DA op-ed: Transformational leadership: What is it?

A look at what’s involved in bringing transformational digital leadership to a K-12 school district
By: | June 3, 2019
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Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration’s chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration’s chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

During my career in education, I have had the privilege of leading digital transformation initiatives for two school districts. As such, I have often been asked what type of leadership is required to successfully implement a transformational project.  

As I reflect on that question and the past 12 years leading such projects, it is very clear that there is a distinct difference between traditional leadership skills and transformational leadership skills.

An initiative that is truly transformational radically changes the current conditions, functions and culture of an organization. Additionally, real transformation includes a willingness to abandon or stop doing things that aren’t working. Finally, transformational leadership cannot be limited to an individual It must occur throughout multiple levels of the organization.

Transformational leadership is all about creating a vision, one that is going to be viewed as radical or impossible, and then getting people to buy into that vision. Now, some people will say such a strategy is true for any leader, except with a digital transformation initiative, the vision is going to radically change an organization’s culture. For instance, when we talk about digital transformation in the K-12 space, it is about changing the way teachers deliver instruction, which is incredibly personal and has been fundamentally unchanged for decades. Asking a teacher who is successful in their classroom to change what it is that makes them successful takes more than simply rolling out a vision statement and telling them, “Here is what we want.”

So what does it take? As a transformational leader, you must spend time defining the “why.”  Too often, leaders believe they are doing so, but in reality, they are simply telling their employees how transformation will occur. Defining “why” is about engaging your stakeholders in a conversation with the simple goal of helping them understand your vision, so you must explain the transformation’s driving factors, including the problems you are solving, and its benefits.  

Set high-level realistic expectations. Let the organization know that transformation is a journey, and one that will take time. Be forthcoming about the risks, which shows your stakeholders that, as the leader, you have thought about all aspects, both good and bad. Finally, acknowledge there will be bumps along the way.

Transformation is never easy, and there will be many course corrections along the journey. By preparing your stakeholders for this upfront, it helps manage expectations and lays the foundation for creating an environment in which people take risks, are willing to fail and most important continue the journey with fidelity when failure occurs.

Read: DA op-ed: The changing role of the CIO (Part 2)

Once the “why” has been established and a solid level of understanding exists among your stakeholders, you can start talking about how you want the transformation to occur. Your goal in defining it should center on building acceptance from your stakeholder group. Keep discussions at a high level, but clearly articulate the key actions that must occur in order for the transformation to happen. For example, in one of my digital transformations, the “how” was simply changing the way instruction was delivered in the classroom. As we began talking about the various elements needed for this to occur, the focus was on marketing, not communicating. Our goal was to build excitement among our stakeholders.

In defining the “how,” you must also talk about collaboration within the organization. This gives your stakeholders a strong sense of the organizational commitment and the interdependencies required for true transformation to occur.

Finally, your initiative must have a brand, which will provide an identity. This is important for engaging various stakeholder groups and creating a sense of involvement. The brand should be directly linked to your “why” definition, and it must be easy and something that will stick. It needs to become the foundation of your elevator speech—something that quickly defines the initiative and the associated transformational qualities. For example, at Houston ISD, the digital transformation initiative was branded as “PowerUp: Transforming Teaching & Learning.” The stakeholder base included staffers, community members and business sectors, and all could clearly define what the brand looked like and what the transformation really was.

In closing, when you embark on transformational change as a leader, you have to embrace the cultural impact and emotional response associated with any initiative. Adoption cannot be forced, and support mechanisms must be in place to assist your stakeholders throughout the journey. Stating that early transformation is a journey and a multiyear endeavor will make everyone more willing to engage and support the vision.  

Ultimately, be patient, supportive and consistent in your messaging, management and actions.

Good luck!

Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administrations chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

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