The Power of a Professional

About a year ago I was privileged to serve on a leadership coalition that traveled to Gettysburg for a three day training. It was an incredible experience that incorporated leadership lessons from the past for application towards improving and leading our current organizations. It was a once in a lifetime leadership opportunity that provided a wealth of individual and organizational learnings.

As a lifelong learner and student of leadership, a chance to expand my knowledge was invigorating, and I drank in every moment of this experience. Fortunately, I was not let down, each and every day was a panorama of leadership learnings. Many of which are etched in my memory and find application in my work on a daily basis.

From museums, to battlefields, and even college seminar rooms, each day was packed from dawn till dusk with leadership opportunities. Opportunities to engage with world class leaders and educators expounding upon lessons taken from the battlefields of Gettysburg to the wisdom of President Lincoln. The experience provided true insight into the past as a vital link to understanding and solving our current organizational and individual leaderships issues.

However, in the middle of this tremendous experience, one single seminar truly caught me off guard and hit me deeply, both as a leader and an educator. The simplicity of the insights issued had deep implications for the future of education as a profession. Interestingly enough, these insights were proclaimed in parallel to the state of our armed forces. Professor Emeritus of Political Science at West Point, Dr. Don M. Snider commanded our attention with a message that I still reflect upon to this day. It was a truly powerful and captivating message. The message proclaimed that day? Are We Professionals?

Shortly after our return from the trip, I sought out the obscure work of this professor and his two colleagues. I have included an example of their work that echoes the message from that day, with an “education” influence inserted into the quote …

“The purpose of any profession is to serve society by effectively delivering a necessary and useful specialized service. To fulfill those societal needs, professions – such as medicine, law, the clergy, military and ‘education’ – develop and maintain distinct bodies of specialized knowledge and impart expertise through formal, theoretical, and practical education. Each profession establishes a unique subculture that distinguishes practitioners from the society they serve while supporting and enhancing that society. Professions create their own standards of performance and codes of ethics to maintain their effectiveness. To that end they develop particular vocabularies, establish journals, and sometimes adopt distinct forms of dress. In exchange for holding their members to high technical and ethical standards, society grants professionals a great deal of autonomy.” -Field Manual 1, June 14, 2005, para. 1-40

The previously quoted example is aligned closely to the message imparted to us that day, and it was extremely thought-provoking. We left enlightened with an understanding and knowledge, similar to successful organizations, that professions are a function of trust…a trust that society places on you as a “specialized service” to “fulfill societal needs.” And when society loses “trust” in your ability to operate and function in that manner, eventual bureaucracy and a stifling of the profession linger not far behind.

It is definitely worth noting from their work…”society grants professionals a great deal of autonomy“…and it is society that will determine your ability to operate as a profession and or professional. However, as trust dissipates, so will the ability to function with autonomy within the profession or as a professional.

Dr. Snider’s seminar and literary work, “The Army’s Professional Military Ethic In An Era of Persistent Conflict” caused me to take a long, difficult, and reflective look at our institution of education and the educational profession…

Professions create their own standards of performance and codes of ethics to maintain their effectiveness.

In closing, Dr. Snider’s work raises many questions for us as we reflect on our current situation…Are we operating as ‘professionals‘ or has bureaucracy infiltrated the ranks of the profession? Does society still have trust in our ability to function as a profession or has the rug unknowingly been pulled out from under us?

Thank you to Dr. Snider for his powerful reflection on our practice as professionals…

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Blindsided by Complacency

Complacency is not a new phenomena to organizational leadership in society or the 21st century. Whether in a business, medical, sporting, or educational organization, complacency is a lingering “inhibitor” to many a change effort or initiative.

Understanding these growing concerns, today’s leaders must promptly equip themselves with a deeper understanding on how to best lead change efforts and challenge complacency in our professions. Leading change in our present-day organizations requires a perceptive barometer for determining the cultural atmosphere.  To advance organizational goals and alignment, a change agent must acquire a strong grasp and familiarity with their organization’s culture, vigilantly monitoring the “temperature” of the cultural waters.  Leadership must discern and determine the why that necessitates the what and how of change, acknowledge the patience needed for implementing with appropriate timing, and creating the necessary urgency and momentum behind the initiative.

