Why Do Values Seem To Be Such Hard Work?

google

Leading by values, driven by values, the speed of trust, values education, living our values, smart trust, trust matters – these are all phrases (and book titles) that have been heard as much over the last 10-15 years at the tables of curriculum planners and education leaders as corporate honchos, HR Heads and even occasionally political strategists.

The principle has always, to me, appeared eminently logical and valuable – have children focus on acquiring strong values in their formative years and there’s an increased likelihood that they will grow up to be not just ‘educated’ but also good citizens – people who place a priority on practicing and living by positive and virtuous values, thereby making a more harmonious, positive and effective society.
(Note – this is very different to ideas of inculcating subservience, obedience and docility that have been barely veiled motivations of some of the arch-engineers of mass education over the last Century)

However, it’s also said that children learn from what we do more than what we say. Further, when there is inconsistency between the two, they will cease to believe our words and will even think less of us for our duplicity.  Generationally, there’s overwhelming evidence that this is where we are today – children and young people looking at adults, shaking their heads in horror and disinclined to hear too much more of our nonsense about trust, integrity and values.

Here, i’m not specifically talking of our destruction of the environment or crass economic policies – both of which ride a short term gravy train, all to be paid for on the never never by future generations. Nor am I talking of venal politicians who can barely get words between their lips before they let the side down with blatant and stupid lies (in this day it takes about 30 seconds to prove they’re lying). Here, I want to talk about the impact when a beacon of light held up to show the way to a promised land proves to have been a false light, deceptive with smoke and mirrors to conceal its ugliness.

I’m talking about Google (the picture at the top of the article was probably a clue. Not only does the story of Google appear to be showing all the signs of a massive let down to younger generations. it’s even leaving an old codger like me with the bitterest of tastes in my mouth.

Google has been a story of phenomenal  exponential growth. There probably isn’t another company that’s had more written about it, in popular media and in books. And, for years, almost universally, what was written was about a company that was tearing up the old rule books about company culture, about how companies behave in their relationship with their own employees. Here was a company who very publicly declared a key part of their mission was “don’t be evil.”

Books about Google have proliferated, but somehow I only got around to reading one of the best known, “Work Rules,”  by Laszlo Buck a few months ago. That reading feels almost redundant now and saddening for all the energy that went in to extolling to the rest of the corporate world that if companies would just be true to their vision and values they too would attract and have the pick of the very best of talent (and therefore grow to be phenomenally successful). In barely 21 years this company that started out as a Stanford University project by two allegedly reclusive and shy students; Larry Page and Sergey Brin has grown to be a worldwide colossus employing over 110,000 people. many things that Google did culturally have been adopted by other companies and even the 20% projects idea (allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to a project that intrigues them away from their main work) has been adopted in many schools worldwide to facilitate creativity and project based learning.

So, what’s gone wrong at Google? Nothing at all, if the share price is the arbiter of good and bad. However, share prices and the maximisation of shareholder value are the currency of old-school companies, not the new youngbloods, like Google. However, here’s just some of the evidence for the prosecution;

  1. A ‘Censored search engine’ being developed on behalf of the Chinese Government:
    In late 2018 there were reports that after condemnation and bad feeling from employees within the company, and others outside, Google had stopped work on the project Dragonfly. To many it was shocking that they would even consider being part of such a project when their previous message to the world had always been about the power of the internet to give people free access to information.
    However, even in 2019, there have been strong suspicions that work on this project is still ongoing in secret:
    The Intercept – Ongoing Project Dragonfly
  2. Google Found to be Providing Funding to Climate Denier Organisations
    Evidence emerged in 2019 of money from Google going to organisations that included those who lobbied most effectively to encourage President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, to many Google employees with strong science backgrounds this is shocking and alarming, but especially disturbing in the clandestine way it’s been done:
    Salon – Report Reveals How Internet Giant Funds Climate Villains
  3. Google’s Willingness to Work Closely With the Trump Government on Border Agency Cloud and Other Projects
    Tech employees and their Californian neighbours tend to lean towards Democrat politics and for many of them this has driven their decisions to take their technical knowledge and skills to Silicon Valley rather than pursuing the big mega bonuses in the New York financial markets.
    Also, a high proportion of the employees are first or second generation immigrants themselves, so are disturbed and troubled by the Trump government’s treatment of immigrants:
    The Verge – Google Employees Refuse to Be Complicit in Border Agency Cloud Contract
    (Article also references another controversy related to a government contract for drone footage related software)
  4. Google Using Its Size and Power to Stifle Competition, Control Search and Drive Revenues – Being Evil
    The Federalist – Why Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop Being Evil

