Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Questions

Dave Dimmett over at Leader Talk provides another set of questions worth pondering to help us focus the  majority of our time and effort on what really matters for students. Try these on for size:

My recent experience with Lean Six Sigma makes me wonder, what are the value-added elements of the average teacher’s day? What are the teacher activities from one day that are adding value to student learning? If I think about the full professional day for most educators, it involves tasks that likely fall into some of these categories: adds value to student learning, doesn’t add value but is required by law, doesn’t add value but is required, doesn’t add value to student learning and can be eliminated without difficulty.

Adding new things to schools is easy.  Its agreeing on what should be eliminated and having the courage to cut that is the hardest.

Infrequently Asked Questions

This post at Leader Talk led me to this article at Harvard Business Review on the power of asking questions to lead your organization.  Polly Labarre argues that the best way to lead is through asking great questions that disrupt, challenge, and motivate.  She also shared the work of Vineet Nayar CEO of HCL Technologies, who has a set of 20 questions that he ponders daily.  So, following his model, I came up with some questions to think about for my school:


What is the purpose of schooling?


What strengths, abilities, and interest do our students have?

What do our students need to know?  Why do they need to know it?

What do our students need to be able to do?  Why do they need to be able to do this?

Would my children want to attend this school?

What are the blindspots on our campus?


If our parents could choose any school in the city, would they choose ours?  Why or why not?

Teachers and Staff

What is there at our school that would attract the brightest and best educators?

What do our teachers need today to deliver high quality education to every child?

What can I do today to encourage a teacher?

What can I do today to encourage a colleague, fellow Principal, Superintendent?

What things do I control that I should no longer control?

How can I give control to others, especially those who create value?

How can I encourage others to lead with their strengths?

What can I do to create platforms for the great ideas of teachers, parents and students at SC?

What would happen if there was no Principal at this school?

What questions would you ask at your school or organization?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Today I let someone crawl inside my head and chew on my brain cells, and it didn't feel good.  This week at school there were so many things to celebrate.  I observed class after class of engaging writing by students, excellent presentations on the history of Egypt, and teachers revising writing to a level I have not seen before.  But, I still let that one person mess with my head.  So, this is my attempt to extract those negative and useless thoughts away.

In order to get my head out away from those negative thoughts I resolve the following.

1.  Make a plan for addressing the issue that is proactive and has potential for redeeming the situation.

2.  Forget about it.

3.  Read a great story this week.  I think it will be this one or maybe this one.

4.  Finish a half-done project.

That wasn't so hard.  Some optimism is creeping in and it feels great.



Heidi Grant Halvorson on the Harvard Ideacast discussed her new ebook 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.  One of the most significant findings she highlights is an individual's belief that they can improve.  It comes down to perseverance and that awesome word: GRIT.  Intelligence is overrated.  Positive Thinking (without action) is overrated.  Determination and a "Never Say Die" attitude rule the day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peter Drucker Wisdom

Jim Champy's new book, What I learned from Peter Drucker looks like a winner.  Drucker is one of the pioneers of modern management theory and practice and Champy appears to have had a lengthy personal and professional friendship with Drucker.  Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

Peter's work had two major components. The first was the big picture: He believed that healthy organizations of all kinds — corporations, nonprofits, museums, libraries, sports teams, garden clubs, hospitals, government agencies — are the glue that holds society together and shields it from totalitarianism and economic chaos. Calling himself a social ecologist, he argued that every organization should understand its place in this sustaining mosaic and do its fair share of aiding the common good in all its actions.

The second thrust of his work focused on management per se, on organizational structure, function, and efficiency. His books and lectures were filled with practical and proven solutions to some of the most vexing challenges businesses face. For example, he was unyielding on the importance of focusing on customer needs, using time wisely, and scrapping weak or obsolete processes and products.

