying married to the plan, if data suggests otherwise.

Question Two: Are you curious?

Effective, strategic leader are curious. They place a high value on learning and staying on top of new information.  They verify that information.  They plug-in to networks and exchange information with other leaders in their field sharing insights. 

They model this behavior for their team and value it in others.

Question Three: Do you engage others in your vision and decision?

Strategic leaders realize they don’t have all the answers.  They have confidence in their position and their knowledge, but are not closed minded about hearing other points of view.  They seek the opinions of others, they search for new information, and they ask stakeholders for their input.  The information is not blindly accepted. It is examined, discussed and applied when appropriate.   Change is about getting other to follow you—involving others in the crafting of a vision and the implementation of that vision is the sign of a strategic leader.

Question Four: Do you base your decisions on data, not opinion?

Strategic leaders use data and allow the data to speak for itself.  They follow that data to where it leads looking for unbiased solutions. When data is shared, examined, and used the process is transparent. 

One caveat—in these days of technology leaders run the risk of participating in information glut.  Information overload results, more times than not, in paralysis, not forward movement. Strategic leaders identify the key data points that are most closely aligned with their vision and plan. 


Strategic thinking is must for a leader who wants to be effective.  It is not enough to have a vision or even a plan. Leaders must have a strategy.  Strategic leaders:

  • Can clearly and concisely define their vision and their plan
  • Are curious, life-long learners. They embrace information.
  • Engage others in the process by being open to input, seeing it as an asset not annoyance
  • Use data to guide their decision

Just Ask

Questions-Ask Us


For the last five years, I have spent Christmas holiday in Puerto Rico. In addition to spending time with family, it is a time to “recharge my battery.”  I disconnect, for the most part, from my devices and corresponding communications and focus on resting.  It is something I didn’t learn to do until the last few years and a practice that is important for all of us to embrace.  As the adage goes, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others.

There is a countdown to the final days on the island and a rush to make sure we get to our favorite coffee houses and restaurants—since for the most part we fill our days with eating and walking and sleeping. Reality begins to really creep in as we travel to the airport for our journey home and back to work. 

This year, as we were waiting for our plane, I passed a customer service desk that said in both English and Spanish: Just Ask.  First impression was, “What a great message to customers!” I passed other similar desks which all had the same message—Just Ask.  They had something else in common.  NO ONE was manning them.  By the third time, my impression changed from “great message” to “OK, who do I ask?”

Expectations can turn to frustrations

Somewhere in my unconscious, before reading their sign, there was awareness that if help was needed, it would be provided.  However, that awareness became an expectation when it was so boldly announced, not once, not twice, but three times throughout the terminal.  When I could not find someone at these desks to help me, there was not just disappointment, but also frustration bordering on anger.  Why invite me to ask, if no one is going to be there to answer? They had promised me something and then did not deliver. Better not to promise or offer at all.

Value the Questions

The same idea applies to leadership.  There is an unwritten contract between leaders and their teams.  Each has their own perception of what to expect from the other—an internal perception based on experiences. Those perceptions become more concrete when either side makes a commitment to the other to do something or act in a certain way.  At that point, when there is no follow through, simple disappointment (still a problem that needs to be addressed) becomes festering frustration. This frustration erodes relationships.  Leadership is about relationships. 

A great way to build relationships is to create a culture where questioning and asking is encouraged and valued.  Questions empower people. Answering questions demonstrates you value people.  Questions and answers help clarify and clarifying prevents mistakes and miscommunication.  It prevents drift and helps keep the focus on what needs to be done to achieve objectives.

Some Dos

Do make yourself available and approachable —giving clear information and allowing for questions upfront saves time down the road.

Do reflect on what you want to offer your staff, how you will provide it and the why. This prepares you for sharing your ideas with people.  Tie everything to building relationships and achieving objectives.

Do be clear about your expectations of staff. Be specific.  Give examples of both what you want and what you don’t want. Encourage questions.  Have your staff verify and explain what they heard.  Listen to feedback and when appropriate adjust your expectations.

Do ask your staff to express their expectations of you—ask questions and clarify when there is a difference in thinking. Again, listen to their input and be open to change.

If you offer something, make sure you have the resources needed and can follow through, and then…FOLLOW THROUGH.  Broken trust is more difficult to rebuild than establishing trust in the first place.  Broken trust destroys relationships.

Differentiated Tip: Is that Telling or Asking

Differentiated Instruction

Mr. Abernathy was ready and eager for his monthly coaching visit with Janie.  He had prepared lesson plans to teach his students about sentences that tell something and sentences that ask.  When he had pre-assessed his students (a strategy Coach Janie had taught him in a prior visit) he determined that several students didn’t understand the difference between the two types of sentences.  His question for Janie was what could he do?