  5. Google’s Increasingly Confrontational Position With Dissenting Voices:
    Fast Company – Fired Google Employees Cite ‘Don’t Be Evil’
    The sort of dispute referred to in this article might seem humdrum and commonplace in so many other company environments. However, it’s the massive changes in a culture that was held up as a model for future business that has shocked many.
    This case has also highlighted what are perceived to be unfair and unreasonable ways to exploit casual and contract labour outside the company.
  6. Google Siding With the Big Bankers in Financial Markets
    The blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have partly come into existence as a backlash against the abuses of power and manipulations of the big banks. So, it doesn’t please many people to see Google siding with the big bankers to develop products and services that may undermine the development of unregulated crypto markets that have the potential to give citizens privacy and power over their own money, spending etc.
    Forbes – Perhaps Google Will Kill Bitcoin After All
  7. Google Changing the Rules Unilaterally
    One aspect of Google’s ‘community’ oriented culture was the infamous town hall meetings where every employee could attend in person or electronically and put any questions to the founders and senior officials.
    In Work Rules Buck talks openly about how this wasn’t always comfortable, but that it was a critical and vital part of the company’s culture. He even went as far as to title the second chapter – ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ The subtitle  – If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.). The subtitle of the sixth chapter was – ‘Take power from your managers and trust your people to run things.’

 

In the book he cites examples of where Sergey and Larry took very personal interest in preserving and building up these cultural aspects of the organisation and how it created a strong message that Google was the place to work for the most free-thinking, creative and talented programmers and computer scientists. It’s surely not a coincidence that Larry and Sergey announced they would be standing down from their executive roles in the companies (including the parent company Alphabet). They announced this in an open letter to all employees:
Blog – Google – A Letter From Larry and Sergey

The final word on Google today sums up the current situation, from a University Professor of Innovation:
Medium – Suddenly, at Google, it’s Get on the Programme or Get Out

Where does all this leave us as far as values are concerned. Should we continue to give such a high priority to values in education – both as guide rails for how we run our schools and what we expect our pupils to imbibe, practice and make their own. Yes, in fact, I believe that failures like this just reinforce that we need to give even more importance to values.

We need to be able to have open, transparent dialogue about what happens when values meet challenging and ambiguous situations. As the children in school become older and more mature, so it’s vital that we expose them to debate and discussion around the fact that values are nothing except when they are tested, challenged and that when truly and fervently held they actually do not fall and crumble under the weight of pragmatic flimflam, but are instead strengthened like steel cast in the fire.

Values are not just marketing tools, or nice words to adorn the walls. They have to burn at the very core of individuals and organisations. At times they must be defended and protected. So, for example, if institutional investors are going to be one-dimensional stakeholders ready to push for values to be jettisoned in the pursuit of more profit, then company founders should have the courage to grow slower and refuse to take the institutional money.

And the same for individuals. The person who can be tempted to cast aside flimsily held values will be hollow at the core, susceptible to vulnerabilities and destined to fail to be all that he/ she can be.

 

Please Vote For Me – Or Else

This documentary, made 12 years ago, but still packed with relevance today is fascinating on so many levels, but also quite scary in terms of the underlying messages. The starting premise is a simple one – a class of 8 year olds who would in the past have had a class monitor imposed upon them by their teacher are to engage in an exercise in democracy to elect their own class monitor.

If you wish to watch the whole film (and it is well worth watching) I recommend you do so before reading any further – major spoiler alerts to follow!

Firstly, this has to be seen in the context of a country where perceptions of democracy and power, and how power is gained, used and retained, are very different to those portrayed in a western context (and therefore part of my upbringing and education). This is an environment where leadership equals power and the question becomes whether that power to control and direct is wielded benevolently or with with bad intent.

These are just children, but influenced and often guided by the adults in their lives their actions mimic the very worst, exploitative, crooked and dishonest machinations of politicians in the adult world. Whether it’s buying the votes, focusing on demeaning and belittling your opponent or plain dishonesty they will take any actions necessary to gain power.

One of the things that stands out for me is the passivity of the teacher. She seems frequently to be fully aware of how brutish, cruel, dishonest and wrong some of the actions are, but seems more than happy to stand passively by and observe. It’s almost as though she wants that these children will finish the process concluding that this democracy thing is hurtful, brutish and bad and be turned against it.

Early in the film the children are heard singing a lyric – “we are the successors of communism,” and we have to remember that this was seen as a time of new beginning, freedoms and liberty for the Chinese people, but many were surely unsure how long it would last, or what they were to do with these new-found freedoms. The power of being class monitor is equated clearly and simply with the right to be a legitimized bully, lauding it over others and making them act in accordance with your wishes. physical force to control others in the classroom or the home is legitimised.

At times it’s not easy to see the emotional pains that these children inflict on each other.  The reality is they are very young and some of this is hard to deal with. The presence of the cameras seems to do little to abate what seems to amount to bullying by anyone’s standards. There are clear signs of the pressures to perform and the levels of stress experienced by these children at such a young age. The weight of parental expectations in all their actions lays heavily upon their tiny shoulders.

