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Making Change Stick: Cincinnati’s Michelle Clark Heard

By Michelle Clark Heard, Cincinnati; Marc Prine, MIP

It seems to happen so effortlessly. We learn about the program that suddenly goes from the basement of the standings one season to be the belle of the ball the next. The new athletic directors that comes into a school and turns around the entire culture. The coach who comes out of nowhere and turns a rag-tag group into champions.


While it seems as though the news is full of these overnight turnarounds, it’s often difficult for us to translate someone else’s success into a tangible blueprint for usage in our own organizations. I’m certain you can think of one or two small adjustments you would love to make to your own team or department, but haven’t been able to. Why have things fallen flat? Where have you had a great idea that you cannot get others to rally around?


That’s where change management comes into play. A strategic, purposeful, and systematic way to alter the course of your organization’s future. Shots in the dark rarely hit a target, so for us to have a chance at success, we have to shine light on what the future looks like and guide our teams toward the goal… even if it requires a little hand holding along the way.


1. Define the change:


Change does not happen by mistake. All too often we think of some type of revolution that takes place and alters the course of history. Stop for a second and consider the changes you have experienced – were they the result of revolution or evolution? Incremental growth is how the majority of changes happen – and it does not happen by mistake. The moon-shot type change will get people talking but the consciously planned initiative will actually change behavior and the course of history.


This is why you have to start with specifically defining a case for change. It may sound sterile but if you don’t have one, it’s like not having a game plan. This is the most important piece of making change stick!


Why isn’t the current state sustainable? Who will this change impact the most? How will the new way of doing things achieve our overall goals? These are just some of the questions you need to develop answers to before starting to embark on your transformation.


Whether publicly or to themselves, every person within your organization will be asking the same thing: “What’s in it for me?”. Having an answer to this question will show your team that your vision is not half-baked.


As you are defining the change, think about the person (or people) who will have the biggest problem with the transformation. Whether you call them resistors, roadblocks, or knuckle-heads, they can derail everything you are working towards by being loud and obnoxious opponents. Bring them into the fold early, but don’t show them too much behind the curtain. Point out the areas you are looking to improve and ask for their opinion.


In the perfect world, how would they improve the current state? How would they go about achieving your goals? By getting their input and factoring some of their ideas into the roll-out plan, you can give them a sense of ownership. It is hard for somebody to speak out against their own ideas!


When I took over as head coach at Cincinnati, I felt as though what I had accomplished previously at Western Kentucky was translatable to Cincy. I also understood that if I attempted to flip the culture of the team overnight, I would lose everyone in the process and it would require a total rebuild. All the championships in the world don’t give you the credibility to radically change someone else’s life without building trust and credibility with them first.


Instead, I met with the team and acted as if it was business as usual for the most part, only in each new meeting I would carefully bring up an issue and to see how the players responded, carefully observing their body language and the tonality of their responses. I questioned them about their dress code when they traveled and during practice, that they needed to sit in the first row of class and be at every meeting 10 minutes early. Not surprisingly, with each suggestion came push back and questions of their own: “Why make these changes, why does the way we dress or if we show up somewhere early matter?”


I explained to them that when you look good and feel good, that effects how you present yourself, and subsequently how you perform. I told them that when everyone on the team looked different, it meant we weren’t unified. If we weren’t on the same page on how we should dress and carry ourselves off the court, how could we ever hope to execute on it?


And then I presented them with a simple choice – They didn’t have to change, it wasn’t a requirement. They could have their individuality, and remain as they were. There would be no hard feelings.  But if they wanted to win, and win big, there had to be unity, not individuality. If they wanted to go the places I had been before, then they had to buy in all the way.


When phrased that way, it wasn’t really that hard of a decision for them to make. But I knew it would take more than the promise of glory to prove it to them; they wouldn’t buy-in in full unless they saw the results for themselves.


2. Drive the Change 


Once you have properly scoped and planned out the change, it’s time to make the rubber hit the road and get things moving. While you were defining the change, things can seem blue-sky and as if there is a smooth transition in your future.


