Change Management in The Age of Corona

How accelerating change affects leaders and 5 things that are helping me.

The only constant in life is change"-Heraclitus - Executive Drug ...

I don’t know about you, my gentle readers, but I have sent so many emails in the last few days that open with, ‘I am so sorry to change this meeting time/start date/start time/rule [select relevant option]’ so that I have begun to think I should sign my name, ‘Angie Motshekga’!.

We all know that modern life requires us to be flexible and learn to cope with change, but I think it’s the rate of change that has increased so much since we have entered the Age of Corona (forget Aquarius, this one needs its own title). We need change management techniques on speed, literally and figuratively.

The Effects of the Rapid Rise in the Rate of Change:

1. We need to be more flexible

The acceleration of changing information requires us to be instantly adaptable, with the dexterity of a taxi driver changing lanes. I had occasion to thank a staff member today, our imminently organized high school secretary, who had just been told one thing by her manager, only to have me alter the plan as new decisions were made. Her gracious shrug of ‘No problem,’ was so gratefully received because I didn’t have to placate, console or explain anything. (I would have hugged her if I could.)

Not everyone is that resilient.

Adapt or die may sound pithy when contemplating Darwinian theory, but when faced with the possibility that choices we make may well have life or death consequences, taking time to pause and choose wisely, then adjust your approach when new announcements change our underlying assumptions, takes a new kind of rolling-with-the-punches kind of thinking, which can be exhausting especially for those with a need for tidy, stable structures.

2. Clear, Accurate Information is difficult to Communicate

COVID-19 statistics are changing almost as fast as the numbers on an Eskom electricity meter in winter, and so does the information available, which makes it frustrating when trying to communicate effectively with our parent-clients who are crying out for clarity about so many things, not least of which are dates for the phased re-opening of schools. 

Knowledge is power, so when it keeps changing, so does our confidence in being on top of things. No one likes feeling stupid, and if we are caught napping with ‘I don’t know’ it doesn’t feel good. I have started tacking on ‘at this point,’ ‘according to current information, ’and ‘as far as we know’ to my statements, for plausible deniability.

Unfortunately, scientists are a bit like expert witnesses – you can always get one to back up your opinion. And everyone who has a viewpoint has a scientist to back up their view. We are bombarded with these twin talking heads, each crying fake news at the other and we as educators need to sail a path of sense through it all.

How I have managed to cope with the speed of change

1. Simplicity

I try to distil the myriad of articles, videos and documents into the essential snippets. However, anyone who has ever sat through one of my meetings knows that précis is not my strong point, but the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ technique would be a good one to follow, if I could.

2. Team

I have been blessed in the course of my headships always to have good management teams, with whom to grapple with decisions. There is so much benefit to be derived from collected wisdom, and fortunately what we call the 5 Cs: CCCCC (CCC (School’s name) Command Council – we could have named it the 6 Cs: CCC Covid Command Council, but that would have been a bit much) has been tremendously insightful in unpacking the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP – my new, least favourite acronym) and all the new protocols to be observed when we re-open our schools.

My leadership team has worked tirelessly to transition our school from being a conventional educational institution, to a remote learning school, and… coming to a theatre near you… a hybrid, combining physical lessons and the remote offering for those who can’t or don’t want to send their children back.

Note to all leaders: if your team is strong, you always look good.

3. Empathy

It’s easy to become overwhelmed or irritated with the content overload and perpetually altering circumstances, not to mention having to absorb the anger and anxiety of everyone else like SpongeBob superheroes.

That is when the ability to appreciate another person’s viewpoint enables you to maintain a certain amount of humility and gentleness in your responses, all the better to diffuse antagonistic situations. People are stressed. It helps to visualize what that feels like.

4. Creativity

If ever we needed this 21st century skill, it is now, in this crisis. The trick is ensuring we have fun even in the dark days. The entrepreneur, Sam Cawthorn believes that

Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.’

As a school we have seized on some things we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the change has allowed us to do them.

