The Eight Key Stages to Lead a Successful Pathways Initiative

Recently, I delivered a mini-leadership seminar as part of the Florida Career and Adult Pathways Symposium, hosted by the Florida Department of Education.  I really enjoyed talking to education leaders not just about the technical aspects of pathways systems, but the human side of leading change.  Leading change is about leading people; it is a very human-centered enterprise.

As you are taking your school, college, or regional pathways partnership team through the pathways planning and implementation process, you are engaged in the exciting and challenging effort of “leading change.”

One of the best resources ever created is the eight steps for leading change identified by John Kotter of Harvard Business School.[1]  I devoted a complete chapter of The Power and Promise of Pathways to three leadership models, including Kotter’s model, and specifically put the 8-stage change process in the pathways context.

Here is a quick overview of the Eight Stages of Leading Change:

  1. Create Urgency
    The first stage is to establish a sense of urgency that is driving the need for change. Kotter explains that often change efforts fail because the sense of urgency is not clear enough. People need to accept that the urgency is real, that it’s not contrived or manufactured.  Make sure to keep the urgency statement as simple as possible and avoid educational jargon (like project-based learning, experiential learning, metacognitive strategies, etc.) that the average citizen won’t understand.  The diagnosis should be sophisticated, but communication should be simple and straightforward.
  2. Create a Powerful Coalition
    Real change will not happen if just one person, even a person with authority, is calling for it. A powerful coalition makes sure that a wide variety of stakeholders are represented, helping shape the change and also driving it deeper into their respective organizations.
  3. Create a Vision for Change and Key Strategies
    Working with a group of individuals from the guiding coalition, the leader and her colleagues need to articulate as clearly as possible a vision, that is, a statement of what the future will look like. Putting a vision into written form forces a greater degree of clarity, so it can become a shared vision.
  4. Communicate the Vision and Strategy
    Communication that is extensive, multi-layered, targeted to multiple stakeholders, and consistent and ongoing is the “secret sauce” for change.  Kotter observes that communication is the factor in which most organizations fall far short.  He calculates that organizations under-communicate by a factor of ten – meaning they should communicate ten times more than they do!  They need to communicate the urgency, the vision, and the strategies, as well as the short-term wins and the long-range progress.
  5. Remove Obstacles
    Inside an organization, policy and personnel barriers tend to block the desired change. The leader must take action when necessary to clear these blockages.
  6. Create Short-Term Wins
    Within about 18 months of any change process, clear, visible wins need to be experienced by the organization.  These wins need to be measurable and visible. So as a Pathway System is developing direction, you need to identify the kind of impact it will have on student behaviors, student attendance, and employer engagement, all of which will happen more quickly on the front end of the reform, and which can be measured and reported.
  1. Build on the Change
    The next step in the process is to consolidate gains and produce more change. Kotter notes that after there have been some visible changes and some visible wins, there is a human tendency to back off and take a breather.  To fight the tendency to ease up too much, after the initial phase of change, the leader brings the team back together, celebrates the changes that have already happened, but then identifies the remaining gap between the vision (preferred future state) and the current reality.  By focusing once again on the need, the leader can re-engage the change effort to take it to the next phase of the process.
  2. Anchor Change in the Organizational Culture
    Kotter observes that culture is a set of implicit beliefs and expectations and understandings; culture is almost invisible to the people who are inside the culture.  Culture won’t change instantaneously, but over time, as people see results and start to deeply develop new habits, a new culture will emerge.

If you want to go deeper on leadership issues in the pathways context, you can order a copy of The Power and Promise of Pathways here.

You can also get a copy of Leading Change by John Kotter at, as well as other retailers.

Go forth and lead!

Share with us — If you can, please leave a note about your successes or challenges in leading local change efforts, and how your experience relates to the eight states of leading change.

[1] Kotter, J. P., (1996), Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts

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