Monthly Archives: October 2013

No Checklists

The following is one man’s opinion.  I am not a researcher.  I do not even have a career’s worth of experience to support my claims.  What I do have is deep conviction and a track record that suggests that I am not completely wrong.

I do not believe in checklists.  I believe that we areorigin_9568156463 still using a leadership model that has run its course and is no longer the best option.  There was a time when (and there may still be situations in which) dictating what and when and exactly how others are to act was an effective approach to leadership.  There can be no doubt that it was in fact the leadership model used during a large chunk of human history and did produce impressive results. It seems to me though that, in many ways, our (human) objectives have changed and demand a different approach.  One we appear reluctant to adopt.  Consider, for example, the fact that for the first time in human history, the educational system in this country and several others) aims to educate the entire population.  No other society has even attempted this objective.  Ever.  Instead of blaming teachers and The Education System in general for struggling to accomplish this Herculean task with outdated tools and resources, perhaps we should consider new approaches to the task.  One approach that would require zero additional funding is a shift to a leadership paradigm that sees vision casting and navigating as more valuable than expecting and inspecting.  While the majority of my formal leadership experience is in the field of education, I believe that these principles apply equally well in all areas.

I submit that leadership that is based on telling people what to do can not produce sustainable results.  I reject as faulty logic the argument that suggests that changing folk’s actions will naturally and eventually result in a change of mind.  Making someone do something over and over may produce automaticity but it does not necessarily produce conviction.  Unfortunately, the prevailing model of leadership (in American schools at least) is to cast a vision (tell folks what they are going to be doing), make a plan (tell them how they must do it) and evaluate progress towards “shared goals” (inspect for compliance).  It is fashionable to talk about “buy-in”, but in my experience, the what and the how are rarely really negotiable.  This paradigm runs all the way through our system.  No Child Left Behind (the federally enacted school accountability act of the last decade) however well intentioned was based on a very basic assumption: if we place enough pressure on schools to get better, they will. While good things have come from NCLB, this assumption has proven to be woefully unfounded.  Unfortunately, we continue to act out that assumption all the way down to the individual level even when we see that it doesn’t work.  We have trained our teachers to follow directions and keep their opinions to themselves – even when we “ask” for them.

It is my firm conviction that the micromanagement that we so frequently assume to simply be part of life results in superficial and temporary results at best.  We are fully aware that this leadership approach requires continuous supervision.  Most human beings simply can not stay in compliance all the time when expectations of them come in the form of a checklist (literal or figurative).  On the other hand, checklist leaders can not allow deviations because the toleration of any exception is an invitation to chaos.  The funny thing about this approach is that even when “results” are achieved, as soon as pressure to comply is released, most compliance ends.  In other words, any momentum gained is not self-sustaining.  Plenty of schools have “turned it around” and become “outstanding” by means of very tightly controlling everything.  Test scores shoot up and the educational world applauds.  When the (often charismatic) leader who drives this growth moves on or when the grant runs out or when the program is replaced, however, things slowly drift back to the way they were.  Actually, I have worked at a school where the momentum only lasted one semester before we began spiraling toward mediocrity.  In other words, checklist leadership is only as good as the last inspection.  This approach to leadership in schools frequently feeds the all too common assumption that one of the main purposes of school is to help students get more test questions right, a paradigm I have commented on in another post.  If we are to set our sights higher than creating test-acing automatons, we need a different approach.  Checklist leadership is not the way.

It seems to me that there is a better way.  Most people want to be part of something significant.  Most people want to help solve the problem.  Most people want to be good at what they do.  Very few people want to be told what to do.  Clarification: most people would rather be told what to do than to be criticized or belittled for missing the hidden agenda, but when their personal dignity is safe adults don’t like to be treated like children. Actually, children don’t like to be treated like children most of the time.  Daniel Pink explains these ideas beautifully in his book Drive.  He suggests that most people are in fact not motivated by extrinsic factors (once their basic needs have been met).  The desire for autonomy, purpose, and expertise is highly motivating.  Pink cites research studies to back his claims.  All I have is my belief about the nature of human relationships and my experience as a leader … and as someone under authority.

Even the Age of Accountability has not adequately described what we are aiming for.  We are getting outscored by Finland and a bunch of other countries and we don’t like not being first, so let’s get out there and “fix this”.  To what end?  Are we trying to get better test scores so our president can have bragging rights at the next G8 summit?  Will a race to the top of the testing heap make other countries stop bad-mouthing us?  Will better scores make life tangibly better for the individual students who achieve them or for the schools or the generation of students those individuals are part of?  I submit that schools need a better purpose than raising test scores.  A purpose that can not be prescribed by anyone outside the building nor by any one person inside the building.  The reason is simple.  If we do not all voluntarily sign up to pursue a much more meaningful goal, we will continue to become more and more irrelevant to the young people who occupy our seats because the law holds them there.  The leader who believes himself to be helpless against the time honored tradition of checklist leadership can not possibly produce results that last beyond his tenure.  At best.  The one who stares down the status quo and chooses a different approach may find that people who are challenged to be amazing – and given the freedom to pursue that goal – might begin performing at a level that could never reasonably be required by a checklist leader.  Such a leader might just disrupt things long enough to give others the courage to consider a bit of changes themselves.

photo credit: AJC1 via photopin cc

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Honest Feedback

If you are in a leadership position of any kind this post is for you.  It is especially relevant for school administrators.  Leadership is not an individual sport.  Successful leaders do not operate in isolation; they work to create cohesive teams that work towards clearly defined goals.  The necessity of team building is a point not often missed; unfortunately, the approaches to doing so are counter-productive far too often.  Many leaders never consider questioning the ubiquitous assumption that it is their responsibility to “hold folks accountable” for doing what they are supposed to do – read apply the pressure necessary to ensure compliance.  I submit that meaningful and self-sustaining commitment to any shared goal is possible only by building a culture of trust.  That objective is possible only when you have a team that provides honest feedback.