5. Wisdom

Billy Joel thought that honesty was hard to find; wisdom is even harder and when everyone is looking at you for the oracle moments and quotable quotes, it can be a bit daunting. See #2 above. Thank goodness for teams.

When all else fails in a crisis, my mother’s favourite prayer (and also funnily enough the prayer of addicts) is what keeps me going:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

I am not in any danger of being addicted to change, but I certainly need the serenity of the Mona Lisa (although I sometimes think she was a schoolteacher thinking ‘%^&*& I don’t know what to do with these new-fangled methods – I’ll just smile and perhaps they’ll think I’m on top of it all’) and the guts of a Man United fan at Anfield. (FYI I’d never be a Man U fan.)

Mona Lisa with mask covid19 - wallpaper 1080p | Wallpaperize

But perhaps the Good Lord will grant me the wisdom I so badly need.  If not, see #2 above, repeat…

Raising Civilised Children Part Two: Dinner Time

Self-help texts all agree that family meal times should be sacrosanct. I must concur.

And the tradition starts from when she first spits out (it’s more like ‘allows to ooze out’ actually) that ‘yum-yum-look-what-delicious-butternut-Purity food-Mommy-has-for-you’ and you smile and grind your teeth and try again, all the while chattering like Pollyanna on steroids, when in fact you are so tired from lack of sleep that you don’t care whether she likes butternut – she must eat it already because you want to get this endless day over and OMW you haven’t hung out the laundry yet and now it’s dark and you’d really like a cup of tea but the kettle is out of reach, and eeuh she’s playing with that orange mush and it’s in her hair which is orange anyway so oh  what the hell no one will notice so long as no one comes to visit and looks too closely and sees how inept you are but you’re a thousand kilometres from home so no one is coming and who cares anyway because all you want is sleep

And all the while your toddler chuckles happily about Teacher Di and the painting he did (OMW#2:  another work of art – where will you hang it?!) however, as much as Marina Petropoulos was somewhat disingenuous with her advice about babies automatically opening their mouths when the feeding spoon is held just above their mouths (My cherubs clearly did not read that section the same as I did, because generally feeding them involved forcing that rubber spoon between firmly clamped teeth, which possibly explains why Sean still bites his spoon, much to the annoyance of his siblings. I never did get my pilot licence for cutlery either,) eating all together definitely binds a family.

One of my earliest memories of the children at the supper table is of Caitlin telling Sean he was ‘misgusting’ for shaving off the breadcrumbs to reveal his hake’s nakedness. And so a study of the family’s malapropisms over the years may reveal not only what meal they were eating (and how), but some of their conversations and issues. Sean ate a great deal of ‘boewerors (which Caitlin is known to have choked on);  while Michael was frequently lambasted for bringing the TV ‘merote’ to the table (a habit started to prevent his having to surrender control of all things electronic – even then). Liam, in typical fifth-child-underdog mode, wailed once that he was not ‘being a girl’ (We won’t get into the sexist nature of that taunt by his brothers.) by insisting that he has ‘intestines.’  We also realised one evening that for years Michael believed one could in fact purchase a poetic licence (which perhaps proves his slightly word-sluttish early writing habits) and we knew to leave Shannon alone when she was (and is) ‘prumpy.’

Seriously though, the idea of sharing what happened in each person’s day is a really good one. My lambs sigh and raise their eyes to God in the long-suffering manner of teenagers everywhere when I get the ball rolling with the profound conversational opening gambit of, “so, Sean…what was the best thing about your day?’ We also speak about the worst and even the funniest moment of each person’s time at school and while poor Andrew, who is an introvert and an only child, who grew up with boarding school humour and dinnertime jibes, cringes and tells us, ‘This question is the worst part of my day,’  we really do pick up on stuff that is bothering one another. We realised Liam was being bullied in primary school; sneaky mom that I am, I can always tell when there is a crush happening because that person’s name comes up a greater percentage of time; and the act of characterising feelings is both good for articulating thoughts and emotions, as well as exploring profundity.

