This post first appeared on the WestEd Insights and Impact Blog and is posted here with permission. This version has been updated.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

(Philosopher Will Durant) 

Carnegie Math Pathways at WestEd uses an evidence-based instructional approach to create a supportive and engaging math learning experience that helps students persist and succeed in college math. Pathways courses are taught using active, collaborative pedagogy supported through common curricula, an online platform, and rich instructional resources.   

Recently Pathways delved into the practices of leaders who effectively managed change during Math Pathways implementation. Over six years, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, we studied institutions and their approaches to change, including the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the study concludes, we’re excited to share seven practices we observed among leaders who successfully implemented change. 

Practice 1: Change Management 

What is change management? Change management is defined by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) as the methods and manners in which an institution describes and implements change. This includes preparing and supporting employees, establishing the necessary steps for change, and monitoring pre and post activities to ensure successful implementation (American Society for Quality, n.d.)

Observations: One institution did a good job of preparing and supporting employees with the necessary steps for change but only did so in one part of the institution. Other areas learned about the change and were asked to adapt at the last minute with little preparation or explanation. Change leaders met great resistance, and the change failed shortly after it was launched. 

Takeaway: Effective change leaders receive training in change management and apply its principles contextually within their institutions. 

Practice 2: Personal and Institutional Relationships   

What is the importance of personal and institutional relationships for leaders? Successful change requires a collective, coordinated institutional effort, also known as “Distributed Authority.” Leadership occurs at all levels and champions exist in all spheres—the leader cannot do it alone.  

Observations: In one institution, two faculty leaders attempted to scale a successful pilot program. However, their limited understanding of the institutional context and lack of relationships beyond their own faculty sphere hindered their ability to establish collaborators and champions across various levels of the institution. Consequently, the change initiative failed to gain traction and was unsuccessful even before its launch. 

Takeaway: Successful change leaders have relationships across the institution and leverage distributed authority and empowerment to build capacity to lead change. 

Practice 3: Dynamic Stability, Monitoring, and Tracking 

What is dynamic stability? Successful change leaders use tracking to constantly adjust, scanning the horizon to attend to the various phases of a change initiative, such as planning, networking, exploring, and organizing. 

Observations: One institution included a group of mid-level leaders with multiple roles and responsibilities in the institution and a common interest in this change initiative. One leader tracked individual reactions and behavior to differentiate the vision and frame the solution for various audiences. Using this micropolitical competence, the leader was able to adjust the approach as necessary for different audiences. The leader also networked to create synergy between the change initiative and the personal agendas and department cultures in the institution and monitored what features were important to different individuals. These behaviors allowed the leader to track the circle of engagement, gauge the depth of their interest in the initiative, and adjust the leader’s narrative when necessary.     

Takeaway: Effective change leaders use tracking and monitoring to plan, network, explore, and organize while leading organizational change. 

Practical 4: Political Savvy 

What does it mean to be politically savvy? Micropolitical literacy is an individual’s ability to use strategies to navigate organizational processes and structures to serve their interests. 

Observations: One institutional leader was an astute micropolitical negotiator. As a respected and trusted storyteller in the organization, this leader was able to engage key interested parties early in the change initiative to create a shared vision and common understanding. This leader was a collaborator and built strong relationships across the institution through ongoing networking by genuinely investing in personal and professional relationships. By leveraging these qualities, this leader gathered and built support for this change initiative, maintained the project as a high-priority initiative, honored individual contributions, and navigated through tense challenges successfully during this organizational change. 

Takeaway: Effective change leaders use micropolitical literacy as they network while leading organizational change. 

Practice 5: Communication Effectiveness  

What does communication effectiveness entail?  Successful change leaders develop their own communication skills and utilize institutional resources, such as communications and marketing departments, to convey important messages effectively. 

Observations: In one institution, the absence of communication had significant consequences. Despite Math Pathways having institutionwide implications, the change was treated as a math department matter. Consequently, when the change was implemented, others within the institution were caught off guard. Advisers struggled to guide students to the right courses, and the course scheduler faced difficulties arranging suitable classrooms for collaborative learning at the last minute. Unnecessary chaos ensued. 

Takeaway: Successful change leaders use effective communication to surface potential problems before they happen and to build engagement and belief in the change. 

Practice 6: Self-Awareness  

What is self-awareness for leaders? The self-aware leader understands their own character, feelings, motivations, and desires. They understand that, in similar circumstances, other people may have very different feelings, motivations, and desires. They understand their positionality and act accordingly. 

Observations: In one institution, a charismatic president commanded respect and admiration. However, due to an unintentional power dynamic, people were hesitant to deviate from the president’s lead. When offered coaching, the president declined, asserting self-sufficiency. When we suggested that the team could get the coaching instead, the leader offered them the choice. However, the team also rejected the coaching, not because they didn’t want it, but because the leader unwittingly made it untenable for the team to do it if the leader did not. This leader was unaware of their impact on the team. They believed they were giving the team a choice, but the team saw only one option—to follow the leader. 

Takeaway: Self-aware change leaders understand and address what motivates people in adopting or rejecting change.  

Practice 7: Utilizing Supports Such as Coaching   

What is coaching? Coaching is performance-driven support that seeks to bring the individual being coached to a different level of competence in terms of learning new skills or knowledge to help them maximize their personal and professional potential. The focus is on concrete issues such as effectively managing change, engaging employees, or learning to think strategically.   

Observations: Institutional leaders who are open and willing to try new strategies even in the middle of a storm can learn and benefit through the experience. During the pandemic, when many institutions were sticking to the basics and narrowing their focus, one institution’s leader kept the initiative on track by leveraging administrative supports such as coaching to lead through the challenge. Through coaching and access to a network improvement community, this leader gained new information about how this innovation could be used to solve their course access challenge. Through coaching the leader examined new concepts such as change management and methods to understand and engage key interested parties , all of which helped to maintain the momentum in scaling even through a pandemic.   

Takeaway: Successful change leaders gain capacity through supports such as executive coaching. 

Next Steps  

Reflect upon your own leadership practices and consider how you implement each of the seven practices. Identify areas where support may be beneficial, and proactively seek out resources such as coaching to enhance your leadership capacity. 

To delve deeper into successful change implementation for leaders, we encourage you to explore the resources listed below. We also welcome you to contact Carnegie Math Pathways at WestEd for more information on institutional coaching opportunities.


Additional Resources 

Buller, J. L. (2015). Change leadership in higher education: A practical guide to academic transformation. Jossey-Bass. 

Kotter, J. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press. 

Kotter, J. (2013). Change: What really leads to lasting personal transformation. Oxford University Press. 

Kotter, J., & Cohen, D. (2012). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Harvard Business School Publishing. 

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge (6th ed.). Jossey-Bass. 


American Society for Quality. (n.d.). What is change management?