This has been a busy week in University Place. Two events have shaken this community in recent days and both times I found myself on television as a bystander while events unfolded. The first was a city council meeting where parents and students showed up in large numbers after being convinced that the youth sports program of the city was about to be decimated by revenue shortfalls and looming budget cuts. While it was accurate that the shortfalls will likely mean 25% budget cuts across the board, the cutting of youth sports was not yet in the proposal loop. The political nature of the method used to bring this issue up on the eve of the election was called into question and the final result: two long time council members ousted from their positions and lots of angry residents that no longer trust the council or the city staff. I feel bad for Debbie Klosowski who takes over as Mayor in December. She has a significant amount of repair work to do.
In the following video, look for me on the right side in the first wide angle shot of the audience. My brother Jim behind me and to my right. I’m sitting next to school board member and long time friend, Mary Lu Dickinson.
The second was an incident at my son’s middle school that involved an impostor who pretended to be a military veteran and spent three hours on campus before it was discovered that he actually posed a threat to student safety.
At the board meeting the following night, concerned parents expressed their frustration over the incident. The news crew from KING TV were there again with camera at the ready. Nobody wanted to relive the issue again, but that seems unavoidable for the near future as new information continues to come to light. Since this person was on campus for over three hours, it’s likely they will never have all the details of what was said and to whom.
What this incident does remind us of is the daily challenges we face in maintaining trust after we’ve earned it. In both cases, the people most affected — city council and school administration — had earned trust and respect from years of dedicated accomplishment. Events like this can bring all of that crashing down around you in a few short minutes of either best intentions gone awry or inadvertent complacency. Nobody deserves the lost trust that emerged from both these incidents, but that is the price being paid – at least for the moment.
One conversation I had with a teacher today reminded me of how difficult change is for all of us. Unfettered by accountability or rigorous reinforcement, we typically return to old habits rather than sustaining institutional change. In many ways, both incidents are the result of this aspect of both leadership and followership. For the council, 15 years of spending growth to keep pace with city development kept them from seeing the financial downturn on the horizon. As a result, 4 million in reserve disappeared literally overnight with little planning in place to address this shortfall. For the school district, leading edge procedures and policies were decayed by a close knit community built on an open door policy that is decades old. In a community like this, visitor badges and staff ID seemed unnecessary and even cumbersome. How to change minds and sensibilities?
Kotter and Cohen (2002) bring us the best framework for institutionalizing change. 8 steps that seek not only change, but sustainability — and that’s really what’s at stake here.
Kotter, J. P., & Cohen, D. S. (2002). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.