Backing Winners or Solving Problems?

problem-300x200

Few types of ‘managers/ leaders’  pride themselves more on their skills at solving problems than school administrators. Many school Heads revel in the image of themselves as the calm vortex in the middle of a chaotic storm. For them, the more manically busy the school day, the more they believe they are proving their worth as leaders. They take great satisfaction and achieve much of their status from their zen-like unruffled calm as they solve problems left, right and centre.

Whilst i don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, I think this is a mistake and there is a better way of leading schools that can give them the scope to be better institutions delivering a better education for all pupils.

My starting point is an experience that has stuck with me for many years, that I’ve seen mirrored subsequently in the literature for personal development, happiness and, I believe, applies to organisations as well. The experience was when I was in my late 20’s and working for a Private Bank in the UK – providing a wide range of financial services to the richest clients of our bank. I had been managing an office for around 18 months and its performance was going really well; outperforming on sales and revenue targets, customer retention and all other measures. However, our Region was marginally under performing against targets. I had a regular monthly meeting with the Regional Sales Head.

We had a good rapport and the meeting that day took the form of a wide ranging brainstorming session. In the late afternoon we were batting around ideas  in a ‘reject nothing’ environment. At a particular point, I commented that most of our discussion related to problems – the offices with the biggest sales target deficits, the sales staff who weren’t achieving up to expectations etc.  We agreed to talk about what it might look like if we reversed and deliberately took control of Pareto’s Principal.

What would it look like if we spent 80% of our time and energy on the 20% who were achieving at the highest levels?

The Pareto Principle is better known as the 80:20 Rule. It states that 20% of a company’s customers contribute 80% of the profits, 20% give 80% of the problems and can be applied in many other ways. The important thing is to reccognise the principle, not to get hung up on the exact numbers. It had been set out in a book by Richard Koch around the time of our discussion. I still have my original first edition copy of the book

We were both excited by the idea and formulated some thoughts about what our days and actions might look like if we deliberately and consciously focused our energies on our 20% best customers and particularly in the sales team, the 20% of sales staff who were performing best.

There were a few months left in the financial year. During that time we did more on-the-job observations with our best staff, arranged an advanced sales skills course aimed at the best performing sales staff. One of the tougher parts was that we both set about being somewhat elusive for the ‘problem’ staff. Either we weren’t available, or we arranged pre-planned short ‘touch base meetings in which discussion would deliberately get cut short if they started talking about problems. When they did, the key was to always ensure that they left the table still owning their own problem.

Personally, the first effect I experienced was a lightening and enjoying my work more. I felt less weighed down by negativity. Across the Region, the responses were very positive. One very strong, high performing sales person turned down a job offer to go elsewhere (he was on the verge of agreeing to go). Three sales people who had been consistently weak over a number of years resigned and informed they wished to leave the company over a period of 6 months. This created the opportunity to promote and take on some new employees. The sales performance of the Region rose. Stronger performers became more ready to come forward and support less experienced (but positive) colleagues.

So, my question here is, applying the same principles, what would a similar Pareto approach in a school look like? Firstly, I think Principals would need to stop saying, “my door is always open,” to all. More selectivity is vital to ensure that 80% of time is available to go towards those who are positive, achieving and applying positive mindsets. Now, I can immediately hear the cries of callousness, of giving up on some people without giving them a chance to improve etc. However, I’m not advocating that school leaders ignore the under achievers, whiners and overly negative, but simply reduce the amount of time they spend with them to having them acknowledge their own ownership for the issues, commit to a timetable to deal with them and occasionally to follow up to see that they have done so.

The reality is that even if leaders could free up 10% of their time in a school day to spend with high achievers, coaching and supporting them to raise their game still further, three things in particular would happen;

a) Those high achievers with strong growth mindset would be enabled to achieve still more, have higher levels of motivation knowing that they are appreciated and valued (not ignored and left to fend for themselves because they’re not problems),

b) The leader would find they have more energy and drive.  Invariably, the kinds of people we are talking about here, the ‘problem’ people are energy takers or drainers. They stride in to the leader’s office with; “There’s a problem I think you need to know about,” They leave after some time task free and the leader just inherited yet another task to add to their already overloaded schedule.

c) There would actually be less problems. The culture of the organisation would be way more empowered. What the leader would be much more likely to hear about is situations that had arisen, been dealt with and were no longer of concern. It’s not a compliment to the leader if everything has to rise to the top for a decision. In a culture where attention is given to those who solve problems, that becomes the default expectation.

