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Business Officer Magazine
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A Change Manager’s Wise Counsel

Incremental improvements, a five-point plan, and a thick skin helped Norean Sharpe turn around Georgetown’s undergraduate school of business. In her keynote at the recent WAHE Conference, which focused on achieving transformational change, Sharpe shared effective strategies for “getting change right.”

By Carole Schweitzer

The way Norean Sharpe explains it, "I came into a vacuum, filling a position that had been open for six months. I had lots of marching orders, but one priority was to reverse the dropping ranking of Georgetown's McDonough School of Business." Sharpe, the business school's senior associate dean, was a keynote at the fourth annual conference of Women Administrators in Higher Education (WAHE), in mid-September. She was one of several presenters who shared experiences related to the conference theme, "Transitions: Staying Afloat in a Sea of Change."  

Not Everyone Is Accustomed to Change

"Change management is a lot like crisis management," noted Sharpe. "We don't always plan on change—or even expect it. But we need to prepare for it and let it lead us to new approaches." That's easier said than done, admits Sharpe, who arrived at Georgetown in 2009 tasked with making significant procedural and programmatic changes to the business school. "As our competitive landscape shifts both domestically and internationally," explained Sharpe, "we are confronted with the reality that we cannot rest on our past accomplishments."

Sharpe said that she'd come to Georgetown from Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts, "where we were taught to embrace change; the college was no stranger to such initiatives." Sharpe herself had undertaken curriculum revisions that eventually survived four presidents. The revisions resulted in several faculty members being "counseled out" of tenured positions. At Georgetown, "I thought everyone knew we needed to change," she said. "But that's like thinking that everyone likes the dentist!"

Instead, change came with difficulty, said Sharpe. Not only did she need to overcome pushback from staff, but she ended up taking some risks and refocusing her work to include collaboration, communication, and consensus-building.

Take Five

Sharpe's experience at Georgetown has led her to understand and embrace five elements of change.

  • Expect resistance. "I saw change as an opportunity," said Sharpe, "and I was shocked when I got such resistance. So, you must prepare for that kind of behavior. It's not necessarily about you, but it is simply a fact of life that it's extremely hard to change—especially for staff."
  • Manage upward. Before you begin to enact any kind of upgrade or revision, gain the support of your supervisors and confirm that they will back you up. "By bringing in the boss—and his or her supervisor—you show solidarity." And what about going over your boss's head? "As long as you talk about positive change," said Sharpe, "it's clear that you are interacting in your professional position-and not critiquing in any way your supervisor." In developing a new major in the business school—a joint computer science and operations degree—Sharpe had to work across several schools at Georgetown, an activity that could be quite a sensitive undertaking. "The key word is 'pilot,'" advised Sharpe. "You can usually get approval for something that is thought to exist for only a year or two. After that, people will have forgotten about it, and you've got your program in place!"
  • Manage downward. Don't forget your staff, reminded Sharpe. "Encourage them, empathize with their concerns, and give them autonomy over certain projects. Put your faith and trust in them and be transparent about your high expectations through constant communication. If they come through and do the work, be sure to reward them."
  • Manage sideways. Don't hesitate to put together a network of colleagues—deans of other schools, for example—and build bridges that create opportunities for others to contribute, advised Sharpe. "And be sure to ask questions; don't assume that you know all the answers or that you are showing weakness by admitting ignorance." Sharpe explained that she made appointments with the provost, set up lunches with faculty and department chairs, sought out members of the board of trustees, and queried groups of students—all in an attempt to gather information to inform her decision making. "I pushed to be part of the board meetings," said Sharpe," and now I am on the agenda every time. This is especially important for budgets and fundraising."
  • Take risks. For women this can sometimes be the hardest, said Sharpe. "We generally are risk-neutral or risk-averse. Being a successful change manager includes breaking new ground. This kind of leadership is not for the faint of heart. But, if you don't already have thick skin, you'll end up growing it."

Don't Wait for the Stars to Align

"I'm a big fan of incremental improvement," said Sharpe. "You needn't wait until all the details of your plan are totally outlined. Instead, launch one of those nonthreatening pilot programs." Then, she said, monitor effectiveness and share results with others—particularly with donors, if appropriate, since they will want to know every detail.

 In the end, it's about innovating, exploring, and experimentation, explained Sharpe. And, that's what she's been doing at the McDonough School, where applications have broken previous records, an optional freshman seminar became so popular in its first year that the school now runs five sections of the session and has 80 students on the wait list, and new exchange programs are taking hold. Next up: a new office of international programs.

 "How do you do it all?" asked someone in the audience. "Triage," said Sharpe. "Keep the office moving, through delegating as much as possible; write a strategic plan; select priorities wisely—and make good use of summer months when students are out of town."

 CAROLE SCHWEITZER, senior editor, Business Officer, 202.861.2566