The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nickii Messer

Driving change and getting staff on board

One of the most certain things in schools is that nothing remains certain for long! Ensure you are communicating change clearly and effectively.

Change happens all the time, and business managers and leaders constantly have to manage not only the change, but the people who are (or think they will be!) impacted by the change.

Back in 2007, 'The Baseline Study of School Business Managers' described how ‘school business managers are working in a turbulent environment characterised by constant change.’ 

Eight years later, the NASBM Professional Standards (2015) unsurprisingly included Change Catalyst as one of the six behaviours SBMs need to demonstrate.

The NASBM Professional Standards suggests that SBMs working at higher levels of Change Catalyst are able to ‘drive a culture that supports continuous improvement and innovation’, and that all staff within the business management team should be ‘open to new ideas and embrace change’.

For me, these two descriptions are the key to the success of leading change.

The wise SBM will consistently communicate the school’s aims and vision to their colleagues, and make pupil well-being and achievement part of their everyday language. They will articulate the expectation that everyone is open to new ideas and change, in order to ensure ‘continuous improvement and innovation’.

Of course this takes time but, most of all, it takes commitment.

Keeping staff on board, however, will pay dividends whenever change becomes necessary. 

Why do people resist change?

Change inevitably creates strong emotional responses, such as fear.

We are hard wired to hold on to what we know works, even if it doesn’t work very well. We resist the new, the uncertain and cling on to the familiar, the safe, the known. 

Understanding that people will naturally and inherently resist change warns us to be ready and sensitive, to limit and manage these emotional responses. 

This will require careful communication at all stages.

What are we changing from?

When we think of communicating change, we often think of what is going to change.

What we need to communicate first, however, is what or where we are changing from.

As with any journey, if you are unsure where you are starting from, it is impossible to navigate successfully to where you need to go.

Providing this important information to people involved in the change will also help you explain the rationale for change.

Who is involved?

You need to know who is likely to be involved in the change, and who will be impacted by it. 

Then decide which of these ‘change stakeholders’ need information and which need communication. There is a significant difference here.

On the one hand, those who are not directly involved probably only need to be told about the change. Those people more closely involved will need you to invest in communication. 

Communication involves explaining and listening. Listening involves understanding what people are actually saying, taking on board their concerns, fears, determining what they need from you.

When colleagues feel they have your ear, they are more likely to trust you, and take ownership of the change.

Enlist the support of a ‘change advocate’, a member of staff already on board with the change, and who can help communicate positively with colleagues.

Planning strategically, with an eye on change and improvement, can make the difference between 'firefighting' and 'trailblazing'.

NASBM trustee Matthew Clements-Wheeler explains how you can take ownership of strategic planning in this downloadable webinar

Why are we changing?

Psychologist and management coach John M Fisher explained that ‘we all go through a series of set, defined stages whilst in the process of changing.’ How we move through these stages depends on various factors ‘such as ownership and control’. 

To feel ‘ownership and control’, colleagues need primarily to understand why change is necessary.

It may be due to external forces such as policy, legislation, Ofsted. Or internally driven, such as requirement for a more robust management information system.

Be honest, clear and, whenever possible, make it aspirational, even exciting.

At the very least, make colleagues feel the change is worth the effort.

What will the change look like?

It is important to be clear about what the change will look like. Of course, nothing in life is absolutely certain, and the change itself might change.

However, getting staff on board is always going to be simpler the more certain they are of what is involved. So be prepared to communicate this to staff in a way that everyone can understand.


Once change has been completed, invest time in reviewing how well it went.

  • What is better now? 
  • How well did it all go? 
  • What lessons have been learnt? 

Spend time with colleagues most impacted and work on a 'What went well...', 'Even better if...' basis, starting with the successes first. 

Communication is a key inter-personal skill for all managers and leaders, and being able to communicate well will help alleviate the worries and concerns that colleagues have when change becomes necessary.

When done well, communication can even engender a sense of appetite and excitement for change that otherwise might be resisted and rejected.

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