One final thought – if you were to ask most leaders they could probably list out their staff members who sap their energy (and that of their colleagues) and those who underperform, are overly negative in their mindsets and who sap time. What they may not have stopped to consider is how much they could do with the time freed up if they stopped pandering to these people’s toxicity. Also, many will argue that they have to tolerate these individuals in their teams because they are good subject experts or bring some skills which would be hard to replace. However, i believe this is mistaken and that it fails to take full account of the overall harm that toxicity and negativity brings.

As leaders, we steer our organisations in the direction where we place the majority of our attention. If we focus on problems, even successfully solved problems, that’s what we’ll have. Instead, I’m arguing for a stronger focus on positive, self-directed teams and individuals who accept accountability, take ownership and responsibility and move the organisation forward.

Footnote! I’m not advocating here that we apply 80:20 to pupils or to ‘customers’ (parents). This is where schools are not like conventional businesses, who might pick and choose the customers they want to give most attention on the basis of profitability etc.  That would be unethical. In fact, on that issue I believe that schools tend to err towards paying too much attention to students who lie at both ends of the bell curve, often leaving those in the middle not getting as much support to fulfil their potential. But that’s for another article, another day.

 

New Year Habit Changes

New Year’s resolutions are essentially commitments to change a habit that we realise consciously is not serving us well. It’s true that the evidence on such habit change isn’t good. We can find lots of surveys that show that the vast majority of people have broken their commitments to themselves before the end of January.

In my experience, this is incredibly important. We all live with regrets about aspects of our pasts, decisions made or not made, things achieved or not achieved. For many years in my life, starting way too young – I was a smoker. When i look back now I marvel at the mental kidology I was capable of in my 20s and 30s to convince myself that this wasn’t a problem in my life. I played rugby, went running and was very physically active. So, I used to tell myself that this meant the smoking wasn’t harming me as much as it might harm a sedentary person. Looking back now, I wonder how much better I might have been at those sports if I hadn’t been lighting up before and after training or matches.

Slowly, the health effects were creeping up on me so that by my mid thirties I knew ‘something needs to be done’ I started giving up! And I was successful – every time, sometimes for as little as a couple of hours. Maybe one of the biggest low points was when I agreed with a doctor that I needed to do something after a string of repeated chest infections. I was still in England at the time. The doctor put my name down for a hypnosis session. One session was meant to be all you needed to give up. It cost me 50 pounds. I had a nice rest – I think i actually went to sleep. 5 hours after walking out of the clinic i lit up again!

When I moved to India, I was still in the process of regularly giving up. I did bring about a fairly significant reduction in my smoking, but I still wasn’t giving up. The longer this went on, I now realise, the more my self esteem and belief in myself was wearing down.Every day I was doing something to myself that I hated, that in my conscious mind I was so clear I wanted to stop and that desire should have been enough. It ate away at me to think that I was someone who apparently had so little self-control. I felt condemned by own lack of effective willpower.

What I realise now and wish I had known then was that the more I fixated on the habit I wanted to stop, the less it was likely I would be successful. I needed to realise that willpower alone was not going to get me there. What I should have been doing was;

a) Seeking to understand the benefits that smoking gave me – the secondary gains, wrapped up in self-image of myself as a smoker, keeping my hands busy while anxious or preoccupied,
b) Figuring out a new, less harmful habit that I wanted to put in its place,
c) Enlisting accountability partners – people to whom I would give undertakings and who would call me out when I failed. I came across a great idea of promising to a friend to give money to a cause you vehemently disagree with every time you fail. That focuses the mind, because every failure hurts at a personal, visceral level.
I’d certainly have my mind focused if I was obliged to give money to Nigel Farage and UKIP every time I failed in changing my habit!
d) Maybe the biggest and most fundamental issue is how to deal with failures when they happen. Too many of us see habit change or resolutions as a zero sum game. The result is that as soon as we have a lapse of any sort we start putting ourselves down, condemning ourselves. Failing at a habit change has to be something we do, not something we are. It is not all-defining in terms of who we are and it’s rarely terminal. All too easily, we treat a failure as evidence that we were foolish to want to change the habit, to believe that we could.