Business and thought leader, John Kotter, asserts in “Leading Change” that eight steps are necessary to leading sustained change efforts within your teams or organizations. However, the inability to gain traction with step one, “creating a sense of urgency” deflates and defeats most change efforts before they ever get out of the gate.  Kotter notes that,  “establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. Transformation is not possible when complacency is high.  Without a sense of urgency, momentum dies before the change effort can finish.

The inability to create a “sense of urgency” in your people, teams and organization will usually lead you down a path to complacency.  In today’s rapidly changing and evolving technological environment, the overabundance of data and information has been the demise of many a complacent organization as those they serve seek out better service and products when that complacency fails to deliver on expectations.  Unfortunately, most realize the consequences of their complacency after the damage is done and the window for corrective change has closed.

To paint the picture in a different light…

I truly enjoy the sport of hockey.  During the years that I was privileged to play, the game time bench was the center of activity, filled with wise cracks and taunts.  One of which I remember fondly, which was usually applied just after a player was steamrolled by a hit…

…”better skate with your head up.”  Meaning that many a player has found themselves caught up in skating and puck handling when they need to be aware of their environment and the hit that may be bearing down on them.  Playing “head down” takes you out of the play and opens you up for real disaster on the ice.  When your attention is feverishly focused on the puck, awareness of your environment is constrained, opportunities are missed, teammates are frustrated, and the intensity and collaborative efforts on the ice are hampered.  Not to mention opening yourself up to a possibly devastating and/or game ending hit.

Players that refuse put in the necessary time and effort to increase their skills are often the same players that continue to “skate with their head down” oblivious to the game unfolding around them.  Those are the same players that are often blindsided by hits that they should have seen coming.

When teams, organizations, and their leaders let complacency set in, disregard the necessity to continually invest time and energy towards new skill-sets and learning, they find themselves blindsided by a hit they should have seen coming.  When we allow our leadership button to default to “cruise control” and keep skating “with our head down” then we should not act surprised by the consequences of our actions, or inaction…

Consequences…finding yourself laid out on your back, blindsided by a hit you weren’t prepared for.  Consequences…instantaneous increase in the urgency meter…being blindsided has a way of immediately tearing down the walls of complacency.

We live in a world of constantly evolving technology and endless streams of data and information…there is no reason for us to “skate with our head down.”  We must seize the opportunity that innovation has provided us to grow our skill-sets and knowledge and increase our ability to “skate with our head up.”

However, many of today’s leaders will choose to “skate with their head down,” complacent and unaware, often at the peril of the organization and those that serve within it.  When the hit comes, will they be able to get back in the game, or like many of today’s organizations, will the hit eliminate you from the game?  Unfortunately, many individuals, teams and organizations never fully recover.  While some players are able to come back even stronger, building new skill sets and knowledge, determined to avoid the next hit.  Others may get back in the game, but they are never the same and spend the remainder of their career tentative and scared of being hit again.

The question is…are you playing with your head up or will you find yourself blindsided by complacency?  And if you already find yourself laying on your back…can you get back in the game and learn from the complacency that put you on your back?  Or will you play the rest of the game in fear?  Either way…

The puck is on your stick…

The Importance of Relevant Leadership

Relevant and relevance, two often overlooked and yet vitally important terms, especially in regards to the organizations that operate in our modern society. More and more often we see those organizations and products that we viewed as constants in our lives both disrupted and eradicated as they lose their ability to meet the needs of a constantly changing and evolving world.

Kodak, Mervyns, Circuit City, Blockbuster and a plethora of other organizations have watched as innovation has disrupted and rendered their products and services no longer needed…forcing them to close shop and forever shut their doors to a public they once served. When organizations and individuals are unable or unwilling to notice and anticipate the change forces coming at them they very often find themselves and their organizations not only losing relevance, but becoming irrelevant. For some the process is very quick and decisive and for others it is a slow march to extinction.