The two strands of his thinking intersected in his belief that companies succeed to the degree they make work meaningful, giving employees a sense of purpose and fulfillment. His ability to clearly articulate and balance these two complementary elements of his lifework, the macro and micro, was one of his great strengths. 
This connects with the management and leadership skill sets that I Kotter highlight in his article.  Leaders succeed to the extent that they can balance progress on the micro and macro areas of leadership.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Great Effort Better than Smarts

In order to learn, grow, and succeed, we must first FAIL.  That's right.  Failure is the key to success, however whether you  learn from your failures, depends on what you think about your ability and how one learns.  Carol Dweck in Mindset has made these two frames of reference quite explicit.  A new study by Jason Moser at Michigan State  University, highlighted in this Washington Post article, demonstrates that individuals with the growth mindset give more thought to their failure, presumably to learn from it, than those with the fixed mindset, who brush off their failure to their own detriment.
Lesson for schools = Praise students for effort, not intelligence.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Leadership and Management

'Balanced' photo (c) 2010, Earl McGehee - license: Perman shared this excellent article by John Kotter on the actions of leaders compared to mangers.

These two different functions - coping with complexity and coping with change-shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership

The best leaders are attuned to these set of complimentary skills.  I was thinking of this when I read this summary of Anne Mulcahy's address to the Stanford Business School discussing her work turning around a near bankrupt Xerox in the early 2000's.  She instituted immediate cost cutting and efficiency protocols to begin to stem the tide of debt, and at the same time she focused the organization on their core value of innovation, not cutting any money from research and development.  I also appreciate her comments about the centrality of communication to her successful leadership.

"I feel like my title should be Chief Communication Officer, because that's really what I do," she said, emphasizing the importance of listening to customers and employees. "When I became CEO, I spent the first 90 days on planes traveling to various offices and listening to anyone who had a perspective on what was wrong with the company. I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that's time well spent."

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Jim Collins on Great Leaders Matt Perman always has excellent quotes on the qualities of great leadership.  Servant Leadership is personified by many of the successful leaders that Collins has studied.

50 Free apps from LifeHacker Dropbox is leading the way and there are tons of new ways to use it that are worth digging into.

Never Waste a Good Crisis Michael Hyatt has often plugged the benefit of Life Planning. Having gotten a couple stents in an artery two months ago has helped me begin that process in earnest.

Grade 6 student explains how he makes apps

Obstacles Can be our Friend

In Carol Dweck's book Mindset, she quotes Bruce Jenner, 1976 Olympic Decathlon champion.
"If I wasn't dyslexic, I probably wouldn't have won the Games.  If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily ... and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work."
Obstacles can be the means of growth and improvement if we allow them to teach us to learn and improve.  We need to encourage students with struggles so that they don't use those as an excuse to give up, but a reason to be determined and persevere.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Setting The Tone

Every organization has a culture and tone.  There is one person who bears the primary responsibility for creating that atmosphere - be it positive or negative - and that would be the leader.  If your teachers are unconcerned and dismissive of students, if your parents don't demonstrate a commitment to education, if your students are mean and nasty to one another, you might want to ask what messages are you sending by your actions (or inaction), words, and priorities.

I was reading the account of Pontius Pilate sentencing Jesus to death this morning and I was struck by Pilates' flippant attitude about Jesus being the King of the Jews.  He mockingly called him the King of the Jews because he suspected that the Jewish leaders were envious.  Well, this call was taken up by the soldiers who mocked Jesus with a purple robe, then hit him and spit on him.  They took Pilate's lead and increased the mockery and degradation of Jesus.  This same tone was taken by the crowds who called for his crucifixion.  There, in a nutshell, is the influence of Pilate (and the religious leaders) who set the tone for that whole scene.  So, what messages do you believe are most important to send in your school or organization.  Here are a few that I try to instill where I'm working and living.

Appreciation - My Assistant Principal and I write Energy Boost notes as often as we see them.  Douglas Conant, formerly of Campbell Soup, wrote 10 personal notes every day to his staff.  After a tough year, John Kralik wrote a thank you note every day for a year, then wrote the book 365 Thank Yous to chronicle his experience.  Here are his tips for writing the perfect thank you note.  I recently went to the hospital for a heart problem and received the most impressive service I've every experienced.  With great pleasure I wrote thank you notes to my doctors, the nurses, and the CEO of the hospital.  I know the notes were well received, and conversely, it gave me a great boost to write and deliver the notes as well.