We start to identify ourselves as a person who can’t change habits. Yet, if we stop and think for a moment and ask one simple question – can I think of a habit I had in the past that I don’t have today, we’ll all be able to think of at least a few. Once we do, we can understand how we have been successful at giving up past habits and believe that we can be successful again.

So, if like me, you’ve got some commitments you’d made to yourself to address a habit, to change something in your life – and so far your performance on the change has been less than stellar, it’s time we cut ourselves a bit of slack, stop beating up on ourselves and reevaluate to see whether we can get the change habit back on track.

When we are able to change a habit, however small, there’s enormous power to create momentum that we can channel to taking on bigger challenges and changes. My belief is that humans are rather like bicycles. We’re not stable when standing still and not very effective in that condition. We’re meant to be in movement, perpetually moving towards progress. When moving in a line, as straight as possible, towards meaningful goals that’s when we humans are at our most effective and powerful.

Onwards.

Toxic Staffrooms and The Courage To Lead

Great educators are by their nature reflective. They take time to ‘look inwards’, to reflect on their actions, their words and their impact on others. At times this can lead them to be quite ‘confessional’. However, such occasions do sometimes provide opportunities for introspection for their fellow educators.

Here’s an article from an American teacher that is almost confessional in nature, but that touches on something that too many teachers and leaders in schools all over the world have experienced – the potential toxicity of staffrooms. She also makes the valid point that it’s not limited or confined to a particular place or room, but manifests anywhere in a school where talk is overly negative, cynical or crosses the line to become gossip-laden.

Edweek – Why I Avoid The Teachers’ Lounge, And You Should Too

There are many factors that go in to making up the culture of a school. Among the most influential aspects that are all encompassed under ‘leadership’, I believe are;

a) Vision, Mission and values (V-M-V) that are clearly articulated, inspiring, exciting and it’s made clear that they are for every stakeholder in the organisation. It can be all too easy to see the articulation of V-M-V as a ‘one-off exercise’ – a quick inspiring talk to the staff at the beginning of the year and job done. V-M-V have to be made a living, dynamic part of every activity, every significant discussion and it has to be clear that they’re not a five minute wonder, but a fundamental part of the school for the longer term. It must also be very clear that they apply in all respects to all stakeholders; pupils, teachers, non-academic staff, parents and even outside vendors who support the school’s activities. They are not a menu to pick and choose from on a whim and, as adults, we have to be very clear that we are to model the values as consistently as we can for the children, holding ourselves accountable to the highest professional standards. We must walk our talk.

b) Accountability – In short, a leader can’t lack the courage or sense to lead and cannot be denied their right/ duty to do so. There can be times and occasions which are hard to deal with. Informal leaders can emerge who consciously or unconsciously espouse values and beliefs different to the organisation or who have bad habits (e.g. toxic gossiping) that are highly detrimental to the good of the institution. When the individual is a ‘good teacher’ in the classroom this can be especially tough. It is the leaders’ duty to guide and counsel the person, coach them, hold them accountable for the actions which are harming the organisation. Ultimately, despite the fact that they can deliver good work themselves, in the worst case scenario where they won’t or can’t change it can be right for the leaders to decide to part ways with the individual. Ultimately, permitting someone to exist in the organisation espousing or practicing incongruent values can be a worse failure of leadership than allowing someone who lacks skills or competence in their role.

When the leadership has given the individual every chance to change, there is no failure in taking ultimate responsibility. However, we need to be aware – toxic staffroom people can be popular people at a personal level, especially if they satisfy a personal need of staff members to have an outlet for negative feelings!

c) MBWA – this was a wonderful acronym I learned from the business writer, Tom Peters, many years ago. It stands for Management By Walking About. In essence, it’s simple and clear – as leaders we’ve got to put ourselves out there, even if that requires some very rigid and forceful diary management and the strength to say ‘No’ at the right times. In my view, this is probably a more critical factor in schools than in any other kind of organisation. Schools are all about people. As a leader, if we choose to allow it, there will always be more than enough people who can create situations that seem to justify us spending our entire work day in our offices. However, we must never forget that sitting in our offices we receive only the information from the outside environment that others choose to send us/ bring us or lead us towards. When it comes to ‘Teachers’ lounge’ tendencies, this can actually risk leaders becoming part of the very issue that threatens the culture of their school or department. Then, we become reliant on only the perspectives of others about people, mood and ground realities – instead of going out and really feeling things for ourselves, hearing what everyone has to say (not just those who choose to bring us information). School leaders must ensure they carve out time to see things for themselves, to hear people and genuinely listen to all stakeholders and to get their own feel for what is happening in all areas of their school.

