Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Starting Confused: How Leaders Start When They Don't Know Where to Start

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Starting Confused: How Leaders Start When They Don't Know Where to Start

Article excerpt

Starting a new job is inherently confusing, say Mr. Jentz and Mr. Murphy. Using an EntryPlan can transform that confusion into a resource for better decision making by enabling three kinds of timely learning: learning about your new workplace, learning about yourself, and collective learning about new ways of approaching vexing problems.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I was the enthusiastic first choice of the search committee and was warmly welcomed by the staff. In fact, a lot of people acted as if I could walk on water. Everybody was open to change and so hopeful about the future. It looked like I had found my dream job, and I was really excited about getting a chance to implement my vision of instructional improvement. What a wonderful start to a honeymoon!

But nine months later, everybody -- including me -- was disappointed. My brilliant vision was in the trash bin. Conflict had replaced consensus. Trust had disappeared. After such a promising start, all I heard were complaints about process. In the meantime, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and bewildered. I just didn't know what to do. Honeymoon? My dream job had turned into a nightmare.

Who among us isn't familiar with this story or at least a variation on it? Whether you are arriving to take up a new post or serving in the trenches when a new administrator takes charge, the moment of job entry always seems rich with the possibility for productive change -- and freighted with the heady fantasy that the Lone Ranger will ride into town and make everything better overnight. Of course, reality quickly sets in, and we are reminded once again that there are no silver bullets. Like many of you, we have seen this pattern of shattered dreams play out scores of times, and we, too, bear our own scars from mistakes made as administrators entering new jobs.

The simple truth is that, all too often, new administrators start off on the wrong foot -- even fail. In fact, as demand for bold school leadership grows and as the rate of turnover in education jobs continues to rise, this problem seems to be getting even worse. However, we believe that there are practical, systematic methods to break this pattern and reap the rich rewards offered by a fresh start in a new position.

In this article, we suggest that many new beginnings go awry because newly appointed administrators fail to address the confusion that is generated by the conflicting demands they face during entry. Disoriented, but under intense pressure to "do something -- and fast," these administrators buy into the conventional view that bold leaders hit the ground running. Feeling whipsawed, yet wanting to please, they reflexively hide their confusion and try to appear decisive by acting quickly. In so doing, they often sour their honeymoon.

To avoid bad beginnings, we believe that new administrators must hit the ground learning, rather than running. Entry requires that they build relationships with stakeholders1 and develop a process for learning, rather than reflexively focusing on tasks. If one of these supports is missing, the transition will fail. In using this approach, the new administrator establishes authority not by prejudging what needs to be changed immediately, but by taking charge of the process -- by demonstrating a clear understanding of how to start.

We call this approach an EntryPlan. Its essential activities consist of writing a plan and making it public, conducting systematic interviews and site visits with multiple stakeholders, and then working jointly with those stakeholders to make sense of the information as a prelude to making changes.2

These activities help new administrators withstand the pressure for premature change by forcing them to collect the necessary startup information as they build trust with their new colleagues. Properly executed, the EntryPlan methodology not only promotes learning about the new job situation but also forces new hires and their organizations to rethink their operating assumptions. …

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