There are some things that don’t change from one culture to another. the girl is encouraged to be pretty, demure and her emotional vulnerability is accepted. The boys are expected to take much more physical, aggressive and forceful steps and not to show their emotions (though at this age they’re not so good at hiding) – “Dry your tears, you’re big boys.”.

And the end result? Status quo and a level of comfort with the known. The boy Luo Lei who has been class monitor for the last two years is re-elected. These children may be young, but already they come across as bowed down by the responsibilities that self-determination place upon them. This boy may be a bully, a tyrant who rules roughly and with force, but the idea of choice and responsibility sits uncomfortably. with most of them. His winning margin is considerable and even as the votes are still being counted, his classmates begin to curry favour with him in the hope that he will remember they were ‘always on his side.’

The pain and trauma is clear – enough to put any self-respecting child off ideas of independence, self-determination and responsibility. Much easier to let others control life and take the big decisions.

The School of Life

The school of Life Website

As the video above highlights, our education for children is all too often lacking in attention to the key skills of living - the skills that can enable a person to do more than just exist or muddle along.

School of Life sets out to provide lots of interesting and well presented material to fill that gap. The website link above will give you access to lots of videos, articles and even items available to purchase. Appropriate selection can yield lots of learning material for the school classroom.

Reflecting on Cultural Differences

Many things accumulate under the banner term ‘culture’. So, when we talk about the importance of cultural understanding, awareness of diversity and appreciation of those different from us (as we do in the Mission statement of the Tenby Schools, it requires considerable, deep reflection and consideration to really deeply understand all of the implications.

It’s about so much more than a simple admonition for people to get on with each other, or to be tolerant or understanding that people of different religions, communities, cultures or countries have different beliefs, values, expectations or ways of acting/ thinking.

I believe that it’s important to start from an acknowledgement that there is way more makes us similar than makes us different BUT that the differences are significant, important and that if we are insensitive or not reflective we risk being myopic and blinkered in our appraisal of our own or others’ cultural norms.

Next, a natural tendency to be curious, inquiring, interested in others and reflective is the best grounding for a person who wishes to respect cultural diversity and to have an open mind about not only what others do and think differently, but why – and in a non-judgmental way.

With these thoughts in mind, I was particularly pleased to come across this well written and thought-provoking article;

NPR – KQED – Mindshift – How Awareness of Cultural Differences Can Help Underachieving Students

I read the article a number of times. First time, was on the basis of what we, as adults, can learn by being open and curious about the different cultural backgrounds of children in the classroom. Expat teachers can experience great challenges if they walk in to international classrooms with a fixed mindset related to their own cultural perspectives, or those of their pupils or how things like communication should work in a classroom.

Next, for all teachers, whether expat or local, our aims are to prepare children to succeed and fulfil their potential in a global environment. In such an environment they will, at times, find themselves in places where they are the minority and other people’s cultural norms hold sway. Their ability to acclimatise to those norms, adjust to them and meet the expectations of people who may not feel the need to make adaptations on their behalf are critical. This is an intriguing challenge for a local teacher who might not have travelled outside their own country and has therefore always felt the comfort of being in a dominant culture.

If we are to see the Vision of the Tenby Schools fulfilled – “A United World at Peace – Through Education.” then we have to be continually giving thought to how we help children to develop skills and attributes of reflective learners, curious about others and sensitive to their needs so as to understand how to operate flexibly in different cultures, without giving up their rootedness in their own culture. These things don’t happen overnight with a tick in a box. Rather, educators need to be continually linking all aspects of the curriculum, in age appropriate and relevant ways, to these issues of cultural understanding, diversity and reflection.

I have no idea how much of this we can achieve in our lifetimes. However, i believe that is incumbent upon us to go as far as we can and to commit to starting on that journey for the sake of our children.

Nurturing Educator Talent in Schools

culture-79-638

Some years ago I coined a phrase that went something like this – “We don’t have the right to ask great teachers to work alongside mediocre colleagues.”

There are times when we have to ask ourselves some deep and challenging questions about some of the incongruity in education and especially in the way schools are run – the gaps between what we say we want, and our actions. For example. most educators today say that they want their schools to be places of differentiated learning where each child gets to fulfill their potential guided by the most motivated, professional, skilled and talented educators. But then, we see rushed and uncoordinated recruitment processes and even new teachers rushed in as compromises because teacher work load (numbers of lessons to be taught) is treated as more important than finding the best teacher to enhance the team.

The result of such practices is that teachers (and even sometimes pupils) see a mismatch between what’s said and what’s done – in which case, they’ll ignore what’s said. Is it naive of me to believe that teachers who want to be part of a high performing team would rather cover for a vacancy in the team for some time, rather than see a compromise candidate hastily rushed in? I have to say, my experience suggests such views are very rare. Then, let’s not even get started on how new teachers are integrated in to teams, mentored, brought in to the fold to really understand the culture of the school they’ve joined and what it expects of them (sending the message that managing the processes is way more important than the culture).

