Learn[ed]Voices: How to Make A Successful Leadership Transition

Learn[ed]Voices: How to Make A Successful Leadership Transition
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James MacDonald is Head of NIST International School and our brave inaugural guest blogger in our Learn[ED]Voices series.  Check out more info on James in the author info below, and check out Learn[ED]Voices for more guest blogs each month.

“Life is one big transition”  Willie Stargell

As international educators, if there is one thing we should know something about it is transitions.  In our communities, every year we say goodbye to numerous colleagues, students and parents, while also saying hello to others. This type of change is something we sign up for when we chose this life.  Eighteen months ago, I transitioned to a new leadership position, moving from Yokohama International School in Japan to New International School of Thailand in Bangkok.  I remember when I committed to the new position, and before I started, a friend saying how excited they were for me because of how much I would learn and the challenges I would face.  Looking back, they were right.  It was an experience that has really stretched me, and I think I’ve learned a few things in the process:

“The best advice I ever received was that knowledge is power and keep reading”  David Bailey

There is a lot written out there about leadership transitions.  One book I read was called The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins.  But there are countless other sources as well, and if you are anticipating a leadership move yourself, I would recommend delving into this topic. Also, if you are a school leader now, no doubt you have colleagues either involved a leadership transition, or soon will be. Almost all of us are affected by these transitions, and I was really surprised how much good advice is out there and how much research is available. Teach yourself about transitions.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”  Peter Drucker

This wacky little phrase packs layers of meaning. Schools are all about people, and if your actions don’t align with the culture, at best, change can’t be sustained.  A take-away from my transition is that it is best to understand the culture and consider ways of shifting it if you see a need for change. This can be more effective than trying to implement change directly and in isolation from other changes. Besides, if you are working with competent people and you are a good fit for the culture, then chances are a good change will be judged as such and thus supported.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Therefore, as a leader, you just have to get the ball rolling oftentimes which is sometimes nothing more than convincing others they have freedom to do certain things.  For example, on my first day with all staff we had a full faculty meeting planned, which was an annual event.  However,  instead of the normal extended session we cut things short and introduced our new teachers, I said a few words about the importance of relationships and trust, and then everyone went to the faculty lounge for coffee and a light breakfast.  I was betting on the fact that after the summer break people wanted to connect with each other and that as educators they would see this as important.  I am told that gestures like this in the early days were important to people, and in hindsight I think it was the little actions aimed at the culture that were probably most important.

‘The first step towards knowledge is knowing you are ignorant”  Richard Cecil

As our schools shift away from knowledge attainment as an end goal and towards developing student skills and dispositions, I’ve been reminded as a newbie how important knowing things is to being effective.  I reckon you can have all the skills in the world as a leader and an attitude that aligns very well with the culture of the school, but if you don’t know people’s names, or the backstory on different issues, or lack a feeling for whether or not the protest down the road is a big deal or not, your effectiveness is seriously limited.  Lack of knowledge is like a performance ceiling.

 So, as a leader in transition, soak up contextual knowledge.  One way I did this was to create an entry plan, and one feature of it was to meet with close to 100 people and simply ask questions about the school.  I learned so much – and I still don’t know where I found the time to do it – but it was hugely important and, like the point above, also signalled something about the culture. Furthermore, and related to knowledge about the organization, is the importance of developing relationships with others, as you can’t understand the community unless you grasp all the formal and informal connections that hold it together.

‘The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and enjoy the dance”  Alan Watts

Related to the idea of gaining knowledge, quite a few people advised me to wait to make any changes until at least three months into the job. The premise being that only after a certain amount of time can one understand the context well enough to implement changes wisely.  This is good advice in a perfect world, but chances are there are decisions that require immediate attention, and you can bet that people have been waiting for you to arrive to make decisions.  It probably won’t be possible to delay all decisions, so you need a strategy in place to prioritize things and manage expectations.  Delay the wrong things, or make inappropriate decisions too soon, and you will create frustration and erode trust.

So here is my advice: as you are soaking up knowledge, figure out which decisions can be delayed and which need to be fast tracked. Communicate your thinking about the timing of decisions, and allow for feedback as this can provide more input and help you determine who is providing you with the best advice.  Put aside as many decisions as possible, and then invest your time and energy into understanding the implications and backstories for the decisions you need to make soon.  It sounds so simple to write, but of course this is impossible to “get right” completely.

I am a long way off from being an expert on the topic, but it has been an amazing learning journey for me.  These four points are lessons that one can always strive to get better at and learn more about.  But there is one thing I know for sure now: it is possible to leave one amazing place and step into another one, and I wasn’t so sure about this before I made the move.  “Life is one big transition” and I think it is these transitions that help make our lives as international educators such rich ones.

You’ve just read the inaugural guest blog in our Learn[ed]Voices series.  So what did you think?  Do you agree with James’ 4 points?  Have you faced difficult transitions in your role?  Share your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to rate this post out of 5 stars at the top of the post.  Also check out The Leadership Project interview James’ granted us a few years back when he was still at YIS.

Finally, if you’re new to Learn[ed]Leadership and want more then sign up for Learn[ED]Leadership’s Monthly (or so) Newsletter, or get instant updates by liking our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

James MacDonald

Author: James MacDonald

James MacDonald is Head of School at NIST International School in Bangkok. Besides Thailand, he has worked in Canada, Japan and Singapore and has held a number of teaching and leadership positions over the course of his career. James holds two bachelor degrees (Education and Management), an MA in Education, an MBA and is a doctoral candidate. James is also active with the IBO, and is presently the Chair of the IB Regional Council for Asia Pacific.

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  1. I am in a process of transition from one International School to another.I have been teaching for 22 years but still feel there is so much to learn and deliver.The article was very well written and gave clarity about role as a teacher with experienced background can move with direction and goal. Thanks for sharing the wonderful insights.

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  2. Great blog post, James. Transition is a form of rebirth. When we transition from one place to another, from one life to another, we actually recreate ourselves and our place in the world. Those of us who do this frequently are afforded multiple opportunities for tremendous personal growth. As educators this personal growth is reflected in our teaching and manifests itself in the passion and wisdom we bring to our students. They’re transitioning, we’re transitioning, we’re all learning together.

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