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Leading Through Change: Persistence and change agents are vital!

By Karen Kuhla (1495 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on May 13, 2014

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No doubt at some point in your career you have heard, "We tried that, and it didn't work." or "We don't need to make any changes."  Change is not easy, in fact, most will resist change.  We get comfortable with the way we do business and change is just that, change.  Change can be difficult.


When I became the head of the Department of Physical Education at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1997, gymnastics was one of the required courses for all plebes (freshmen).  The course had not changed for decades.  One of the aspects I really enjoyed about my job was walking around and watching our courses being taught.  I was a swimmer, not a gymnast, so I never taught that course, something about which I would be reminded on more than one occasion.  Gymnastics was fun to watch.  The cadets would climb vertical and horizontal ropes, tumble, bounce on the trampoline, crawl, vault, and all things one might associate with the sport of gymnastics.  However, there were certain lessons when the men would line up on one side of the gym and the women on the other.  During those lessons, the cadets were split up by gender.  The men engaged in various tumbling exercises, while the women would practice floor routines as well as working on the balance beam.  In gymnastics, the cadets are graded daily, and they have a card that is graded at the conclusion of each lesson.  The cadets line up with card in hand, and when they get to the front of the line, the card is then marked by an instructor.  The cards were different colors, the men's card was green and the women's was not pink, but it was very close to pink.  This bothered me, a lot!


In the Army, this is not done.  When we go to the range for example, the soldiers are not lined up by gender.  They are issued their ammunition and go to a firing point.  When they jump out of planes, the parachutes are all green.  The men and women train together; they are not separated.  What I was observing in the gymnastics course I believed was not the right message to be sent to cadets in their first year of education and training at West Point.  These were future leaders of the U.S. Army, and we were fast approaching the 21st century.  This, I believed, needed to change.  This was all about providing our cadets the very best physical education experience possible.


I knew that I could not dictate change, rather I had to have those who taught the course determine what needed to be changed.  So, I stood up a committee composed of military and civilians, all of whom who had experience teaching gymnastics.  The visiting professor was also a member of the committee. (Each year we had a visiting professor from another institution.)  It was not unusual for the visiting professor to have been former department chair, I always appreciated his advice and counsel. 


The committee had been meeting for about 6 months, and a briefing was scheduled to give me the recommendations of the committee.  The night before the briefing, the visiting professor stopped by my office.  He said, "Maureen, you are not going to hear what you are expecting tomorrow.  The committee recommendation is to not change the course."  I was shocked and angry.  I so appreciated the advance warning, because at the conclusion of the briefing the next day, I was prepared.  I thanked the committee for their time.  After reflection. I knew that I had not handled the process as well as I could have.  Also, I was not going away; the course might not change at that point in time, I needed to be patient.


Leading Through Change: Persistence and change agents are vital! 


About 2 years later, I was in the gymnasium watching gymnastics.  One of the senior, very well respected gymnastics instructors was standing with me when he said, "If this course doesn't change, I can't continue to teach it."  At that moment I knew I had the person who could help me lead the change.  So, I stood up another committee.  However, this time I gave the committee written guidance and spoke to them on the first day they met as a committee.  There were also regularly scheduled in progress reviews (IPRs).  At the very first IPR, there was a lovely chart with the goals and objectives of the gymnastics course.  The individual briefing stated that some committee members didn't think the course needed to be changed.  I told them the course was going to change.


During the evaluation of the course, they tried several different skills.  For example, instead of wearing shorts, t-shirt, and court shoes on the new lessons, the cadets would wear their battle dress uniform (BDUs) along with their kevlar (helmet).  After one such lesson, an instructor said to me, "We've discovered it's harder to climb ropes in boots"  Hmmmm, that seems like a nice piece of information for a soldier to have.  Another comment, "The cadets really seem fired up wearing their BDUs."


The day of the briefing arrived.  The recommendation of the committee was that several changes would be made to the course, to include changing the name to better reflect the course content.  The course is now called Military Movement.


Change is not easy.  As the leader of DPE, I could see that this change needed to be made, while those close to the course could not.  Additionally, the most senior members teaching the course had never served in the military.  While I was determined to see this course changed, I had to wait until I had the right change agent who could lead this effort.  I honestly believe at the end of the day as the committee went through the process, they too recognized the need for the change.


After the first go around with the committee, I could have said, "As much as I want this course to change, it isn't."  Instead, I waited for the circumstances to change so I could try again.  Persistence is key when leading through change.  So, if you have something in your organization that needs to change, find those trusted agents who can help you.  And yes, the color of the cards changed!


{#/pub/images/MaureenLeBoeufHeadShot.jpg}Written by Brigadier General Maureen LeBoeuf, Ed.D. (retired). Maureen spent 28 years in the Army, where she held various staff and leadership positions, as well as flying UH-1 helicopters in the continental United States and Europe. Most noteworthy was her assignment as the Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Education from 1997 until her retirement in 2004. Her position carried the unique title of “Master of the Sword.” She was the first woman department head at the U.S. Military Academy since it was founded in 1802. Upon her retirement, Maureen was advanced to the rank of Brigadier General. Currently Maureen is as a faculty member and on the Board of the Thayer Leader Development Group, as well as the Executive Director of the Feagin Leadership Program at Duke Sports Medicine.



{#/pub/images/kuhlakaren.jpg}Contributed by Karen Kuhla, Ph.D., Executive Director of (TLDG) The Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point.  Karen oversees leadership programs for corporate and non-profit organizations utilizing applied academics with experiential learning. Training is conducted by General Officers and Keynote Speakers grounded in the Army’s leadership philosophy “Be, Know, Do” and situated at the historic Thayer Hotel at West Point. Karen has more than 15 years of corporate training experience leading executive leadership programs for Arthur Andersen, LLP, CDR International, a Mercer-Delta Consulting Company, and GE Healthcare’s consulting group delivering GE’s leadership development systems and Change Acceleration Process training to healthcare executives; in March, 2008, she became Global Program Manager, Leadership Development at GE’s Corporate University, Crotonville.


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