Most often, leadership can be faulted for their inability or unwillingness to anticipate and understand the change forces that are underfoot. Leaders have to adjust their mindset to recognize that we operate in a completely different society, a society where trends in fashion, music, business and technology change as quickly as they are ushered into existence. Those same trends in technology are responsible for a constant need to innovate and disrupt itself exponentially. It is that same disruptive technology that serves as the medium for a current and constant data stream that often reveals the ground is moving below our feet even before we have noticed.

However, as leaders, it is our responsibility to the organizations and individuals we lead and serve to be ever vigilant in anticipating those changes. Making ourselves accountable to data and data-based decision-making is an increasing component of today’s leadership duties. Understanding and utilizing relevant information to prepare your organization to meet the demands of an ever changing and evolving world and society in which we exist is a requirement for relevancy in the 21st century.

Leaders themselves have to be attentive to their own abilities and skill-sets if they are to increase their capacity to stay relevant. Today’s leaders need to be intrinsically motivated to embrace their own professional and personal development. Personal accountability to themselves and those they lead spurs the motivation to continually put them ahead of the curve. A leader must be in a constant state of building upon and evolving the skill-sets that took them to the level of leadership for which they currently reside. The willingness to put forth the effort and time to improve at your craft is a true mark of a professional.

However, one of the many reasons organizations find themselves facing a relevance dilemma is that the same leadership that took them to their current level of achievement no longer has the applicable skill-set to guide them further down the continuum. We often see our leaders work diligently to acquire the learning and knowledge to reach their current level in an organization, and once acquired, the diligence to continue their learning and build upon their current skill-set diminishes or dissolves altogether. What many fail to realize is that those same skill-sets and acquired knowledge that took you to your current position is often outdated by the time you fill the position. A reason why a focus on increasing the learning capacity in our organizations is truly vital to their ability to stay relevant and ahead of the curve in today’s society. It is also the reason why organizational leaders must not only model, but lead the charge.

As a leader, take charge of your own learning and professional development if you want make sure that both you and the organization that you lead remain a vital and relevant factor in today’s society.

Can We Overcome Our Innovation Gap?

Our educational system is facing a multitude of “tipping points” in today’s landscape.  You might say it is both a very exciting and rather difficult and concerning time to be working in public education.

Our world has opened up and been condensed through the relentless advance of technology.  And with that technology, a plethora of research, strategies and ideas has been placed at our fingertips for us to utilize and implement for the benefit of our students.

Yet, even in the 21st century, we still struggle with large pockets of complacency and avoidance to the research and best practices.  Often decisions are made in spite of knowledge to current research that not only hinders the progress and growth of the profession, but the very students who rely on us to prepare them for an unknown and quickly changing future.

In 2000, Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton released their seminal work dedicated to improving the ability of organizations to turn knowledge into action, known as “The Knowing-Doing Gap”.   While touted as a business leadership book, their work speaks volumes to the various “tipping points” we are facing in moving our educational system forward into the 21st century.  Let’s look at how their work with business organizations can shed light on factors that may be impeding ‘next steps’ to progress…

“Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished.  When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.”  –The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton

A gathering of the world’s highest performing educational systems met in New York to discuss and determine how to best prepare teachers and school leaders for the 21st century.  This International Summit focused on how to best improve the teaching profession and methods needed to develop and increase the ability of our school leaders and teachers to prepare our students with the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

While discussions took on varied topics at the summit, a main theme that ran throughout was a focus on strong leadership and the key role that instructional leaders must play in creating and sustaining high performing education systems.  Creating these high performing systems would require our instructional leaders to possess the necessary tools and ability to support, develop and evaluate teachers towards increased quality and effectiveness.  Alongside leadership and teacher quality, themes such as equity, accountability and building a results-focused culture of commitment were central talking points at the summit.  However, it appears that instructional leadership and teacher quality took center stage  in these discussions.