Sometimes it’s just loud. Our present eating area is small and so the din batters our ears as it reverberates off walls and window, especially when the topic of whose turn it is to do dishes arises. Visitors fall into two categories: those who stare in bemused fascination/horror and those who plunge right into the fray.

When they (okay ‘we’) are not shouting though, our mealtimes are an enlightening opportunity to encourage original thought as there is often fierce debate, egged on by Andrew’s terrible Devil’s Advocate stirring of the proverbial pot (no pun intended). It’s a perfect time to point out stereotyped views and challenge  the prejudices they encounter when they are away from us. We can extrapolate values from real events and, because we are around a table, we are all teachers. One interesting social norm that Andrew challenged once was in fact about hierarchy when someone insisted he sit at the ‘head’ of the table wherupon he humbly took a place in the middle.

It’s not always stylised dialogue however. We have been treated to endless Grade 4 jokes (seven times), random musings such as Lizzy declaring Goth-like with her hair covering her face, that she misses her guitar, bizarre utterances from Shannon of the mother-ship variety and the constant chidings from embarrassed teens not to comment on their friends’ Facebook walls and other such parental behaviour I have perpetrated which constitutes attacks on their social standing, as well as how generally ‘uncool’ I am. Sometimes they merely smile indulgently and mimic Brandon Berg’s ‘Housewives of Constantia Hills’ character who speaks in a superciliously whiney  tone  that is nothing like me; I swear, Trish. Besides, I think there is nothing wrong with keeping a tissue in one’s sleeve!

Load shedding hasn’t spoilt this family time for us because thanks to a pair of Carrol Boyes candlesticks (a gift for my fiftieth birthday and probably more valuable than the table itself) and Shannon’s unshackled pyromania, we still have light for the occasion (Table View being so beloved by Eskom that we are always off at 18:00.)

Fussy eaters abound, from Mika, who only eats meat and bananas, to Liam who sometimes has food with his tomato sauce. Apparently Shannon dislikes chicken (according to her friend’s father) and Michael is the king of rearranging stew on a plate to not only make it appear that he has eaten something, but to destroy any likelihood of its being able to be put back in the bowl, let alone be recognized as edible ever again. But one should be grateful that he has graduated from flicking baked beans onto the top cupboard when I wasn’t looking or hiding chicken pieces (What is it with the poor fowl?!) in the pot plant. Lizzy is gluten intolerant and Sean hates mayonnaise.  No one really likes salad except Andrew, but he only eats the lettuce. The Labrador, however, although she shouldn’t because she is diabetic, eats anything – from her quiet place under the dining room table.

No one would mistake us for the uber-wholesome Waltons, that is for sure. Our Sean-Boy, at twenty-two, now believes he is above the no-cellular-device-at-the-table rule, while Caitlin has usurped my role in the kitchen (amidst clamorous protest from me naturally!) She always did play Officer of the Deck to my Captain when she was little, repeating my calls to the others to ‘come to the table;’ ‘go and bath;’ or ‘make their beds’ Now she corrects their manners, frowns at me and makes better meals than me. (But don’t tell her I said that.) The squabbling abounds, despite her best intentions and my reminding her I am in fact present to correct poor etiquette. Besides washing-up injustice, the urchins complain about their siblings tickling their feet from underneath the table; making slurping sounds or scraping their utensils on their plates or against their teeth (There is a phobia about such things, called misophonia I believe- we have a few such phobics). They moan about their neighbour ‘flying’ with her elbows and others not listening to their story. I aim to referee the melee, but at times I am as effective as John McEnroe’s Wimbledon line judges.

‘Can we have some decorum,’ I pleaded one night.

‘What is ‘decorum?’ enquired a wit.

I gave up, depressed at the standard of private schooling and my family’s vocabulary.

But seriously, shared family meals are a must. If you have the intestines for the broil.

Bon appetit.

picture from janeaustensworld.wordpress.com