Janie explained that pre-requisite skills must be taught to these students in a small group setting. She provided an oral and written activity to address the students’ difficulty.  First, they applied the strategy to sentences that tell, and then to sentences that ask.


Sentences that Tell

Janie guided Mr. Abernathy through the following activity:

Mr. Abernathy: We are going to learn about sentences that tell.

Coaching Tip: Janie coached that IF students need to have the term “statement” in their repertoire, add to this definition: Sentences that tell are called statements.

Mr. Abernathy:  Here are some examples of sentences that tell:

  • I go to school because I love to learn. That sentence TELLS why I go to school.
  • I come home in the afternoon. That sentence TELLS when I come home.
  • I put my clothes in my front closet. That sentence TELLS where I put my clothes.
  • The dog has a red coat. That sentence TELLS what has a red coat.
  • My father is a very tall man. That sentence TELLS who is a very tall man.

Now, you give me sentences that tell.

Coaching Tip- “When you are certain that students are firm in giving you sentences that tell, bring in non-teaching examples-sentences that DON”T tell.”

Mr. Abernathy: 

My turn- My dog is big. This sentence TELLS me how big my dog is. IS my dog big? This sentence does NOT TELL how big my dog is.

My turn- I came home at 8 PM. That sentence TELLS when I came home. Did I come home at 8 PM? That sentence does NOT TELL when I came home.

Coaching Tip:  “Continue to model teaching and non-teaching examples. Once your examples have been given, then ask the children to orally identify whether a sentence tells or not.”

Mr. Abernathy:

The dog is walking. Does that sentence tell?

The house is on a quiet street. Does that sentence tell?

Is my mother tall? Does that sentence tell?

Coaching Tip:  If students answer incorrectly, correct by saying- My turn- that sentence does NOT TELL me if my mother is tall. It ASKS if my mother is tall.  Continue to orally present teaching and non-teaching examples of telling sentences.

CAUTION- be careful not to form a recognizable pattern when giving teaching and non-teaching examples- 2 sentences that ARE telling, 2 sentences that are NOT telling. Some students will think that they can get the correct answers by determining the pattern. The pattern should be random:

  • 2 teaching examples
  • 1 non teaching
  • 4 teaching examples
  • 2 non teaching examples

When students are firm on answering orally, then have them identify telling sentences and sentences that don’t tell in writing. First teach the end mark.

Mr. Abernathy:  IF it’s a telling sentence the mark at the end of the sentence is a period. What do we call the mark at the end of a telling sentence?

Students:  A period

Mr. Abernathy:  Yes, a period. (Have students point to the end mark.)



Janie explained that when students are firm on sentences that tell, then Mr.  Abernathy could introduce questions. 

Mr. Abernathy: There are other kinds of sentences. Some sentences don’t TELL us anything, some sentences ASK something. Sentences that ASK something are called questions.

Coaching Tip: Teacher should give teaching examples of questions. Follow the same format as when teaching sentences that tell.

Mr. Abernathy:  My turn, if I say a sentence that ASKS something say question, if it DOESN’T ASK something, say no.

Is my house small? Is that sentence a question? (Students respond question)

My school has a playground. Is that sentence a question? (Students answer no)

Coaching Tip:  Once students are firm on sentences that tell and question, then combine the two.

Mr. Abernathy:  If I say a sentence that tells, say tells, if I say a sentence that asks something say question.

Coaching Tip:  Be careful to intersperse “question sentences” and “telling sentences” randomly.  Once students are firm orally, then they should respond in writing. Teach the end mark for questions.

Mr. Abernathy: If it’s a question, the mark at the end of the sentence is a question mark. What is the end mark of a question?

Students: A question mark.

Mr. Abernathy:  Yes, a question mark. (Have students point to a question mark.)


Additional Strategies

 If further differentiation is needed:

  • The naive group can continue to identify whether a sentence is a telling sentence or an asking sentence.
  • A more proficient group can turn a telling sentence into a question sentence and vice versa. (A dog is red- Is a dog red?)



Pre-assessment and ongoing assessments are essential to effective instruction and more specifically integral to successful differentiation. After identifying the instructional needs of students, teachers need to identify the skill or sub-skill that needs to be taught, reinforced and brought to mastery for each student.  This is best done via small group instruction. 

Students should first be taught what something is, and once that is firm, taught what it is not (teaching and non-teaching examples).  Using well paced questions that draw responses from students is an effective and engaging instructional strategy.

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