I believe that when looking at issues of leadership in schools and how our schools run today, whilst there’s a fair amount of talk about school culture as it relates to the students, there’s not nearly enough talk about school culture when it comes to the employees. This is not fully compatible with the suggestion that we aspire to meritocratic, high-performing workplaces. Culture matters in organisations – it matters a lot. We need to be paying far more attention to how we lead and how we create cultures of high performance.

I believe there are interesting lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, although often in education suggestions like this can also be treated as a form of heresy. In my experience, schools have more than their fair share of ‘NIH’ – Not Invented Here. This is a syndrome that comes with phrases like, “well that might work there, but it wouldn’t work here.”

When we think of high performance meritocracies most people would figure that Silicon Valley technology companies fit the bill pretty well. For some years I’ve been intrigued to get my head around whether there are lessons we can learn from the culture of technology, high growth companies, even if they might still require some adaptation. In my research in this area, I was fascinated to come across the stories of a famous document that was produced by Patty McCord (who was, at the time, Chief talent Officer at Netflix). When the document was publicly shared it acquired ‘cult’ status. It’s easily possible to find and download copies online today (Just Google ‘Netflix Culture Deck’) It’s basically a 126-slide Powerpoint deck that sets out a manifesto for a high performance culture. However, it’s been described by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg as “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the valley.”

I’ve now read the slide deck 4-5 times and I find it stimulating my thoughts in different ways every time. The starting key principles are that common sense is a far better tool for leading organisations than rules and that the best performing organisations should look to employ ‘fully formed adults.’ There’s a high emphasis on valuing the organisation’s values and management’s responsibility to manage context, not control and to offer ‘top end remuneration.’

Here are two articles, well worth reading. The first is a Huffington Post article describing the key atrtibutes of the Netflix Culture. At the bottom of the page you’ll find the 126 slide deck:
Huffington Post – One Reason For Netflix’s Success – It Treats Employees Like Adults

The second article, from Harvard Business Review is authored by Patyy McCord herself and sets the Culture document in context and provides some interesting insights in to the thinking:
Harvard Business Review – How Netflix Reinvented HR

I loved the references to Enron’s espoused values (and we all know how important they were in practice). I have always believed that in our schools we have to be deadly serious about our values. They’re not just a few fancy words on a website or a poster – they have to encapsulate the culture and the DNA of the school. The idea is that in most circumstances, responsible, professional mature adults can figure out exactly how they should be responding to a set of circumstances by reference to the values and common sense. it doesn’t need sets of rule book and regulations, and it certainly doesn’t require the cynical game-playing of management making rules and staff working to interpret them to their personal advantage (and often the disadvantage of the culture).

The Netflix document doesn’t advocate a ruleless wild west. Rather, it places the emphasis on rules existing where they need to. Plainly, in schools, in all areas that relate to child safety, hygiene and those aspects that can’t be compromised there is a need for rules that are well understood and implemented by all.

There have been times when I’ve been saddened to see a form of collegiality in schools that amounts to complacency about mediocrity and careless or even shoddy, uncaring work. Teachers can, at times, have a propensity to believe that the only way to be is to act on the basis that we’ll all say nice things all the time, look the other way regarding others’ shortcomings (and they will do the same for us) and the most important thing is that everyone should ‘get on.’ In the meantime, quality of teaching and learning are compromised and everyone knows it. I once saw a situation in a school where supervisors conducted performance appraisals of newly joined teachers. The new teachers had been given ratings of 4 or 5 out of 5 across the board. However, when confronted face to face the supervisors admitted that some of these teachers were a long way short of acceptable in standards of performance. In one case, they even wanted the teacher to be asked to resign, but had not been willing to give real, actual honest feedback about shortcomings. There are few things in the workplace that generate more cynicism than performance appraisals, and with good reason.

If, as educators, we are going to choose to bring in and adapt practices from the world of commerce and business, with the intention of raising the standards and quality of our schools, then we need to be ready to look to sources that are innovative, bold and daring (and effective), rather than replicating the humdrum and those things which have already so often proved themselves to do more harm than good to organisational culture.

So, if we were to open our minds to the kinds of ideas contained n the Netflix Culture document, what kind of schools might we have? I hazard that for one, leaders would get to spend far more time focused on the development of children and less on tinkering with the rule books!

Leadership Lessons

The CEO of CISCO sharing his thoughts and beliefs on leadership, all aspects are highly relevant for those who lead schools:

Fortune Interview

I was particularly struck by the things he had to say about the importance of shaping the organisation’s culture and the actions necessary to carry people with you in the pursuit of a vision.