If this is true and leadership does play a central role in the success of our public educational system in preparing our students to thrive in the 21st century…then it is vital that our actions and initiatives match the rhetoric behind this monumental task.

As with any great system or organization, building a culture of commitment requires a foundation built upon and based on trust if it is to be both effective and sustained. If you want those in the system to be committed and results-focused, then it is the responsibility of leadership to create a culture where those themes can flourish. Otherwise, best case scenario…when leadership is lacking, you end up with a culture of compliance that seeps into your organization or system. And for these reasons, we have to determine if the culture we have constructed in education supports what teachers are being asked to accomplish.

What we are asking teachers to do is to be more innovative, integrate technology…equip our students with the skills necessary for them to be successful in a changing and growing global economy.  To have a 21st century skill-set.

And in the same breath, we are sending our teachers an incongruent message by incorporating “new evaluation systems” aimed at eliminating ineffective teachers and implementing “value-added initiatives” that spotlight individual teacher progress for student achievement on high-stakes standardized tests.

So what is the message that is being heard by teachers?

Be innovative at your own risk.  There is no room for failure and/or learning from mistakes.  Innovation and building new skill-sets is great, as long as your scores on high-stakes tests continue to increase each year.

While our rhetoric may focus on the importance of integrating technology and preparing our students with those necessary 21st century skills…our initiatives send what our teachers hear as the ‘real’ message. If your students don’t perform well on high-stakes standardized tests then you risk being labeled as ineffective…with the possibility of being terminated from your position.

Do not misread the message here…I am in no way against the use of assessments and assessment data to determine and monitor the progress and achievement of our students. Assessment and assessment data are incredibly valuable tools for determining the effectiveness of our instruction and the level of student learning achieved from that instruction.

Formative assessment is one of the best interventions available to teachers in the classroom for determining progress and next steps. However, as with all good tools, how you use them determines their overall effectiveness.

As instructional leaders…should we be the least bit surprised when we use assessment and assessment data as a hammer and/or evaluative tool and in the same breath demand teachers to be more innovative…and wonder why change is limited or often non-existent?

Pfeffer and Sutton accurately point out in the opening quote…“when people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past.  Fear will cause them to repeat past mistakes and re-create past problems, even when they know better ways of doing their work.” 

If we continue to send the message that high-stakes standardized tests are the pinnacle of determining your effectiveness as a teacher…we will continue to see our classrooms shielded from new and innovative ways of teaching. The risk of job loss and being labeled as an ineffective instructor will keep teachers focused on “scoring high” and inhibit, rather than increase innovative methods of instruction and learning that prepare our students for the 21st century.

Beyond leadership and teacher evaluation, the summit engaged itself around methods to transform our classrooms and focused on;

  • complex ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and learning
  • complex ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communication technologies.

Once again, necessary skill sets for students heading out into a fierce and competitive global marketplace.

However, if we are going to transform education for the 21st century…it is the responsibility of our instructional leaders to incorporate and model those necessary skills in our educational system.

More creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration will be necessary if we are going to exact positive change for student success. We have to increase our understanding of change and change theory and processes if we are going to be more effective within the educational system. Comprehending that fear is a strong deterrent to change and change efforts is a great first place to start.

As Pfeffer and Sutton soundly express in The Knowing-Doing Gap…“it is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, in an atmosphere of trust and safety.  Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.”

If our students are to reap the benefits of graduating both college and career ready and appropriately equipped to thrive in a competitive global marketplace…the decision-making prowess of our instructional leaders must remain focused on developing and sustaining the conditions and cultures that will support and allow forward-thinking and innovative ideas and methods to grow and flourish in the system.

Evaluation: Differentiation vs. Show Me

In these days of constricting budgets and intense internal and external accountability, our school instructional leaders are required to wear a variety of administrative hats out of necessity. Their leadership efforts and decisions drive the culture and collaborative efforts of those who work within and attend their school. They play the role of both leader and manager and must do both equally well. A ten to twelve hour work day is not out of the norm for many of our school leaders.

