Magazine article Policy & Practice

Charting a Course for Change

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Charting a Course for Change

Article excerpt

"Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors."


Providing services to families and communities is a voyage. The condition of the waters changes with federal and state mandates, budget implications, shifts in the standards of practice, gentrification, and communities caught in the midst of violence. Ultimately, we may not be able to predict the exact nature of the changes we face as human service organizations, but we do know that change is inevitable.

Realizing that many changes are driven by external forces that are often beyond our control, we, at the Fairfax County Department of Family Services (DFS), realize the import of intentionally developing internal capacity to mobilize staffto navigate change, whether external or internal.

So, while change is not a surprise, the key to leading in times of major disruption is how we prepare our workforce for the calm times and for weathering storms. Fundamental to this preparation is assuring that they have access to the developmental opportunities and resources they need to be a cohesive team-much like the skilled crew of a ship. This involves the pre-work of building a strong foundation so that we are able to consistently keep our bearings.

In The Leader of the Future, Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz describes the kind of break from traditional leadership we at DFS have adapted when he states, "[i]magine the differences in behavior between leaders who operate with the idea that 'leadership means influencing the organization to follow the leader's vision' and those who operate with the idea that 'leadership means influencing the organization to face its problems and to live into its opportunities.' That second idea-mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges-is what defines the new job of the leader."1

Whereas traditional approaches to leading change are centered on reacting to the immediacy of external influences, we have chosen to intentionally maximize internal change for a more long-term benefit. To be clear, we do not neglect our responsibility to address the ebb and flow of external forces nor do we implement internal changes arbitrarily. Rather, we strategically assure that investing in our workforce remains a priority that is not overshadowed by those external forces. It is through investing in our staff, building in the policies and practices that support their work, and carving out avenues for bolstering their efficacy-that we do our best to navigate through our "journey of service."

How do we do this? First, by creating a culture of continuous improvement at all levels, we are able to focus on our true north, our values. From individual staffto entire programs, our values comprise the rudder that keeps us on course. The bottom line is that decisions, policies, and practices are considered through the lens of our values and are valuedriven. Our mission, vision, and values are not mere words on a wall poster, but integral to our work on a daily basis.

Second, we make it a clear priority to build the internal capacity of staffthrough:

1. Expanding our definition of "leader." We employ a broader definition of who we view as leaders and empower all our staffto all act in leadership (and "follower") capacities according to their roles and performance needs. As advised in the book, First, Break All the Rules, "Make every role, performed at excellence, a respected profession. …

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