Conversation - Learning is social and so is leading.  I like to get out and interact with teachers before school, during breaks, and any chance I get - sometimes about school related issues, sometimes about life.  Both are equally valuable.  I don't want to act like I care.  I actually do care.  Teachers give their heart and soul to the profession and I appreciate that dedication and try and show it with my time and attention.  It's also great to meet parents in the hallways, waiting for their kids or volunteering. I learn about their successes and struggles and find out which teachers they are pleased with and what issues are causing concern.  When the leader goes out to see what is going on, the good news gets spread more often and the bad news gets handled more quickly.

Reading - One of the questions I almost always ask kids is, "What are you reading"?  I want kids to know that I value reading and I'm a reader as well.  I gladly share what I'm reading and try and find similar books for kids to read in the genre they are currently enjoying.

Learning - It goes without saying that if you want your students and teachers to constantly be learning, you need to be a learner as well.  You must be reading, soaking up new information, observing best practices inside and outside your organization, asking questions, writing, thinking, innovating, taking risks, and failing as these are the ways that you learn.

So, this post started with a pretty sour example of negative leadership.  The great news is that you can turn around a culture that is bent toward negativity with your next action, word, or thank you note.  Why don't you get started today.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Teaching is Brain Surgery... Blindfolded

I recently read Dave Levy's excellent book, Gray Matter.  In it he describes his decision to bring prayer into his relationship with his patients.  He also describes the intricacies of brain surgery by entering through the arteries with a long, pliable wire and inserting microscopic stents and glue to block off blood flow to aneurysms and clots.  It is obviously a profession demanding high levels of skill, vast knowledge of the human anatomy and patience and perseverance.  It got me thinking about the work of teaching and learning and the requirements of a classroom teacher.  They too are doing brain surgery only teachers don't have nearly as much help and assistance as our medical colleagues.  Here are several ways that teaching students is actually harder than brain surgery.

  1. Teachers do not enjoy a live video stream of the immediate effect of their teaching as they work.
  2. Teachers don't usually have a small army of assistants in the classroom to help with the performance.
  3. Teachers' students are not put to sleep while performing the procedure.  They are very wide awake and sometimes tend to fail to cooperate with the teacher's intentions.
  4. Teachers must deal with student misbehavior ranging from inattention to defiance and everything in between.

So, hail to our brain surgeons in the classroom, performing critical work on children's gray matter every day with great wisdom, exceptional skill, and unlimited patience.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Introverts Can Lead

Listning to HBR's Ideacast, I heart Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell's Soup and author of Touchpoints, explain his strategies for turning around several companies.  The final question he answered was around his character his being an introvert.  He explained that the manner in which he finally was able to overcome this trait was by openly acknowledging that he was an introvert and encouraging his team to invite him into a conversation and not wait for him to engage.  It was a powerful moment when he was able to embrace this aspect of his personality and leadership style.  Once he acknowledged openly his bent toward introvertism, he conversely became less of an introvert.   Once again this reminds me of my comments yesterday about leadership styles.  All styles of leadership can be effective.  The loud, gregarious, and extrovert is probably the most common leader style that we think of when we picture the quintessential leader.  However, quiet, reserved, and even introverts can lead.  What is more important is integrity, thoughtfulness, clear thinking, collaboration, and courage.

Monday, November 07, 2011

One Leadership Style Not Needed

I was recently listening to the Catalyst Podcast with Marcus Buckingham, in which he was discussing his new book, Standout.  He was mentioning his study of General Managers in a large company who all had very unique and different strategies to lead their divisions - and all were successful.  He made it clear that those managers would be less successful if they tried to emulate the actions and behaviors of their peers, who led in unique and individualized ways.  The style of leadership is closely tied to the strengths and personality of the leader and the strengths and personality of the team.  A bigger need is to be aware of our own strengths and seek to maximize our impact in a way that is congruent with our own leadership style.    A good question to ask would be, "When I have been most successful, what actions and behaviors have led to that success?"

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Facing Unique Challenges Builds Brain Muscles

Our students needs lots and lots of practice STRUGGLING with novel and challenging problems that they are capable of solving.  They need to learn to try, fail, try again, struggle, and ultimately succeed.  This is reinforced by a recent commentary noted on the New York Times Opinion Page, which demonstrated that students performed better on tests when given practice problems that were not all of the same type:
When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.
This practice is called interleaving and has proven effective in improving students' performance on tests.
A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders to work on solving four types of math problems and then to take a test evaluating how well they had learned. The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practiced one kind of problem at a time