Colleges are under intense pressure to transform themselves in an environment best described by the words “change or die.” However, while many leaders have interest in fostering change, it is not always clear about what to implement and how to sustain it in the long-term. The key is shifting the organizational culture to operate differently than it has in the past.

Indeed, changing demographics, advancing technology, increased demand for accountability, funding constraints, and frame-breaking competitors together create an environment in which transformation of colleges and university is an ongoing imperative. Stakeholders have accentuated the transformation imperative through simultaneously contradictory demands for greater and better service, and a more efficient use of resources. Knowingly or unknowingly, higher education is being asked to do more and do it better with less.

Organizational culture—once an umbrella for leaders and staff working toward shared goals of access and growth breaks down into micro cultures pulled in different directions by competing demands. Despite the altered context, the general operation of U.S. colleges – with the exception of online delivery – remains relatively similar to that of institutions functioning 40 years ago (or more) thanks to the remarkable organizational inertia found in our academic culture. Leaders, who in earlier times took only a passive interest in culture, now find it a formidable barrier to change as staff dig in and cling to the established ways of doing things. Culture is not more resistant to change today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Rather colleges are pursuing change in an increasingly complex environment with currents and countercurrents that leave little room for error.

Whether it be fundamental changes to advance the student success agenda, responding to workforce demands, or addressing community needs, many colleges are faced with the reality of transforming from quiet, accessible community assets to more prominent anchor institutions that drive economic and community development in their service areas. Healthy cultures are central to decision making that makes transformation possible and must be better understood in this era of fundamental change.

Five Phases of Change:

Given the crucial relationship between culture and organizational change, conceptualizing a process and related levers to change that culture is critical. The process of a changing culture can be broken into five phases that can apply at the organizational, divisional, or departmental level. The time for each phase can vary from six months to two years depending on the scope, context, readiness, personalities involved, and other characteristics of the dominant culture at the initiation stage. This means the process can be as short as two and a half years, for a department, or as long as ten years or more, at the institutional level. Every culture is different and changes at different speeds, which makes it difficult to clearly identify the timeframes for each change at each level. The five phases include:

Phase 1: Surface the culture to understand the history and texture of the organization. An organization’s culture often exists below the surface and can be difficult to understand, especially for those who are outside of the organization. Leaders need to take time to uncover the culture by establishing strong relationships and listening intently with patience. Not only will you begin to learn the culture, it can help to build trust with members of the culture. Absent an immediate crisis that requires quick resolution, suppress the urge to make a big splash by keeping the long-view in mind. The existing culture has evolved over decades – shocking the system too early may do more harm than good.

Phase 2: Touch the culture by introducing low risk/high impact solutions to old problems. Taking calculated risks in this phase can set the stage for future moves. Often this involves refining roles, responsibilities, systems, and structures that will serve as a foundation for the next phase. This is an opportunity to increase transparency and model new behaviors for the organization as well as to strengthen trust within the culture

Phase 3: Move the culture by accelerating efforts in higher risk/broader-scale efforts.  These efforts should be informed by feedback from Phase 2 activities. Develop and support leaders at all levels by encouraging new thinking and risk taking toward aggressive and clear goals that speak to the heart of the organization.

Phase 4: Measure progress for the culture by highlighting tangible and meaningful results to inspire further success. This will likely be new for the culture and require effective communications to reinforce the use of data is for improvement not punishment. Once the safe use of data is established, conversations move from opinion-led to data-driven.

Phase 5: Establish and nurture momentum as the new dominant culture takes hold. Managing momentum requires a strong focus on recognition, continued training and development, and ongoing strategic thinking to anticipate and identify the next horizon for evolving the culture.

Levers for Successful Change:

Four major levers are the keys to successfully navigating the five phases for changing culture and sustaining it over time. Each lever encapsulates a different set of strategies which are required to fully develop and maximize the successful impact on the changed culture.

  1. Leadership and Trust – Strength-based and emotionally-intelligent leaders at all levels build trust in an organization. Relationships sustain us as humans and consequently shape organizational culture over time. Like any living organism, if leaders represent a threat to the existing culture, they will be rejected to preserve the life of the culture –trust is the magical elixir for fostering change.
  2. Employee Engagement – Trusted leaders create conditions to expand employee engagement in both the core and stretch work of the college. When people trust leaders, and are invited to bring their own experiences and passions to the decision-making table, they are increasingly engaged and apply their best time, talent, and energy for the success of the organization.
  3. Inquiry and Evidence– Successful change is driven by data-informed decision making and is surrounded by a culture of self-accountability. In an environment of trust, more engaged employees will be receptive to useful data that create a virtuous cycle of improvement by increasing inquiry activity and the demand for evidence in decision making. The key is to make it safe for people to examine data and to have the necessary infrastructure to support a robust system of reliable, accurate, and meaningful information.
  4. Anticipation – With more data and increased used of evidence-based decision making, benchmarking and ongoing external scanning become a part of the routine process and the college begins to anticipate (rather than react to) changes in the external environment.


Whether needing to turnaround a dysfunctional culture or to stretch an already high-performing culture, leaders can focus on these four levers to guide activity and continuously nurture and tend to the deliberate work of evolving the culture.

Organizational culture is such a dominant force condition in organizations that it demands consistent attention and very intentional actions by any leader needing to make change happen. If culture is left to its own evolution, or is not given proper respect and attention, leaders can fight the wrong battles on the wrong issues in the wrong way, and die on the wrong hill. Without a thoughtful strategy for understanding and shaping culture, the efforts of even the best-intentioned leader will be severely limited through the daily grind of cultural inertia, and ongoing tension and disengagement. As leaders, organization culture warrants our focused attention and most certainly when trying to change. The consequences are too high and the future too complex not to give it our all and pursue the remarkable rewards the come from healthy, vibrant, and high-performing organizational cultures.

*The post contains excerpts and adapted concepts from the book, “Competing on Culture: Driving Change in Community Colleges” published by Rowan & Littlefield in partnership with the Association of Community College Trustees.


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