Guest Column

Swimming Into Change

by Michael H. McVey

The president has 100 days; you have 90.”

This sentence is the premise for an interesting book published by Harvard Business School Press on professional transitions titled The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. I heard about it while sitting in the natatorium of the local high school watching my daughter swim length after length of the backstroke, front crawl, butterfly and breaststroke. While there, I struck up a conversation with another of the swimming dads, who was transitioning to a leadership role in his organization. Reading this book was his personal homework.

Transitions are an essential part of our professional lives as we change careers, gain promotions or simply move along a chosen career path. We should not approach such transitions lightly. The potential for personal upheaval is even greater when we make the transition into a leadership role. We must realize that even though our own life and interactions have changed, we have also become a major source of change for those around us.

Sometimes that change is as obvious as the one-ton block of cement preventing our usual exit from a school parking lot. Only two days after the new principal started his job at our middle school, he wanted to change traffic patterns to improve safety. He changed them right then, and the traffic to his office and his e-mail inbox increased dramatically that week. Four days later, the block was gone, historic traffic patterns resumed, and the newly minted administrator learned something about the parents in his community.

Testing Waters
As much as we feel the need to make our mark through immediate accomplishments, we must first realize that co-workers and community are figuring us out as much as we are figuring out them. They have the advantage, though, since they know the intricate networks of the institutional culture. They know where the edges of the swimming pool are, so to speak, and you, as the new member of the team, will inevitably bump into some walls or slap into another swimmer. That is simply the way it works.

It is funny how we all discover uniquely personal ways to test the temperature of the cultural waters and reach out to find the deep corners and sharp edges. I have used humor as a strategy for reaching out and have learned the jokes and tales that worked in my last position in Arizona sometimes fail miserably in my new one in Michigan. We learn, sometimes the hard way, where the walls are.

As a high school teacher, I used that analogy to advocate for a particularly high-spirited class of students. They often seemed to be getting into or causing trouble. I reminded administrators that we toss our young charges into the big pool that is society and encourage them to figure things out for themselves.

Daily I would hear them flail, grope and splash about in their crowded pool, uncertain where the edges were at first.

“Marco!”

Some days they would challenge my authority and, on other days, they would find loopholes in the rules to learn what slight infractions they could get away with. It is only natural they would reach out to determine the limits of their space. We all do it.

“Polo!”

How else would they find the walls, the edges of the pool, the other swimmers and the deep end? Students, like our work colleagues, sometimes push and bend the rules to see where the limits really exist. My strategies are to tell jokes to disarm my colleagues and spend considerable time offering to help resolve issues. It is my way to find out their needs, to learn the weaknesses of the system and to carve out a place for myself.

Others quietly observe and make mental notes. Still others impose major policy changes like blocks of concrete, then watch to see what happens. We each have our way of finding the walls.

“Marco!”

I have seen administrators dive into the fray and impose their will, serenely confident that their colleagues will perceive the perfect symmetry of their insights. They then tally up the damage report from the figurative scrapes and scuffs, as well as the bloodied noses and knuckles, when it has finished.

“Polo!”

Mutual Measurements
That is certainly not my way of figuring out colleagues. However, each day I reach out to learn a little more about their strengths, their weaknesses, their patterns of interaction and their ways of doing business, just as surely as they are figuring out mine.

My own 90 days recently ended and, coincidentally, that was just about enough time to figure out the basics.

Michael McVey is an assistant professor in the educational media and technology program at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. E-mail: mmcvey@emich.edu