DAILY INSIGHT: Three words to avoid

By Miguel Guhlin, CIO Advisor

"In the past," began my veteran secretary at my new job, "we would...." Of course, I listened attentively. But if you imagine that "In the past" is what we continued doing, well, that would be less than accurate.

When I started a new position in a large urban school district, one of the phrases that people were fond of using was, "In the past." Almost every utterance that meant to forestall change began that way. As if "In the past" would actually have the power to stop impending change.

My new boss, an assistant superintendent put in the position he was in so that he could be forgotten by the district, loathed the phrase. It was a personal affront. If you started a conversation with those words, you had to be prepared for a drawn-out discussion exploring why the past was the past, and why change was necessary. Of course, I picked up on this perspective quickly and helpfully coached my secretary, along with my team, to not use that phrase, even when they meant to say it.

Dan Rockwell (Leadership Freak) says that people cling to the past for one of four reasons. They:

  1. Don’t feel heard. People who consistently bring up past situations are saying, “Please listen to me.”
  2. Need validation. People who don’t feel heard feel put down. Validated people courageously move forward. Everyone else waits for validation.
  3. Fear the future. Even if it’s painful, the certain past is more comfortable than an uncertain future.
  4. They aren’t convinced your plan for the future is actually better.

Rockwell then offers some excellent suggestions well-worth meditating on and applying.

Since that time (more than a decade ago) my secretary started every other utterance with "In the past," I have read Crucial Conversations/ Confrontations, and my perspective on change is significantly different. Now, if it takes six months to bring about a change, I ask myself, "What conversation am I not having that is impeding change?" I have to reflect on what conversations that I'm not having that prevent forward movement because, sad to say, it's easy for me to put my head down and forge ahead without really being aware of those un-said conversations. It's so easy to make unilateral "flash in the pan" decisions.

In Dr. Cook's Blog, he shares this perspective from Todd Whitaker (author of Shifting the Monkey):

Change does not take a long time! People love to say that it takes a long time because they don’t want to work hard. For example, have you ever had an out-of-control class with a marginal teacher (could be a substitute, maternity leave replacement, or even a tenured teacher)? You take another, stronger teacher and put them in that class, and next thing you know it’s a different class? Change doesn’t take a long time, unless you are average. The great teacher that comes in and turns things around does not need to know what happened before. They take ownership of the class, and move forward.

Our notion of teaching is still centered around the one person who controls everything from the front of the room. Maybe we could revise that to read:

The great leader that comes in and turns things around does need to know what happened before. Only, that leader finds a way to share ownership of a future that others can support, then moves forward, enabling others to see what they couldn't before: a future that captures the best of who we and the organization can be when we synergize.

Miguel Guhlin is director of technology for a 5A school district in Texas and past president of the statewide TCEA Technology Education Coordinators group. This blog is cross posted at Around the Corner.