While things rarely go as planned, there are tools and methods that should help mitigate the risks and enhance your opportunities for success. Most notably those are sponsorship, communications and resistance management.




While you may be trying to establish yourself as a credible leader, you are also coming into a comfortable environment and rocking the boat. This is why you need to engage others to sponsor your program. Recognize here, the person with the title is not always the biggest influencer. Meet one-on-one with those who have the most political capital. Explain your point of view and try to get them on board. Ask them to encourage others that this is a good idea. It’s one thing to hear about change from somebody in charge. The impact is magnified when somebody else is reassuring the idea.


For me, that sponsor was our point guard who had a great deal of trouble building her confidence in the seasons prior to my arrival. We spent a substantial amount of time together, and she gave me the opportunity to share my vision and how great of a player and leader I thought she could become. And while some of the other student-athletes may have initially perceived her as a favorite, both she and I understood the critical importance of her becoming a role model and reaching her full potential.


Once she took the leap of faith and bought in, it didn’t take long for her to progress. Once the team saw her confidence grow, and subsequently her performance on the court transcend even her greatest expectations, they themselves were ready and eager to undergo a similar transformation.




Change is a process, it does not come on quickly. That is where you need to take responsibility for owning the narrative. Remember that case for change you developed in Phase 1? Use that research to your advantage and create a drip campaign. Acknowledge the shared vision and values of your team. Pay homage to the current state while recognizing why that strategy needs to change. Present the future state with supporting reasoning why this path was chosen over the other options. A good communications strategy should help people adjust without being too forceful.


Resistance Management


Remember during the planning phase we talked about engaging resistors early in the process? You missed a few! As you roll out the communications plan, people will come out of the woodwork that you did not expect. Resistors will create noise, block programs, and even start a coup.


The best way to handle a resistor is to meet with them individually, ask about their concerns and how they would have approached things. Recognize that change is fluid and dynamic. Other people may think of risks your team did not consider. Be a humble leader and adjust your plans when others raise valid concerns. And always remember that not everyone will find a seat on your bus and that’s fine too.


3. Live the Change 


A change can only be a change for so long. At some point you need to move from a state of transition to business as usual. Here is when your new idea, concept, initiative becomes “the way we do things.”  This is often referred to as re-freezing the ice cube. When people’s behaviors become habitual.


There are two important steps to creating new habits: leadership and reinforcement. Leadership is all about walking the walk. If you are not being a good leader and emulating the desired future state for the rest of your team, everybody will have an excuse to go back to the old way of operating.


Reinforcement on the other hand is a bit trickier. In this step, recognize behaviors over outcomes. Give kudos to somebody who takes the proper approach regardless of what the result happens to be. On that point, you need to point out when somebody is acting contrary to the desired behaviors, even if the outcome is positive.


Early on during the season, our practices were absolutely horrible. It became very clear that many of the players didn’t want to be at practice, and were there only to go through the motions to get to gameday. But for me, practices were my sanctuary, and so I had to figured out a way to meet them in the middle.


When we started to lose close games, I saw it as my opportunity – I explained to them that the only way we were going to learn how to finish was during practice. But I promised them that if they showed up and did what I asked, then we would never practice a minute longer than we had to. And even when we still sometimes struggled to execute the way I wanted to during a game, I reinforced that we were making progress, that the process would get us to where we needed to be. By the end of the season, they had all the motivation they needed to go hard every time they were on the court.


While it is hard to boil down the thoughtfulness and rigor to managing a large transformation into a few paragraphs, I hope I have relayed the message that the best change happens by evolution, not revolution. Taking incremental steps can help your people navigate a changing environment and lead your team to the success you are looking to achieve.


Michelle Clark Heard is in her second year as head coach of the University of Cincinnati women’s basketball program. Marc Prine, PHD is an Industrial / Organizational Psychologist and founder of MIP Consulting, LLC.