change management

Higher education leaders need to be comfortable with leading a change management process. Today’s institutions will only thrive through creating a thoughtful strategic plan and then following through with an implementation process that includes stakeholder buy-in and accountability.

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is the CEO of The Change Leader, a consultancy that helps Christian colleges educate students for a life of faith and service through holistic approaches to improving planning and change management, governance, academic and business operations, assessment and IR, leadership and culture, accreditation, and diversifying revenue streams.  In this interview, he elaborates on “change management.”

Q: Why is change management an important topic for leaders of Christian colleges?

Change management is the process for ensuring your new ideas and plans get implemented. Before starting any kind of change process, institutions need a strong stakeholder base supporting where you’re going — the “shared vision” that is frequently referred to by leaders. We emphasize to our clients that “People support what they help create.” If your stakeholders are helping to create your strategic plan, then you can expect broad stakeholder support for its implementation which translates to less resistance to change. Thus, implementation becomes much easier.


Q: What does a change management process require?

Any change process requires three things:

  • Holistic thinking. As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Most people only think about the results and not the “unintended consequences” resulting from a change. Even though you may be changing only one piece, you must be aware of what the overall results will (and might) be and whether the change will get you to your desired and expected outcomes.
  • Aligning strategies, organizational structures and processes. If these things are not working in concert, your project is doomed to fail.
  • Stakeholder attunement. What process have you’ve used to get your stakeholders on board – to get to a shared vision for the future? Did you involve them in the planning? Have you been transparent with them so that there aren’t any “surprises” when changes are being planned and/or rolled out?

Your biggest impediment to change is culture, and these three things are necessary to get change to stick. Smart planning involves not only creating your strategic plan, but also creating your implementation plan that takes into account culture.


Q: What challenges do leaders face in the change management process?

Leaders face multiple challenges in making changes in their organizations and in implementing change, some foreseen, but many others are not. This is part of the reason why 80% of all change efforts fail to achieve the results or expectations that leaders had going into the process.

I think one of the big mistakes that leaders make is not having a separate plan for implementation. Ultimately, it’s about developing a roadmap for implementing your college’s future.

Here’s why that’s important. When we drive across town, we know where we want to go and because we’ve done this so many times, we generally know where we’re going and how to get there. And, even if there is an accident, heavy traffic, or other delays, we know what we need to do to make a change and get there on time.

Now apply this to trying to implement a new direction for the college, a new program, etc. We generally have a strategic plan which tells us where we want to go, but we don’t have an implementation plan that gets us there. On top of that, rarely does anything go exactly as you expect it to when you’re implementing new plans. So, having a plan to move forward along with how to deal with contingencies is critical.


Q: Who should be part of the implementation team in a change management process?

It’s critical to put your best people on the implementation. Anybody can develop a strategic plan, but I always put my smartest people on the implementation as unexpected things come up and must be dealt with.

During our strategic planning workshops, we share a quote by TJ Rogers, who wrote No Excuses Management. Rogers said that “most organizations don’t fail for lack of talent or strategic vision. They fail for lack of execution: the routine blocking and tackling that great institutions consistently do well and strive to improve.” This goes right to the heart of why you put your best people on your implementation.

However, you still must put specific structures in place to guide and oversee the implementation. For example, most institutions have a project team to implement, but does your executive committee track the top 15–25 priorities from your yearly action plan? Do you have a change leadership steering committee that follows up bimonthly or quarterly to track, adjust and refine everything? Finally, do you have a program management office, which is the integrator of all the plans? Most institutions don’t, which is another reason why projects fail.


Q: What do you mean by “putting your best people on the implementation”?

When I look for the “best people,” I look for three things:

First, people who are stakeholder leaders, those with good relationships who use those relationships to get things done.

Second, I want people who are both results- and process-oriented. Getting results is critical, but sometimes the process is equally as important.

Lastly, I want people who have an entrepreneurial mindset. Your typical entrepreneur is trying to build something out of nothing and that’s exactly what these folks are there to do — to build a new project or to move in a new direction.

An entrepreneur is resourceful; they look at what’s going on and then will take a look at the circumstances and say, “This is the way we need to go,” and if a roadblock comes up — if that traffic jam appears — they’ll be able to develop a workaround to make sure things get implemented.

I also think that it is very important to have a good understanding of the business and where they’re going. When I say, “the business,” I mean the business of education. Most education institutions are run like schools instead of businesses. It is critical to have a balance of both.


Q: What characteristics or traits do leaders of Christian college need to embrace in a change effort?

First and foremost is the need for faith, not only in themselves but in God to help guide them. Along with that, they need to have an attunement that comes through prayer and contemplation. If they are not attuned to the way the Lord wants to go, it’s not going to work and they’re just going to spin their wheels.

Faith in itself isn’t enough — God helps those who help themselves! They must also have the vision of where they’re going. This is critical because, as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Lastly, I think you need to understand people’s skills sets. This is something that most leaders do not do. They think HR will know, but HR has become more about compliance than people.

As a leader, you set the course and understand the people that you’re putting in key roles. What are their strengths? Where do they need backstopping? Do we need a consultant to help us because this is a new area and/or we do not have the time or skills to do this right? Leaders do things right (vs. managers do the right things), and you need to have leaders in those areas that you’re moving forward.

In their book The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner describe the five practices of exemplary leadership:

  • Model the Way — As the leader, you’re the role model for your organization. People look up to you and so you need to demonstrate the traits that you want other leaders to have.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision — This is critical because you’re trying to build stakeholder attunement to the change process. People support causes, not plans.
  • Challenge the Process — You don’t believe in status quo. You want change that takes us to a better place. It’s not change for change sake – it’s change to make things more effective and productive and to make people’s jobs more meaningful and students more successful in the world.
  • Enable Others to Act — It’s not about you; it’s about other folks and making sure that they have the skills and tools they need to be successful.
  • Encouraging the Heart — This is critical. People don’t follow because of their minds; they follow because of their hearts. They want to have a cause that they can support.

Higher education institutions — some of our culture’s most profound symbols of history, knowledge and aspirations — are increasingly being called to change. Therefore, higher education leaders need to be comfortable with leading a change management process and helping institutional stakeholders understand the need for change and their place in the change process.

Today’s institutions will only thrive through creating a thoughtful strategic plan and then following through with an implementation process that includes stakeholder buy-in and accountability. Those institutions who don’t make this change will find themselves left behind — and may become part of history themselves.

Be sure to attend Dr. McNaughton’s sessions at the TRACS Annual Meeting on Planning and Change, Leadership, and Institutional Governance.


  • Drumm McNaughton

    Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a higher education innovator, strategic management pioneer, / turnaround / mergers specialist, and governance expert. With experience in multiple industries, he has stimulated transformation and propelled double-digit growth at higher ed institutions, startups, and Fortune 500 companies, leveraging his extensive international experience having lived overseas 19 years and worked / traveled in 50+ countries. His change initiatives and counsel have resulted in over $500 million to organizations’ bottom line.

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