I once joined an organisation where I discovered that there was an accepted norm/ practice that required the Principal to knock and virtually ask for permission to enter the staff room! To me this was symptomatic of some past MBWA breakdown. What could staff possibly be doing, in the staffroom, in school, that the Principal didn’t have the right to know? After a few weeks we learned a great example of what was going on in that staffroom. New teachers would get cornered by ‘old’ established teachers and mocked for their hard work, attempts to innovate and compliance with requests/ directions from the school leadership. There was a kind of mafia of cynicism in that room that plainly was not in the best interests of the school and certainly not in the interests of children and their learning. New staff were stressed and hurt by the conflicts they were experiencing between the positive and inspiring words of the school leadership and this localised negativity. Situations like this are tricky to deal with. If you confront those concerned directly they may turn against those who they believe have ‘grassed on them’. It could have left a new teacher very vulnerable. Ultimately, we were able to find out from loyal committed longer term staff that this had happened multiple times. As a result, when the individuals concerned were confronted they had no one person they could target. Some immediately distanced themselves from the problem by staying in their classrooms during free periods. Ultimately, two who might have been considered ringleaders left and went elsewhere (where word reached us that at least one was doing the same thing!)

When we step up to be leaders it shouldn’t be for money, or for status or personal prestige. It really has to be because we want to make a positive difference in the education field. Our best opportunities to do that flow out of the extent to which the ‘butterflies fly in formation’ and that comes out of both words and practice aligned to common understanding of V-M-V.

A final word for teachers – in this time of school break and the opportunity to reflect on our practice – if you think that maybe, like the writer of the article, you’ve been inadvertently sucked in to being part of staffroom issues, now is the time to commit and pledge yourself to rise above them, to strengthen your commitment to the V-M-V of your school (and I stress, I’m talking here to all teachers everywhere). We can decide to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

I Was Going To Write About Procrastination, But ……………………

….. no, I didn’t put it off. Or not too much!

Fast company and others in pursuit of the ever more efficient worker who can get more and more done in less and less time (without seeming to suffer any undue stress) are fond of writing articles with simple tips for overcoming procrastination, like this one;

Fast Company – 9 Realistic Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Stress Less

I think there’s nothing inherently wrong in suggestions such as; breaking a task down in to bits, taking baby steps, setting a deadline and getting competitive with yourself or having an accountability obligation to someone else. However, those ofus who have ever acknowledged our procrastination to ourselves and stopped to ask hard questions know there are two elements that are much less often talked about.

Firstly, in my experience people who procrastinate are rarely people who procrastinate on everything. Therefore, there’s a point at which tough questions need to be explored about the tasks that are being postponed and put off. Sometimes it can be that we need to really dig down and explore what’s happening at the unconscious level – there may be very valid reasons why we feel uncomfortable with a particular task. Issues of values misalignment come to mind. It could even be that there are aspects of the place, time or circumstances that make a person so uncomfortable that a normally dynamic, action-oriented person starts to hold back, withhold effort or procrastinate on taking actions where they feel the stress of doing something that is incongruent with their values. eople normally think of stress as a negative and unfortunate byproduct of procrastination. However, I’d suggest that sometimes the stress comes first and gives rise to the procrastination.

Secondly, what if procrastination is seen sometimes as our intuition’s way of saying, “Not yet.” That the task, if done now might lead to overly hasty actions that would be regretted later. Impulsiveness, action taken without enough research or evidence/ justification can be worse than no action. Sometimes we need to listen to our intuition and what it tells us. In such circumstances there could be very valid reasons to wait a while. Haven’t we all had the occasion when that burning issue that sits on our ‘To Do’ list for some time becomes a job that didn’t really need to be done and can simply be scrapped? As time moves along, yesterday’s burning issue may become today’s inconsequential matter.

So, in short, I’m making excuses for nobody here. However, let’s acknowledge that not all procrastination is bad. The starting point is honesty with ourselves to determine the right response.

%d bloggers like this: