As part of an interview process for a leadership position in the education sector, I was asked to describe how I would create “buy-in” for my agenda among diverse stakeholders. The interviewer wanted to know if my entry plan was up to scratch. Did I have what it takes to transform a cluster of autonomous schools into an integrated community with a shared culture?

It was a pretty good question. And, I felt prepared to answer it. Not only had I managed organizational change in previous career settings, but I had also recently caught up on a variety of books I’ve enjoyed reading on this and other related topics. I explained to the interviewer that my approach to change management involved what I’ve come to call the “5Ups.” I stopped at five, well, because you know, a couple more ups and I might end up upsetting a certain beverage company . . .

Rules of Engagement

Anyway, before we discussed the 5Ups, I shared three important rules of engagement for organizational change that I’ve found useful.

A. Focus on People: In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that igniting effective transformation requires executives to understand that change begins with the who and not the what.

B. Manage the Process: In Delivering Results, Richard Tanner Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja confirm that four key aspects of organizational culture (power, identity, conflict, and learning) typically undergo significant stress in change and must be proactively managed.

C. Show the Path: In Strengths-Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie offer that people actively follow leaders who provide them a sense of trust, compassion, stability and hope. Facilitating these four needs may substantially reduce the stresses of culture transition.

What are the 5Ups?

In The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins argues that the new leader should progress as quickly as possible to the breakeven point – that is the intersection where the leader transitions from being a net value consumer to a net value contributor. Drawing from the wisdom of many thoughtful authors, the 5Ups offer a way for leaders to apply the rules of engagement and move to effectively to breakeven as they execute their entry plans. The 5Ups are: Show Up; Listen Up; Gather Up; Speak Up; and Follow Up.

1. Show up: The first thing you’ve got to do as a new leader is be present and visible. Make the effort to go and be where the people are. In the education context for me, that meant attending staff meetings and formal and informal events, doing impromptu visits, rolling up my sleeves and essentially spending quality time with board members, principals, staff, and students. In showing up, however, it is important to remember, as Mary Frances Callan and William Levinson point out in Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents, that the new leader must refrain from making critical judgments at this point. Showing up is not a “gotcha” exercise. It’s more about getting to know people.

2. Listen Up: Once in front of people, the new leader should make an effort to learn about the community. This requires ontological humility that promotes listening over pushing a specific agenda. In Conscious Business, Fred Koffman shares the following insight:

“People see the world differently. The way in which you deal with such differences defines you as a “controller” or a “learner”. Controllers claim to know how things are, how they ought to be, and what needs to be done. They give a lot of orders and ask very few questions. Learners are curious and humble, less certain about how to interpret what is going on and what to do about it. They are more inquisitive than directive. They tend to consider others’ perspectives instead of imposing their own.”

In listening, the challenge for the new leader is to soak up ideas, interests, complaints, and concerns without betraying confidences, while also taking note of systemic challenges that stand in the way of the organization’s progress and success. You’ve got to avoid the temptation to chase quick wins too early, to jump on the bandwagon of predecessor efforts too soon, or to make significant changes without sufficient information. These are all recipes for expedited alienation.

3. Gather Up: Once you’ve established a reputation for listening and have become reasonably informed, it will be time to bring the key stakeholders into a collaborative discussion on the strategic, cultural, organizational, operational, and financial context and future of the organization. You should resist the urge to mandate a top-down set of solutions, no matter how good you think they are. Instead, you should dedicate time to read, work, study, debate, and explore pathways together with your key stakeholders. By doing so, you will not only achieve buy-in, but will likely also identify a higher quality set of more refined solutions for your organization.

As you work out a plan with your stakeholders, it is usually helpful to develop a system of conceptual frameworks that can help shape common expectations, develop common language, and inculcate common practices in your community. As Marcia Blenko, Michael Mankins, and Paul Rogers outline in Decide and Deliver, these types of conceptual frameworks are incredibly valuable in helping define the who, the what, the how, and the when of effective decision-making. They can help ensure that all stakeholders understand their integrated and mutually dependent roles and responsibilities in the collective work of the organization.

4. Speak up: With the game plan now defined, the new leader needs to become a vocal champion of the organization, its mission, and its vision. That essentially means asserting yourself as an evangelist and educator for the cause. This can be both creative and painstaking work, because it involves a lot of kissing babies, shaking hands, and front and center time, both privately and publicly with internal and external constituents. As Brian Carpenter explains in The Seven Outs, effective leadership finds ways to inspire stakeholders by continually providing guidance, direction, and inspiration regarding the organization, its impact, and its future. 

Related to this, Rath and Conchie, in Strengths-Based Leadership, advance that nothing creates confidence and stability as quickly as transparency. Even in the initial stages of the transition, the new leader needs to be willing to be vulnerable by sharing appropriate personal information and organizational data and metrics with stakeholders.

5. Follow up: The final step in cultivating buy-in and a sustainable foundation of trust, compassion, stability, and hope involves relentless follow up on the part of the leader to ensure that all stakeholders are constantly engaged, routinely informed, and progressively empowered in the new organizational environment. This includes periodically scheduled and impromptu meetings, engagements, calls, visits and other forms of interactions that conveniently close the loop between Following Up and Showing Up.

Executing an entry plan can be challenging. I hope the 5Ups and the thoughtful authors that inspired them will be as helpful to you as they have been to me.