Disrupting Our Approach to Navigating Disruption

On Friday night I went to a barbecue for our elementary school principal who’s retiring at the end of next week.  Having been in her role for 10 years, she’s the only principal any of the current parents knew. In the vast majority of conversations with parents Friday evening, it was clear that most were mourning the transition.  Many had also met the new principal. Despite generally positive feedback, most still wished the change wasn’t happening. It reminded me once again that change, and the disruption that typically precedes it, is hard.

That morning I’d returned from New Orleans where I attended NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, geared towards leaders of Career Services and Employer Relations at colleges and universities.  Disruption was a hot topic: disruption in how education is delivered, in the future of work, access to resources, in evolving expectations of students from career services and so on. Much of the discussion focused on the trends and high level ideas on how attendees and their teams could navigate the disruption.   

Learning by Doing?

Another hot topic was the importance of arming students with real world skills they can apply post graduation.  So it struck me as odd that there was precious little discussion about the potential to marry these two ideas and provide students a real-world case study to grapple with: ask them to assess the implications of the current disruption and develop recommendations for universities.  It could be fascinating to hear what ideas students might surface.

It’s hard to think of a skill set more important to develop than the ability to navigate change.  ‘Change is a constant’ is a bit hackneyed at this point but largely because it’s all too true. Disruption and the resulting change can be largely positive – the birth of a child, publishing a book, or a sought after promotion, largely negative – death of a loved one, job loss, an unwelcome team reorganization, or more commonly, somewhere in between – the move to a new town, a new boss, or a company takeover.  Learning to navigate all of the permutations of disruption and change is an invaluable life – and work – skill. At the risk of alienating the STEM crowd, I’d argue more so than calculus.

As I returned home from the barbecue Friday night one of my daughters finally shared with me the reason for her glum mood all evening.  Her professed ‘best friend’ had recently moved onto playing with other friends at recess. My daughter was feeling lonely, sad, and left out.  My immediate instinct was to shield her from the heartache and try to convince her this was likely short-lived and to just hang in there. But I paused to remember my own experience at her age of having friends one week who were no longer in that same category days or weeks later.  

So I took a different tack and we talked about past friends who were no longer in her life.  A few she missed when their names came up but most she’d forgotten about – as she had since moved on and adapted to the change.  It was a reminder to me of the opportunity we all have as parents, teachers, and leaders to help our kids and young adults practice navigating disruption and change, and calling it out as such.  The pace of it is clearly accelerating, so the sooner we help our kids build this skill, the more capable future leaders we’ll create. And who knows, maybe they’ll help our generation get more comfortable with it in the process.


  1. Pam,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. I agree Higher Education can consistently improve how we prepare out students in navigating disruption. As a Student Affairs professional who served over 20 years in Housing & Residence Life, helping students cope, learn, adapt, and grow from change, conflict and disruption has always been a core focus and goal.

    An example of how we were involved in assisting students with navigating disruption. I recall as a residence hall director, students shared a living space, giving us an opportunity to help students with communication, conflict resolution and negotiation skills. Today we offer single rooms with private bathrooms, removing such unpleasant, uncomfortable and awkward conversations.

    I think many Student Affairs colleagues would agree, assisting students understand, navigate, and negotiate disruption is important. Just as there are many student development theories, we have used and continue to reframe and reinvent many terms and vernacular to describe and articulate the skill sets we wish to teach and instill within our students: coping, negotiating, critical-thinking, conflict resolution, transformational, self-advocacy, self-authorship, resiliency, navigating disruption and more not listed. The important take away I gathered from your insight is to never lose sight to teach and assist our students to understand change is inevitable. Change can be positive. Change can lead to opportunities. As a Student Affairs professional and campus career advisor, I have an obligation to promote, deepen and broaden these conversations and actions on my campus.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful perspective Dino. I fully agree that navigating change is like any other skill – acquired with practice. And as I’m see from working with your students, it’s often easier to learn when we have the support of people around us to help when things don’t go exactly as planned.

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