Preparing the Ground (or Risking Failure)

Vol. 11 No. 7


As the first signs of Spring appear in many parts of the country, thoughts turn to the reawakening Earth, planting of fields and flowers, and all things that speak to growth. With this as our theme, we want to share with you a story—based on true events, as they say—that sheds some light on the need to “prepare the ground” when launching any significant change event.

The Back Story

Sam, a mid-level administrator at a private school, is preparing to submit an exciting new proposal that, if accepted, could transform a significant aspect of the school’s operations. Let us examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of Sam’s efforts.

The Good

Sam’s idea represents the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears to understand and serve the needs of the school. The project will provide the school with a platform for growth and give the faculty a platform for collaboration. It would push an already strong school into the vanguard of school innovation in many ways.

The Bad

The success of the initiative depends heavily on a partnership with several groups inside and outside the school. However, Sam’s school has a negative history with partnerships stretching back several decades. This includes a recent disappointment with a once-promising but now underperforming major partnership—one that Sam had introduced to the school and pushed hard for.

The Ugly

Sam has a very difficult history with Maury, a fellow administrator. Between the two, there is considerable personal and professional animosity, with each suspicious of the other’s abilities and motives. Sam’s proposal would force Maury to make substantial changes in how his department operates (his department being central to the new venture) and would require close, ongoing coordination between Sam and Maury.

Moving Forward Before Bringing Others Along

Sam’s heart is deeply committed to the school and its mission. In this case, though, he may have leaped forward before plowing the ground in a way that would enable his success. Here are three examples from this situation.

  • Not getting out ahead of objections—While Sam talked with other members of the leadership team as his concept developed, it was more from a “wouldn’t this be exciting?” rah-rah perspective, rather than an “I know you have concerns—how can I help address them?” framework, feeling that the (to him “obvious”) merits of the project should outweigh any minor trepidations of the group.
  • Relying on rhetoric over preparation—Sam’s considerable rhetorical gifts give him ability to win over an audience. However, even the most inspiring rhetoric can’t always overcome such negative history without considerable advance “ground preparation” to increase the leadership team’s comfort with the proposal.
  • Animosity over collaboration—Sam’s antipathy toward Maury has led him to avoid building any relationship bridges leading to the proposal. He hasn’t approached Maury and said anything like, “This project is too important for us to let personal feelings get in the way. This can be a great thing for everyone involved. Can  we work together for the good of the school?”

In candid discussion, Sam acknowledges several weaknesses and blind spots that have kept him from having the conversations that would have better prepared the fields for him. Our challenge as leaders is remembering to do the patient, unheralded, but vital yeoman’s work that is needed to prepare the ground for success. Without it, much of our good work may go for naught; with it, a bountiful crop may bloom.

Additional ISM resources of interest
ISM's Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 10 No. 6 What Jeremy Lin Can Teach Us About Leadership
ISM's Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 11 No. 6 Examples, Examples, Examples
ISM's Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 11 No. 6 Rebuilding Working Relationships

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members
I&P Vol. 33 No. 4 ISM's Standards for Professional Growth and Renewal

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