Facilitating Divisional Transformation: How to Swim Against the Tide to Reinvent a DivisionElisabeth Rees-Johnstone | Executive Director of Continuing Education and Professional Learning at OISE, University of Toronto
Succeeding in today’s higher education marketplace requires institutions to provide highly niched services to as wide an audience as possible. For many institutions, this requires a significant rethink of their priorities and positioning, and a focus on transformation. This, however, is a tricky proposition in the often change-averse postsecondary environment. In this interview, Elisabeth Rees Johnstone shares some insights into her own experience reinventing continuing education within a Faculty of Education and sheds some light on a few roadblocks to avoid during a transformational process.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): In our last Q&A we discussed some of the reasons why it’s critical for faculties of education to expand their reach. What are some of the key steps that need to be taken to achieve this goal?
Elisabeth Rees Johnstone (ERJ): The first step was spending some time really listening to the marketplace and observing. Lots can be gleaned from some of the attempts other institutions are trying to make and how they are reaching out to their audiences.
Then, it’s about starting that conversation internally, and not just within the immediate division but also with other divisions and departments that you liaise with. That’s where the collaboration piece comes in. It’s important in terms of navigating the organization internally and also thinking outside of that. When you opt to share some of those conversations you’ve examined, that starts a dialogue. When you ask how we are to reimagine the nature of the learners and participants that we’re looking to serve, people definitely have opinions. Our aspirational aim is to serve and engage a broader audience.
Evo: What are a few of the roadblocks you have run into during this transformational process?
ERJ: Impatience is a double-edged sword. One of the phrases I can’t stand to hear is this notion of “quick win” because anything that I’ve ever seen happen too quickly has never turned out to be a great win in the long term. At the same time, when you have impatience, it means that there’s hunger, drive and motivation. For me personally it’s the impatience piece that can certainly turn into a roadblock.
On the flip side of that, the notion around transformation—a process to move from one state to the next—is not something that happens overnight. Navigating this and taking the time to understand the needs and energy levels of your partners is key.
Ultimately, you need to keep impatience in check.
Evo: How do leadership changes impact the transformation process of a division or unit?
ERJ: Often, a leadership change results in the organization pausing on everything in terms of decision making or advancing.
Theory tells us any leader typically loves to spend the first 90 days just getting a sense of the lay of the land and understanding where things are. For those that are on the receiving end, to be expecting instant communication or direction setting is a huge expectation and quite frankly a ridiculous one.
While there’s a pause while new leadership becomes accustomed, this doesn’t translate to a pause for divisional leadership. We need to continue on the journey as planned and allow the space for a new leadership team to get their support and provide as much dialogue, communication and insight that we possibly can to be driving the organization forward.
Evo: What role can vendors play in the transformation of a division?
ERJ: Vendors are critically important. There used to be quite a protectionist viewpoint against vendors but that has started to change. What brought about that change was there was recognition, first and foremost, that people weren’t staying in their roles for an extended period of time. Technology also brought about changes—the outside was moving faster than the inside. There was a recognition that sometimes an external point of view, someone who is coming from a different space can make some really intriguing, interesting observations about how you do what you do.
Coming into academia, my early observation is that there’s still a bit of that thinking—what possible good can vendors do?—but that’s starting to shift. We all operate within an ecosystem and when I think about some of the colleagues I engage with on the vendor side surveying postsecondary education institutions, their line of sight in terms of the landscape and what’s happening across the industry and across geography is really helpful. They’ve been very engaging in terms of even introducing me to other colleagues who are trying to achieve similar things at similar institutions. Vendors should not be perceived as strictly selling, it’s more about who are our partners in this ecosystem we refer to as our education industry.
Evo: Looking back on this experience, and with an eye on the near future, what is the most important piece of advice you can share with other leaders going through transformational processes of their own?
ERJ: Leaders going through transformational processes should take every opportunity to recognize milestones. Part of being driven and trying to get to that next intersection means that sometimes you don’t look back. One of the most concerted things I do after I’ve had my first 90 days is mapping out where it is I want to drive a division. I tend to look at things in three tiers: the business, the operations and the talent. I think of it as more of a Venn Diagram in terms of understanding how these things intersect and defining the key things we need to do in each one of those pockets. I always align that in terms of thinking about the overarching direction and commitment of the broader organization and how we change and put that language into actionable items in terms of what it means for the local division. I map this out in an 8.5×11 chart and it’s something I go back to with great frequency. There’s nothing more gratifying than having a physical verification of milestones being accomplished. From a talent perspective, it’s ensuring that the team you’re working alongside also has an appreciation and a recognition for all of their effort. It helps them to understand how their efforts and their continued contribution and commitment are actually advancing the division.
One of the activities that I’ll typically also do when I’m on a transformation process is to carve out 18-month communication team plans to make sure that we connect specifically on the broader strategic priorities that we set out to contribute to. By carving out that time, we are going to commit to follow ups and follow through. It’s not something we’re going to do in a one-off way but it’s going to continue to add discussions.
Evo: What are the most important skills for the members of your team to have to support this reinvention of your division?
ERJ: One of the key phrases for me is simply, “How might we?’
Academic organizations tend to have hierarchy and tradition and a means of working and operating. People tend to think in a box. When the permission is granted to take a look and get curious, that changes the dynamics. More institutions simply need to ask that question.
This interview has been edited for length.