It is my experience that most working professionals have been thoroughly and systematically conditioned to avoid giving honest feedback.  The role of a team member is to be a “team player” – one who does as he/she is told without asking questions.  Public school teachers have been trained to play this role well – give “input” when asked by listening carefully to what the boss is saying and then filling in the little “dialogue” boxes with answers that fit the formula provided by the expert or the “specialist” at the time.  In other words, teachers are afraid.  Listen to our buzzwords – “accountability”, “adequate yearly progress”, “standardization”, etc, etc.  The underlying premise of No Child Left Behind is that if we apply enough pressure (and/or offer enough incentives) our problems will get solved and stay solved.  From my perspective, this observation applies to other professions as well.  The terminology may be different, but the trend is the same: we can be great (or at least a lot better) if we could just get everyone to comply.

I began my career as a school administrator convinced that this thinking is wrong.  I believe that while this approach can yield to a change in the “data”, it will rarely lead to more learning and can never result in lasting change.  From the first day I was hired as a school principal, I set out to create a culture where the voice of each team member was valued; where each individual’s honest assessment of the decision we were considering was sought.  For more than half of my first year, the attitude of the faculty was polite skepticism.  It was as if everyone was waiting for the other other shoe to drop.  Till this day, some members of the faculty are apologetic when they offer a dissenting opinion – even when I ask for it.  In this my third year, there are levels of departmental, cross-curricular, and grade level collaboration unlike anything I have seen or been part of before in my career.  It is my opinion that the freedom to object – and think, and plan and innovate – has been a major part of bringing us to this place as a school.

I do not think there can be a formula for creating a team that provides honest feedback, but here are three specific examples of the strategies I have used.

Be vulnerable
Nothing demonstrates a desire for feedback like asking for it.  A practice I have engaged in both as an assistant principal and as a principal is to invite small groups of the faculty and staff to meet with me on neutral ground (usually the library) for the express purpose of providing feedback about me specifically.  In my invitation, I send five questions I will be asking:
– “What are my blind spots?”
-“What do I think I do well that I don’t?”
– “What do I need to do better?”
– “What do I need to stop doing or do much differently?”
– “In what area am I most in need of growth?”
These groups are always small; they always include both teachers and staff; everyone gets invited (by the end of the year).  In my invitation and at the start of the meeting, I ask for honest feedback.  I share my conviction that I can not possibly be fully effective as a leader if I am not aware of the perspective of the people on my team.  A point of particular emphasis is my request that participants save their words of encouragement for later.  This is not an attempt to fish for complements.  Almost invariable, I come away from these sessions with insight that I almost certainly would never have gained if I had not asked for the feedback.  Sometimes, I make major changes to my perspective or approach based on what is shared.  In addition to giving me the opportunity to learn, these meetings build trust.  On more occasions than I can remember, staff members have been very appreciative of the fact that they were invited to participate and that their feedback was invited at all.  Even participants who chose not to provide feedback frequently say that the gesture of asking was deeply meaningful to them.

Ask for feedback … and use it
If a principal’s roast is not quite your feed, you can still ask for feedback.  Seize opportunities to ask people for their opinions and then use their input as often as you can.  Ask the custodian how he would approach a task you are discussing instead of informing him of how you want the job done.  Use the secretary’s suggestion for how to get seven sheets of student-specific paper and report cards sorted and into the hands of teachers in time to distribute.  Give a draft of the parent letter you just wrote to a teacher (not just the Language Arts teachers) and ask her to mark it up for you.  The more you ask for feedback in the little things, the more willing your team will be to give their honest opinions about the big things.  In the past couple of weeks, we have started our school-wide professional learning group (details and an update in a later post).  Three of our departments (so far) have taken a day out of the classroom to engage in shared professional learning.  Science went first and planned a great activity.  They each wrote everything they do as part of their job as a teacher on a paper plate.  They then rewrote their plate to be organized the way they would like it to be.  Part of that process was “fixing a plate for Mr. Maxey”.  They wrote the things they would like me to take off their plates.  I visited their meeting that day (and the others on their days) so that they could share their specific ideas about how I can lighten their loads as classroom teachers.  I walked out of that meeting and took immediate action.  Our faculty meeting this month was planned around that feedback.  If you really listen to your team, they will be willing to be honest with you.

Admit your mistakes publicly
It takes a big man (or woman) to admit his mistakes.  But there are plenty of small-minded fools propping up the charade of their own greatness.  Here’s the thing: if you are a human being, you are going to make mistakes.  The only question is whether you are going to pretend that you are infallible or gain the trust of your team by admitting your mistakes.  By the way, for many leaders this is very difficult.  Too often our own pride convinces us to move on as quickly as possible.  In my opinion it is possible to say you made a mistake while communicating that it wasn’t your fault or not that big a deal or in some other way down-playing the issue.  It seems to me that leaders should bravely but humbly say “I made a mistake.  I am sorry.  I am going to fix it and make plans to keep myself from making this mistake again”.  When they do, their team and community gain respect for them.

As the cliche goes, there is no “I” in team.  There are plenty of eyes on your team, though.  It would be foolhardy to ignore the perspective of the entire team.  Good leaders listen when the members of their team offer feedback.  Great leaders ask for it.

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