As we enter the last few weeks of this semester at College, it is important for me to think about next year. Because I value and respect my students, I have held two significant surveys to work out what level of changes are needed in order to go into 2020 successfully. Not surprisingly to me, my students had a very diverse set of opinions on what changes were needed (or not! Students are people and people don’t like change much). As the Principal, I have to consider the diversity of opinion, understand how deeply their opinions are held, and lead change in a way that ensures that most feel heard. I always want to work with my students, not against them, and therefore it is important to bring them with me.
Warren Bennis, one of my favourite writers on leadership and certainly one of the most influential on the way I lead, often compared the difference between leaders and managers. In his book, On Becoming a Leader, he contrasts the manager who administers, maintains and focuses on systems and structure with the leader who innovates, develops and focuses on people. The manager exercises control; the leader inspires trust. The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
I have written previously about doing the right thing as one of my tenets of leadership. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard and unpopular. It often requires a lot more emotional energy. It is so much easier to sit in an ivory tower and let things be. Doing the right thing requires action. It requires careful communication and then a deep belief that ultimately your integrity and level of trust built with those you are leading will prevail.
I have led much change over my career, but the hardest change project I have ever led was with a group of staff at a previous organisation. Staff numbers had grown significantly, and the policy had been that anyone could bring their car to work and park for free. This was an unsustainable policy, as the amount of staff growth and carparks available were disproportionate. The senior leadership team made a decision that we would need to change the policy and have staff pay for carparks in order to discourage the amount of cars coming to the business and it was my job to implement the change. It was a highly unpopular change project, and the reaction from some was intense anger and grief. It was difficult to sell to staff who wanted to keep a free convenience, even though most could see the logical reasoning of the needed change. The end of the story is a happy one. After weeks of consultation, the environment and sustainability won over personal convenience and entitlements.
Change is not always about loss, but it is important for the leader who is trying to do the right thing to understand that most people feel change as loss. Being present, listening, and yet leading the needed changes transparently, openly and with acknowledgment of loss is so important. As Bennis often argued, leaders do not avoid, repress or deny conflict, but rather see it as an opportunity.
St Hilda's College is a living community and residential college on campus at the University of Melbourne.
We acknowledge and pay respect to the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which our college is situated. We pay our respect to all the Elders of Indigenous students who call St Hilda’s home. We also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of our community, the University of Melbourne, and the wider world.