I’ll never forget getting a call from 2 team members after they had led an all day workshop. I had barely answered the phone and they were telling me everything that they perceived “went wrong” and how disappointed they were with different aspects of the day. I listened and commiserated (because I have definitely had those days) but then we figured out what contributed to the challenges and how we could all move forward based on the lessons learned.
I admire them both for their vulnerability to share their challenges, willingness to admit that things weren’t perfect and desire to seek guidance to improve. They also shared that they appreciate how I not only support them but push them to grow. This day was a milestone in my own leadership journey. It signaled a shift in culture where we could openly share challenges and seek feedback in a way that I had always wanted but in reality had not the norm. I was happy that they not only felt comfortable enough to tell me (as their supervisor) when things didn’t go perfectly– because if we are honest do they ever?! — but they sought me out to tell me and problem solve to figure out how to make it better.
Immersed leaders create environments where people feel safe taking risks- #LLAP
In Lead Like a Pirate, Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf discuss the importance of leadership in creating environments where people feel safe taking risks. As I think about the importance growing people– whether it’s my children, team members, teachers, principals, we all need to take risks to grow but if we don’t have the right conditions and are afraid of the ramifications, it’s not that easy to try new things, which means growth and development can be stunted.
I know I care as much about my team members and our work now as I did when I first took over the role as a director but what I felt and thought didn’t always come across in my actions and wasn’t always how I was perceived. George Couros made this distinction recently that I thought was really profound, it’s not enough to value people, but that people actually have to FEEL valued. As I think about how we have deliberately created the conditions that make people feel valued where they can openly share challenges to grow and improve, there are 5 things that I think have contributed to the development of this culture.
- Celebrate the Positive — It’s important (and costs nothing) to shine the spotlight on others, to notice efforts and acknowledge the success of others. Because of this, we have made a regular practice of opening meetings with celebrations. Admittedly, I thought it would get repetitive and that we would quickly tire of this quickly but we haven’t and now regularly look forward to this time. I have noticed how it sets a positive tone and makes people feel valued. It’s always great to see what resonated with individuals over the week and hear about great things that people have done. I also notice that the people who are being celebrated can rarely hide the smile as they appreciate being recognized by colleagues.
- Effective Feedback Loops — Regular communication and feedback are critical to developing and maintaining effective relationships. I have learned to never assume that everything is ok or that people are going to tell you about challenges, especially if the structures for this to happen aren’t in place. Effective leaders are visible, available, and connected to their teams and have multiple strategies to check in formally and informally. When you are invested in individuals and their work from the beginning, people are more willing to share successes and challenges. I have found that it is important to schedule frequent check-ins and to make sure that we have the space to ask questions, get feedback and problem solve emerging challenges.
- Reflect on growth –– When improvement happens gradually over time (as most does), it’s sometimes hard to see the growth. Being intentional about reflecting on growth and sharing both successes and lessons learned can build confidence. As the end of the year is approaching and we had to do evaluations, our team opted to have individuals share their own strengths, opportunities for growth and next steps to inform the performance evaluation rather than just coming from me. Making this public and empowering the team to reflect and document their own growth over time was a great way to highlight the growth and help our team move to the next level individually and collectively. Our goals are now posted and we are all invested in helping each team member grow.
- Use challenges as an opportunity to learn— Too often (especially in education), leaders conflate a positive culture with making everyone feel good and avoid addressing areas of growth or failures because we don’t want people to feel bad. It’s possible (and necessary) to value the people and their efforts while also attending to actions or behaviors that do not help move towards the desired outcomes. If you often celebrate success and reflect on growth, it is easier to address challenges when people make mistakes or things don’t go as planned. This is also way more effective if you have the conversation as the challenges arise and it is clear that it is an opportunity to learn, not cataloged for a formal evaluation- that rarely helps anybody improve. When people feel misunderstood or judged it’s easy to be defensive and blame external factors but this rarely helps us get better. I love this saying from Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not never falling, but in rising every time we fall”
- Lead by example– It’s much easier to tell people to share their challenges but if you don’t lead by example, how can you expect others to do it. I often share my challenges and things that I am working on. Our team is instrumental in giving me feedback and helping me to improve anything from presentations to processes. I have learned so much from them and being open to their feedback has improved my practice and also helped to model for them how critical we all are to each other’s growth and development.
To grow and develop people, we have to create the conditions where they are willing to take risks and openly share their learning and challenges. This is needed at all levels of education. If our administrators feel comfortable taking risks and try new things to improve our schools and they create those same conditions and empower teachers to create authentic learning experiences for students who are inspired to take risks and learn to improve, we all win.