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How Senior Leaders Can Drive Organizational Change Through Challenging Times

The EvoLLLution | How Senior Leaders Can Drive Organizational Change Through Challenging Times
By taking a transparent and collaborative approach to growth, senior leaders can drive organizational change even in the most challenging circumstances.

In 2011, as I was picking a topic for my doctoral dissertation, the State of Wisconsin implemented Act 10, which significantly limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees. At that same time, higher education state aids to technical colleges were cut by 30 percent. These legislative actions meant big changes for the Wisconsin Technical College System, including the college where I was a vice president. It was then I decided my dissertation topic would be leading organizational change.

Fast forward to January 2016 and I became the fifth, and first female, president of Kishwaukee College in Malta, Illinois. Little did I know how much I would use my dissertation research in this new role. I became a new president in Illinois six months into a state budget impasse (and 22 percent of Kishwaukee College’s budget relied on state aids).

In addition to the budget crisis, Kishwaukee College, much like other colleges, was facing a number of challenges. Enrollment had been declining an average seven percent per year since 2011. Ten months prior to my arrival, the faculty union narrowly avoided a strike. New program implementation and technology changes had been stagnant for a number of years. Kish was due for a transformation.

Change is hard. This is especially true in higher education, where the culture of the institutions is dominated by faculty autonomy in the classroom. People get comfortable in their daily routine, and fear of the unknown complicates change. The reality is that people generally do not like to be told what to do.

We have implemented a number of leadership strategies at Kish to move the organization forward. Through it all, we have stayed true to our mission, and have continued to ask ourselves whether the decisions we’re making are in the best interest of our students. We have remained focused on student success.

I believe the single most important strategy in leading change is communication. As a new president, I developed a number of activities to regularly communicate with the college community both internally and externally. I shared information with our board of trustees at our meetings. In my first month at Kish we started holding all-staff monthly presidential briefings. We also implemented regular listening sessions with students, staff, faculty and community members. I write a quarterly letter to the editor for our local newspapers, keeping our communities aware of all the great things we are doing at the college.

Creating stronger partnerships with external organizations—Northern Illinois University and other colleges, K-12 schools, local businesses, economic development agencies and chambers of commerce—was critical for Kish to do more with less. By working with other stakeholders, we can offer additional programs and opportunities for our students, and strengthen our student pipeline into the college.

Internally, we talked about our challenges and opportunities together. We examined and shared budget and outcome data, and the numbers demonstrated the need for change. We set a vision, and at times adjusted our vision, for what we wanted to be as a college.

In my conversations with staff, I empathized with them that change is hard, but that we had to try something different. Often I have felt like a salesperson, convincing others of why we need to change and to try a new way of doing things. I heard criticism, and reasons why we couldn’t change, but I also saw hope. Leading change in higher education is challenging, and takes large doses of energy, enthusiasm and optimism.

Through all of the incredibly hard work, we built relationships, broke down the silos and came together as teams. People started trusting my message and each other. With a core group of both formal and informal leaders by my side, we began to see a change in the culture of the college. I found my friends and champions—those who believed in what I said, who had the ability and will to influence others. 

As we were doing this work it was important for us to celebrate our successes. We facilitated activities for faculty and staff to gather and celebrate events and milestones at Kish. We end each presidential briefing with staff sharing good news. After three years, the college updates have gotten shorter, and the good news items have increased.

The list of positive changes the faculty and staff have made at Kish is endless. I have been asked what change I am most proud of, and it is no doubt the changing culture of the college. While the “catch-up” has been tiring, Kish is embracing the concept that while the rate of change will slow, it will never end. If we are going to meet the needs of our communities and stakeholders, we will need to continue to analyze our outcomes, study best practices and adapt to what lies ahead.


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