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Managing Change, when change gets personal

Elizabeth Zavala-Acevez, Ph.D.

Associate Vice President for Student Affairs

California State University, Fullerton

After working in Career Services for over 15 years, I stepped into new territory as Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, overseeing a large cluster encompassing several departments with which I had no prior experience. Around this time, the Career Services team I lead pivoted quickly when asked to work remotely. This was feasible due to an established culture of constant innovation, conversations around goals, and a vision of change already established within the department.

Change can be exciting and terrifying, but it is inevitable. Successful leaders anticipate, accept and lead through change quickly and effectively. Often, we teach students about vision boards and career management; sometimes, we fail to do the same for ourselves and our teams. We must create a strategy that equips our teams to embrace change. But how do we do that? During my time leading large teams, I learned a few basic steps helpful to make strides where growth was necessary. As a leader, you must first identify where you want to go, who needs to come, and how you will motivate your team to facilitate the change you desire.

Below are some steps I have taken to lead a team toward change. The changes enabled my team to experience several wins and were facilitated by leveraging key resources, including Move your Bus, Sprint, and Design Thinking:

  • Moving from in-person to hybrid services

  • Scaling services via student ambassadors and career coaches

  • Maximizing reach by extending evening hours for non-traditional college students

  • Shifting staff focus from career counseling to 40% of time spent on employer relations

  • Increasing employer and alumni outreach and incorporating them in Career Services programs

  • Creating a first-generation program “I am First” cohort model for students

  • Embedding DEI into programming, leading to a NACE award-winning training for employers

The top guiding principles we followed when engaged in change management include:

Honoring purpose. As you think about change needed within a team, define the “why” before moving into the “how.” During staff retreats or group planning meetings, remind your team and ask them, “Why do we do this work?” and “Why did you choose to come to work vs. have to come to work?”

Utilizing data. Data helps determine areas in which your team is excelling and areas in need of attention. The Career Center at my institution has deployed a Student Comprehensive Survey for several years. This survey is one of a variety of assessment tools we employ and the results help us lead our planning discussions, craft our strategic plans, initiate “honoring our purpose” conversations and identify the “why” before we move into the “how.”

Understanding culture. It is important to know the team you are leading: what drives them, how they prefer to get information, what excites and motivates them, and what may deter them from embracing change. It has been helpful for me to think about the end message I want to convey, then about the department culture and how to relate a message or change. Often, I envision this as playing a movie in my head and think of some guiding questions to help me prepare:

  • What is the method or modality that would best resonate with this team?

  • Is it better to provide change-related updates piecemeal or all at once?

  • Who will be the folks with the most questions or concerns?

  • What might be their immediate thoughts, questions, reactions or concerns?

  • How can I provide as much information as necessary to alleviate such concerns?

  • Who will embrace the change and help encourage and motivate their peers?

Leveraging frameworks. I’m a proponent of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership Model, measured and validated by the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). Introduced by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, it focuses on the following and blends well with Appreciative Inquiry Models and Design Thinking. The top 5 styles are the following:

  • Model the way. Establish principles, then set an example for others to follow.

  • Enable others to act. Foster collaboration and build spirited teams.

  • Encourage the heart. Celebrate accomplishments.

  • Inspire a shared vision. Create a unique image of the organization’s potential, enlisting others.

  • Challenge the process. Look for innovative ways to improve the organization.

You must teach before you expect. One way we have done this within our Career Services office is by establishing an Innovation Team, a cross functional unit that operates as a think tank or incubator for ideas. The Innovation Team works to bring our Career Services strategic plan and goals into fruition. Its main goal is to innovate, create, test drive or prototype, put an implementation plan in motion, and then teach colleagues the “how to.” Because it’s a cross functional team, it has the power of creating change and innovation because the ideas are coming from many different colleagues, and it showcases the idea of “if I can do it so can you, let me teach you how.”

Buy-In. Holding ourselves and our teams accountable is crucial. When progressing through change, we must solicit feedback. Getting the team to invest in the change and pursue new goals entails including them in such conversations. This is where the “how” takes effect.

How will we meet these goals, innovations, and strategic plans? How will we know we have been successful? What are our checkpoints? Getting individuals to provide input into the “how” gets them invested in the change and can help with accountability to move things forward. You might be asking, how do I get started? Following are some basic steps. My approach is always centered on: listening, learning, assessing, planning, doing, evaluating and prototyping.

  1. Identify some low hanging fruit that can have an immediate impact and immediate gain.

  2. Identify high hanging fruit that may require long term planning, strategy, but that can have long term gains and exponential impact.

  3. Get your team involved and work together to develop a plan, strategy and timeline that creates a clear path of expectations and collective vision of where you all are headed towards.

  4. Remember that change takes time, and it is not easy to create a culture of change. Give yourself some grace in the process.

Dr. Elizabeth Zavala-Acevez currently serves as the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs for California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). She oversees the College Access and Career Pathways cluster that encompasses the following departments: Outreach & Recruitment, Center for Educational Partnerships, Admissions, Financial Aid, Orientation, Center for Internships & Community Engagement, and Career Center. Dr. Zavala-Acevez is a proud Titan, having earned her bachelor's degree from CSUF. As a first-generation college student, went on to pursue her Master's degree in counseling and PhD in Education from the University of La Verne and Claremont Graduate University, respectively. She also holds over fifteen years of experience working in Career Services. In her formal role as the Director of the Career Center at CSUF she provided strategic direction to all facets of the Career Center, was involved with several programming efforts that pertain to CSUF’s retention cluster and served as the lead on career readiness within the university’s Student Success Team structural framework.


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