“Navigating Change” by Amy Schack

It is said that change is the only constant in life; whoever said that must have been referring to higher education! Whether it’s changing of the guard in terms of institutional leaders, changing priorities, strategic planning, reorganizations, technology, or job changes; it’s rarely a dull moment in student affairs.

I was recently told by a mentor that I have a fascinating “journey story”, since I have been through two mergers, several reorganizations, and of course changing leadership. I thought I’d share some of what I have learned through my own experiences in the hopes that it helps you navigate your own transitions. Each of these suggestions can apply to taking on new roles, dealing with university reorganizations or even institutional mergers.

Helpful hints for navigating change:

1. Develop your own personal mission and strategic plan. Just like we develop mission statements and create strategic plans for our departments, we should do the same for ourselves and our careers. What areas of student affairs are you passionate about? What do you personally want to accomplish? Take some time to formulate your own personal mission and strategic plan. Be sure goals and outcomes are measurable. Pre-assessment and post-assessment are also very important. No matter what situation you are faced with you will be able to refer back to what means most to you and what you want to achieve.

2. Listen a lot. To understand institutional priorities and culture we need to pay attention to information coming from many different sources: students, faculty, staff members etc. Be sure to synthesize all of the information before coming up with judgments or action plans. Once you know which direction you would like to go; be sure to establish outcomes and assess.

3. Look for opportunities. You may be in the unique position to be promoted, create your own position, or get involved in areas of interest to you. Lend value to the institution and be sure people are aware of your accomplishments and areas of expertise.

4. You can adapt!
Some people get very nervous about change and how it will impact them. Give yourself credit! You are capable of adaptation and may even excel under pressure. Take it slowly and learn from colleagues.

5. Don’t become stagnant! Never stop setting goals for yourself and the department you are in. It’s like the teacher who uses the same lesson plan year after year. We too need to change with the times, look at best practices, new innovations and technologies. I’ve too often seen people give up for varying reasons and in the end it only hurts them.

6. Keep intuitional mission in mind. What are the mission and vision of the institution and how does your role, department, or division contribute? How do you communicate this to others? Do students know what the mission and vision of the institution are and can they articulate how your area contributes to them? Some institutions share detailed mission and vision statements with all levels of staff and students, while other have vague information on their websites related to this. It’s important to find out where the institution is going strategically and how you might contribute. In some cases it’s better to ask directly and in other cases it’s better to voice your interest to become involved and find out how you can be of assistance.

7. Collaboration is mandatory. No matter what position you are in you will need the help and cooperation of others. It’s important early on to get to know key players and develop good working relationships. Positive communication with other departments and divisions could make or break goals, as well as future needs or plans. Keep in mind that each person plays an important role in the functioning of the institution whether they are a professor, electrician, security officer or the President. It’s important to treat each person as a valuable and important member of the community.

8. What does your supervisor value? It’s important to figure this out fairly quickly. What type of supervisor are you working for and with? Are they detail oriented, are they hands-off, how do they like information presented, and what are his/her expectations of you? The quicker you figure this out the more quickly you can adjust.

9. Stay involved professionally. Don’t get too busy for professional development. None of us can operate in a silo. There are so many fantastic opportunities for involvement with varying levels of commitment and interest. Expand your skills in a particular area, get exposure to something different, join a committee, or obtain hands-on training to help you in your position. You’ll meet new colleagues, make new friends, and possibly find mentors. Bonus… all great things for your resume!

10. Remain Calm! We tend to think the worst in difficult situations especially now due to the economy, unemployment rates and a culture of layoffs. None of us are mind readers (I think) and it is important to see how things play out for a little while prior to jumping to conclusions. One of the best experiences I had was during a merger with great leadership and the sharing of honest, succinct and timely information.

What are your strategies for navigating change?



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6 responses to ““Navigating Change” by Amy Schack

  1. Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing – I know this will be helpful for those of us that are anticipating change in the future.

  2. Amy-I love so many things about this blog, but the piece that really resonated with me is the part about understanding what your supervisor values. This is key. That gives you a greater understanding of the departmental priorities and how you can contribute to them. Great work–I think many folks will find this info to be very valuable! Thanks for sharing your time and talent with WISA!

  3. Great job, Amy, on this post. Such helpful insight from someone who obviously has a good understanding of this type of situation. The one I really appreciate (and quite frankly, often struggle with) is the Remain Calm advice. As an Activator (for those who are fans of StrengthsFinder) – I know that I will continually struggle with wanting to move immediately into “fixing the issue”, and this tendency can cloud my perceptions about other people’s intent and agenda behind statements and action (or my perception of a lack of action!). Thank you so much for reminding me that taking a breath and really letting things play out a bit can help yield more positive results!

  4. Amy Schack

    Thank you, Julie, Annmarie & Amy! Julie, yes remaining calm amidst uncertainty is very difficult. I have found over time that things don’t turn out as badly as we think they will. I think most people have the habit of thinking of the worst. Breathing helps! Annmarie, after having worked for numerous supervisors I have found that the more I understand my supervisors priorities and areas of concern the better I am able to address those situations. Amy, I am glad you found the blog useful. I was hoping that it could apply to many different transitions.
    I look forward to connecting with all of you in the future!

  5. Great post, Amy. Though I’m coming from a different perspective (just finished my undergrad at Boise State) I was part of navigating and directing drastic change in our student government. I especially appreciate #7 – Collaboration is Mandatory – but I would add that a lesson I learned is to only ask for feedback when you are really willing to make changes.

  6. amyeschack

    Thanks Brandie! I appreciate the input. Yes, it’s true…there are many people who oppose change and/or don’t see the value in feedback.

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