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About a decade ago I took up a new hobby: outrigger canoeing on the Pacific ocean. I remember vividly the first time I was out on the open ocean in a six-person canoe and a big wave started heading towards the boat – there was a giant wall of water coming straight for us and I froze. I was too terrified to keep paddling, until the person sitting behind me in the canoe gave me some sage advice, He said, “we’re committed to this now...there’s no other way than to keep paddling.” Since that day, whenever a large task looms up ahead in the distance I remind myself that I’m committed and I just have to keep moving. This lesson served me particularly well as my team faced the reality last March that we would have to pivot 1200 faculty from teaching face-to-face to teaching online with 48 hours’ notice. To add to the complexity of the situation, we were in the middle of a shift in our Learning Management System (LMS) and would have to support faculty on two separate platforms. We shortly decided to abandon our current LMS and move all courses to our new platform, which significantly accelerated our need to finish the system integration and deliver training to all faculty. So what to do when faced with these daunting challenges? Below I share the five lessons I learned from the changes brought by COVID, in hopes that they may help you and your organization when you have a tsunami of change coming your way.
Team First: My lessons from canoeing reminded me that everyone in the boat needed to be paddling in sync in order to navigate rough waters. To do so, we set up a homebase for our team in a suite of campus rooms with numerous computer workstations and worked 14 hours each day to help the faculty. During that time we ate together, worked together, and strategized how to address of-the-moment problems. I started each morning with a team huddle to address difficulties and celebrate successes and set the action plans in motion.
Cultivate Champions: As we faced difficult decision points in supporting our faculty in this teaching transition, I knew I needed strong faculty partners to amplify the credibility of our plans. I enlisted our Faculty Senate president and secretary, and leveraged an Advisory Board with faculty representatives from each academic division. These folks were a critical communication pipeline to share important updates and also kept me informed of problems that brewed among their colleagues.
Be Ready to Take the Stage: Throughout this process I found myself repeatedly invited to meetings to share our plan for supporting online learning, and in that I realized that I had to be ready at any moment to take the stage. Though I like time to prepare and polish my presentations, I realized that I did not have that luxury. I quickly developed a set of talking points that I could rattle off easily, and also shared these points with my team members so we gave consistent messages to the campus.
Speak from Experience: Though I have an administrative role on our campus, I also teach. So as our faculty struggled with the overload that came from having to teach in an entirely new way and having to overcome significant technical hurdles to do so, I learned that if I spoke from my own struggles as a professor, it built trust with the faculty. Doing so deflected complaints and allowed me to be tranparent about hurdles, complexities, problems, and mistakes that we made along the way.
Remember Why: Keeping in mind why we were working so hard to implement and support these technology changes helped to keep us grounded during particularly difficult times. I curated a handful of stories of faculty who had remarkable teaching experiences and shared these successes often to encourage others. Foremost, I reminded the faculty that their efforts to communicate clearly and frequently with their students were more important than any bells and whistles in the LMS, and not to overdo the technology in lieu of connecting with their students.
Finally, I will share that facing that big wave in the canoe that I mentioned at the beginning of this article turned out to be the moment that hooked me on outrigger paddling. From that I learned that it is when facing big challenges I feel truly engaged and alive. Similarly, when navigating big hurdles at work I have felt invigorated, even when it is difficult, tiring, or the finish line feels too far away. I believe that it is our role as leaders to keep ourselves and our teams engaged through the toughest of times and I hope my ideas will inspire you to do so in your own roles.