Change is rarely easy. And systemic change within the largest and most complex higher education system in the United States—the 113 California Community Colleges, which I help lead—is no exception. Succeeding requires motivating multiple, sometimes disparate groups under a unifying framework for action. In our case, it meant galvanizing business, organized labor, social justice advocates, and educators to move a common agenda. Our efforts to increase social mobility and economic competitiveness for our students and communities led to a significant reinvestment in the career technical education mission of the California Community Colleges, and the resulting cross-sector collaboration offers insight into five successful change management strategies.

The United States faces not only a significant income inequality gap, but also a social mobility challenge. Children born into families at the 90th income percentile or higher have approximately a 200 percent higher expected income than children raised in families in the 10th percentile or lower. And children born into bottom fifth income quintile have less than a 10 percent chance of entering the top quintile.

Meanwhile, by 2020, approximately 65 percent of jobs of US job openings will require some level of college or more. Here in California, there is a gap in middle skills—occupations that need more than a high school degree but less than a bachelor’s degree, and pervade industries such as health care, biotech, energy efficiency, advanced transportation, advanced manufacturing, information and communications technology, and agriculture. To fill this gap, the state will require a million more workers with industry-valued credentials, certificates, and associates degrees than our colleges are prepared to produce—a challenge made more all the more difficult due to a 12-year decline in career technical education (CTE) in California’s community colleges.

Tasked with charting a path to restore CTE across the state’s community colleges, I identified successful change strategies I used in my previous work at PG&E,—a 20,000-person gas and electric utility company—and decided to adapt some of those techniques for my work in the public sector. Here is a look at some of those strategies and their results. It is my belief that these strategies can apply to a wide variety of initiatives that involve collective action.

1. Look for people willing to swim at the edges of their lanes and think beyond their own self-interests.

We sought out individuals—those within our community colleges and those in outside organizations—who could think beyond their own self-interests, and who cared more broadly about the community college system and the success of our students in the workforce. This was necessary to find common ground and avoid having discussions that would only reinforce existing silos. Our partners were diverse and included the California Chamber of Commerce, California Hospital Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Young Invincibles, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and National Electrical Contractors Association, Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers, as well as educators.

2. Create a unifying framework so that you can row together.

Through the engagement of well-regarded career technical education leaders among our colleges, we co-developed a framework for collective action entitled, “Doing What Matters for Jobs and the Economy,” which refocused monies, metrics, and data on career technical education in industry sectors that drive California’s regional economies. This gave our work and the efforts of our collective partners a common identity, which, in turn, made it easier for us to coalesce on the mission and for everyone to understand. Within a year’s time, employers began to experience a more responsive community college system with relevant career technical education programs.

3. Set the table in a circle. Then, grow the rings.

As the momentum and dollars-at-stake grew, we needed to grow the table so that others could weigh in. Through a series of regional meetings with administrators, faculty, and external stakeholders, we collected ideas on how to close the skilled worker gap. We then surfaced those ideas to the Strong Workforce Task Force, a committee of internal and external stakeholders commissioned by our board of governors that was charged with recommending policies and practices for how community colleges can deliver on one million more skilled workers. When the task force issued its 25 recommendations, constituents across the state were pleasantly surprised to see that their ideas were included. This created a sense of ownership and accountability across a dispersed system, plus motivation to undertake the significant change.

4. Like with sports, preparation matters. When the game starts, trust that your training will pay off.

Half the task force members came from outside community colleges. Historically, it has been easy to discredit external stakeholders when their comments lack understanding of the existing system. To avoid that situation, we choreographed 14 regional conversations, six town halls, six white papers, multiple site visits, expert panels, and a highly transparent public vetting period. The process involved more than 1,300 participants. In the end, all task force members came to meetings prepared to take on the issues and develop recommendations, and the board of governors unanimously adopted their collective policy recommendations.

5. Intentionally create air cover—give those willing to change someone to blame.

When it came time to implement these policies, the Chancellor’s Office—the state agency overseeing the career technical education mission of the 113 community colleges—provided air cover to help field practitioners implement the requested change. We took the hits to make it easier for those in the field to focus on placing students in jobs.

As a result of our efforts, the career technical education mission of the California Community Colleges is no longer relegated to the periphery. Instead, it is at the forefront of state public policy, and reinforced by internal and external stakeholders who care. The budget for my division has grown from the $100 million when we began five years ago to $900 million today. The ecosystem created by cross-sector collaboration positions our community colleges to develop California’s skilled workforce in ways that furthers social mobility and fuels economic competitiveness for the state.

This is what a tipping point feels like, when all the hard work over the last few years culminates in collaboration among stakeholders to change a system for the better. Applying these change management strategies can help create a turnaround in virtually any sector, including health care organizations and nonprofits. Systemic change is not easy, but with the right approach it’s possible, and the results are worth it.

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