Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Regime Change

"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy." --John Galsworthy
I had that quote posted in my classroom for years, but I am coming to see from a different perspective from when I first pinned it to my wall—with pins, on an actual wall. Some of the most significant moments in an institution’s history happen when the great big boss of everything changes. Each time I witness it I feel as though I learn everything there is to know about the peaceful transfer of power. Then a few years later I get to learn it all again.

It seems that every school I attended or worked in saw some version of this transition while I was there. Maybe I’m a jinx, or maybe turnover in these positions happens often enough that just about everyone experiences these transitions pretty much the same amount. It’s difficult to know other people’s experience when you’re as self-absorbed as I am.

I can remember when the nun who ran our elementary school was replaced by a different nun. I remember when the principal’s office transformed from an austere, fluorescent-lit cell of a room to one with soft lighting and plants. I remember being terrifically creeped out by the kinder, gentler version. Kids are rarely sent to the principal for a joyful meeting, so being greeted with the friendly warm glow of home in that space was fairly upsetting. Surroundings designed to put one at ease can amplify the sense of dread when so clearly out of place (see also: here).

Stylistic changes like these can provide a holistic picture of regime change, but it takes time to see the more substantive elements that go along. The chair of my college’s music department who started during my sophomore year advised that one should attempt to change nothing in the first year, since just the change in head of operations is almost more than an institution can bear. Even with this very sensible approach, our department chair was subjected to no small amount of grief in retribution for his most significant shortcoming--namely that  he wasn’t anything at all like his predecessor. Twenty-five years later, he’s just retired and someone else is being subjected to the same sort of scrutiny for a corresponding shortcoming.

Even though I've had the same job for over twenty years, I've still continued to be the cause of regime change fairly frequently, as all of my side jobs--including my part-time farming gig, community chorus jobs, and special contracts like department chair and assistant to the auditorium manager--have had predecessors and the expectations that go along with them.

From doing it myself, and having it done to me, I've learned some things that may come in handy:
  1.  There is something the previous guy (whom you hated) did better than the new guy (whom you may actually like). Sometimes the direct inverse will be true as well. Affection for an administrator may be strongly correlated with his/her competence, but it's delusional to think this is going to work out in every case.
  2. No combination of administrators is the same. Each person in leadership brings a specific collection of credits and deficits to the job (see also: here). There will be some flux in the duties while they take budgetary responsibilities away from the guy who never bothers to balance his checkbook. Meanwhile, he will take over planning office parties and organizing the Secret Santa exchange to take up the slack there.
  3. The inevitable resulting chaos is a great opportunity to seize power. If you're not one of those highly ambitious Slackers, you better hope that the folks who rush in to fill the power vacuum are people you can deal with. They're likely to be your unofficial overlords until the next shakeup in the upper ranks.
  4. It can be a great time to ask "Why is it that we still ___________?" We all know the parable of the young bride who cut off the ends of her roast. Sometimes the goofiest policies and traditions in your institution happened to be the pet project of your recently departed boss. Maybe it goes back further than that. There are certain questions that I ask every year anyway, just for maintenance, but at regime changes someone may actually think about the answer. 
  5. Plan for friendships to be affected. With great effort on all sides, this can be minimized, but when one of you can suddenly not only tell the other to knock something off, but now can put a letter in your file if you don't, that's gonna shift the dynamic. When your easygoing friend down the hall suddenly finds herself with power over everyone around you (and you), it may suddenly be weird for you to beat her at tennis or hold her hair after too much tequila.
There's a joke in my Church:
Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Three: One to call the electrician, one to mix the martinis, and one to talk about how much he liked the old light bulb better.

New administrators will always chalk resistance to their ideas up as resistance to change. It is that sometimes. And sometimes it's bad ideas that you've been kind enough to point out before they see the light of day. Figuring out which it is will only determine their future, possibly the future of your friendship as applicable, and the success of your entire organization.

Regime change is not optional, though. It takes time to make administrators, and consequently their careers are typically shorter than ours. Changes at the top often come with great awkwardness, confusion, and frustration. They can also come with exciting growth, renewal, and enormous opportunity for enterprising Slackers. When things are in turmoil, it is important to be leaning the right way so that you tumble in a desirable direction before things inevitably settle out again.


  1. Sure have experienced the worst of regime change... Jury still out on the changes in the changes...

    1. It is tough, isn't it? Best of luck with those changes. It does seem to be that when things are real bad, they also tend to be temporary.