Friday, June 05, 2015

We’re built for change

In just under four months, I conclude as Principal of Uniting College and shift countries to begin as Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. This has a lot of implications personally and professionally.

Professionally, I lead a team of 17 people. An essential dimension of my leadership includes helping them process transitions. This means that a challenge of the next few months includes helping them process my transition.

It is always more complicated leading your own transition. It is tempting to envisage working until the last day, closing the door and slipping out, leaving behind a to do list for the incoming. But that would be remiss of my leadership not to include this personal focus. It would point to a set of values that sit in opposition to a culture of communal innovation. It would work against a culture “built for change.”

So I have spent a number of months with my supervisor and line manager thinking through how to lead through this particular transition.

Yesterday I initiated with the team a conversation about the transition. Let me tell you what I did and what emerged. But first, let me share with you the structures that influence the timing.

1. Why now?

Three things are important to note.

First, a number of informal corridor conversations had begun to happen regarding various farewell events. This suggested that folk were beginning to think concretely about endings and that it might be the appropriate time to have a shared conversation. Timings are shaped by listening.

Second, the College has recently appointed an Acting Principal (Craig Bailey). This meant that a transition conversation could be made safer through having a dialogue partner. I (and the team) need reassurance that another set of eyes is watching me and watching them. So in the week prior, Craig and I have shared a number of conversations. Together we have prepared a potential process. The two of us are collaborating on building for change.

Third, we have a pattern to our team meetings. Every week we meet for an hour that includes prayer, community building and essential business. This is essential in enhancing our communication and allowing us to clear urgent business.

Every week we also allocate a further hour. This is divided into other essential elements of our life. These include a stream meeting, an academic meeting, a Faculty meeting around candidate matters and a strategic meeting. At the monthly strategic meeting, we take time to discuss one or two issues. Recent strategy meetings have discussed items like the culture of reading we expect from our students. Or how together to promote the College. These items have no set outcomes. Space is cleared in which matters we think important for our future are given time for conversation.

It is a very helpful rhythm that gives space to attend to the important as well as the urgent, that gives some discipline to our agenda and that lets the different parts of our brain work in in different ways.

So a strategy meeting is a natural time to discuss a transition. It is an existing, already cultivated space to listen, feel and explore more deeply together.

These three factors influenced timing.

2. So what did I do?

The item was introduced. The corridor conversations were noted, to provide an explanation in terms of timing. Craig and I then shared personally. What did this transition mean for him? What did this transition mean for me? As part of this, I shared my individual work goals for the next 4 months. We have a culture of performance appraisal around key performance indicators. I find this invaluable as I contemplate my ending. It is clarifying and empowering to identify essential priorities and to share them with the team.

Until now, this transition conversation has “I” focused. What does it mean individually for Craig and I. This is deliberate. It is allowing folk, without needing to share publicly, to reflect personally.

The conversation is then shifted to “we.” Craig and I have brainstormed some possible whole team factors that might need to be part of this transition.

These have been written on A4 sheets of paper. One by one, they are laid out on the table in front of the team. What is personal is now placed in the middle among us.

• Rituals – the need to say bye and hi, to farewell and welcome
• Momentum – the key projects essential to our life that need to will live beyond. They are structural and innovative .
• Values and culture – how the team operates and how it might want to communicate that to a person new to the team
• Routines – the patterns and rhythms that give shape and identity
• Strategic plan – which has been deliberately timed to end as a new Principal begins, in order to allow a mutual strategic shaping of a future
• Strengths in changing team – what happens to a team as the gifts of one is lost and the different gifts of another is added.

3. So what happened?
Along with the list that Craig and I have generated, I have also brought a stack of blank A4 sheets of paper. This helps invite reflection. What “we” things are missing? What “we” things might have been overstated?

And so a conversation, rich and honest, rolls as we consider transition. A number of extra dimensions are noted. It is during this conversation that the comment emerges, “We’re built for change.” Yes, we are going through transition. Yes, there is uncertainty. Yet at the same time, there is capacity for resilience and innovation.

I find three words in the comment to be significant.

First the collaborative dimensions suggestdd by the “we.” It is not that there are certain individuals more able to embark on change. Rather this is a shared value across the team, an aspect of life that belongs to all.

Second, “built.” This suggests an intentional ordering of the structures of this organization. The culture is able not only to deal with things externally imposed. It is woven into the DNA of this organisation.

Third, “change.” Innovation is core to the systemic shape of this group. Change is a word not always linked to religious communities, let alone groups of academics who participate in theological education.

When I began as Principal, I had an aim, an aspiration I shared with my supervisor as I began. It was that innovation would be perceived as collaborative, woven into the culture of the group, rather than sheeted to certain individuals. Three years on, I hear my dream being repeated back to me. “We’re built for change.” It invites further reflection. What might it mean to structure a community for innovation?

Posted by steve at 01:16 PM


  1. I have read your blog over many years and have been impressed by the clarity and depth of your writings. This effort is no exception. An article along these lines should be required reading for anyone moving into or out of a position of responsibility – a sort of Guidelines for New Principals. There has been an obvious collegiality built up within the College which augurs well for your future in your new appointment. Welcome home!

    Comment by Ian — June 7, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

  2. Great reading, and although I have different reasons for transition timely I would say.

    Comment by Susan Doughty — June 8, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

  3. Thanks Ian. That means a lot. Encouragement is so needed


    Comment by Steve — June 12, 2015 @ 8:31 am

  4. Hi Steve, interesting to read this – I have just had four weeks leave from my workplace (recovering from surgery – all OK) and had my first day back on Friday and the atmosphere is different to how it was before I my leave…..things have changed……and will continue to change……..I like this sentence: “And so a conversation, rich and honest, rolls as we consider transition”…..all the best for your teaching with the whitefellas this week – the empty chairs sounds like a great idea…Jenny Brisbane

    Comment by Jenny Brisbane — June 13, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

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