Daily responsibilities include creating a safe and secure campus for all students, appropriate use of general and categorical funds, determining which instructional programs and strategies to implement, and what methods will best support students and their learning through appropriate progress monitoring, differentiation of instruction and necessary and timely interventions. While this may sound like a lot, it is just a glimpse…this does not include a variety of staff, team, intervention and IEP meetings, parent concerns, lunch duty, after school sporting and academic events, etc. For school leaders, no day is the same and the unexpected is often the norm.

However, like many other professions and organizations, the area of evaluation remains an elusive target to pin down and implement effectively. For school leaders, the overwhelming amount of responsibilities can impede on the evaluation process and the urgent often supercedes the necessary. Evaluation often becomes an obligatory process in which the evaluator and evaluatee meet between two to four times a year and usually after a perfunctory classroom observation. The process can lack the meaningful dialogue and support that is necessary to drive its overall purpose…improving professional practice and student learning.

Evaluation often ends up another example in the educational setting of what is best practice for student learning is not best practice for adults and their learning. In the classroom we utilize a variety of strategies to engage students in their learning, yet we utilize few if any of those strategies in our own meetings and wonder at the lack of engagement by our own colleagues. The same rings true with the evaluation process…in the classroom we determine how we are going to monitor the progress of the learner, in what ways we will need to differentiate for equity within the process, issuing timely feedback to support growth and next steps, and what interventions are necessary to support and scaffold the learning for the student. The question is why are these best practices not implemented in the evaluation process?

Evaluation is an excellent opportunity for school instructional leaders to infuse and increase adult learning throughout the campus. Rather, it is often a process of choosing a few obligatory standards for focus and scheduling few dates during the year for the evaluatee to “show me” your progress. We must look for opportunities to differentiate and engage teachers in the process, invoking collegial discussions, feedback, and providing targeted professional development in real time. It is both the duty and the opportunity of the school’s instructional leader to provide supportive assistance that increases capacity, rather than the utilizing evaluation as a “gotcha.”

Differentiating the evaluation process will include an instructional leader’s abilities to engage teachers in new learnings, build capacity, foster a collaborative and innovative culture, provide effective and strategic feedback, and build relationships based on trust. Evaluation can be an exciting process depending on how it is approached and implemented in your school. Look for ways to differentiate and engage people in the process, rather than the “tried and true” standardized model that is so prevalent in most organizations.

In closing, make sure that those you lead know that you are for them and their success, it will increase commitment and build trust into the process. And remember, leaders have the privilege of going first…it is up to you to make sure the evaluation process hits it’s intended target…increasing professional practice in order to support student learning. If we are to create students who are lifelong learners, then we must model that love of learning for those we teach in our practice and in our work.

Trust…It’s Not Just A Buzzword

Trust is one of those words that gets thrown around quite frequently these days…to the point that it’s true depth and importance to growing and nurturing successful relationships and organizations is often lost.  Without it, relationships and organizations often grind down into dysfunction, support and teamwork are often replaced with personal agendas, doubt, suspicion, fear, and distrust that disable the momentum and effectiveness of your relationships, teams and organizations.

When we as leaders fail to see and understand the importance of building trust with those we lead, we run the risk of losing the confidence of those we serve.  A confidence that is easily broken if not nurtured and fed.  Understanding that trust serves as a foundation for our leadership will increase our ability to create strong and successful relationships and organizations.  The avoidance of many leaders to make themselves vulnerable and real to those they lead can inhibit their ability to sustain trusting relationships in their organizations.

Our leadership literature abounds with the many ways we can build and lose trust in our relationships, teams, and our organizations…whether it is a 10 step process, 6 vital ways, or an 8 point plan…the strategies are all there.  However, we often fail to recognize one vital component that will lie at the core of your ability to build trust with those you lead…

Are you for me?  Those four words lie at the heart of your trust-building efforts.  Everything hinges on those four words.  People have to know that you are for them before they are willing to trust you.  If you want those you lead to follow you…make sure they know that you are for them!