Monday, January 17, 2011

Leading Out Loud

It's in plain English for the whole world to see! Well, maybe not the whole world since I have the only copy but sometime long ago, during that mid-winter marking period, Mrs. Sprawls decided that one of her young kindergarten charges talks unnecessarily. It was the only handwritten comment on a four-page report that utilized simple rubrics to communicate progress to parents. Or, as in my case, to let mom and dad know in the opinion of the teacher their second oldest son basically talks too much!

I think I might have been a handful in my early school years since the first and second grade teachers both thought I needed to do a better job of conforming to school regulations, and my fourth and fifth grade teachers said I needed improvement in practicing self-control. As far as my sixth grade year, we won't even go there! It was a disastrous year right up to falling off a two-story roof the following summer, except that I did do quite well during the two marking periods I attended a public school at the end of that year. Did I tell you I had been attending a catholic school since first grade? Never mind what happened but needless to say sister somebody thought I could use a change of venue and sent me off down the road. My new-found success in the public school was short lived however, especially after the roof dive, which by the way really messed up our family vacation plans that summer to the joy of my parents and six siblings. But when I returned to my former school for seventh grade, I managed to pick right up where I left off, receiving unsatisfactory marks in conduct from several of my teachers that year as well as the next. And let's not even get into the high school years!

Sigh. Talks unnecessarily.

From time to time I'm still accused of talking unnecessarily but over the years I've improved on it to where it has become a central component of my leadership style – leading out loud. Trust is important to any organization and in a public school system it begins with the transparency of communications and general willingness of the superintendent to be open about every facet of district operations. Secrecy, outside of narrow areas mandated by law and regulation, begets distrust and a leader cannot stand in that type of climate. Secrecy encourages the rumor mill which quickly poisons any organization.

Leading out loud is about using a variety of communications to create valuable connections with everyone around you.

Unless a leader connects with people, they will fail to achieve their true leadership potential. By connection I do not mean superficial networking. I am talking about the ‘connection’ that leaves the other person feeling that they matter, even in some small way....To make an effective connection you have to use the full range of your communication channels. ~ Martin Soorjoo

Soorjoo concludes by suggesting that “openness about their feelings and beliefs” is an important characteristic of a “great connector.” And while I in no way see myself as a great connector, I do believe that my style of leadership honed over twenty-two years as a military officer and another fifteen years as a public school administrator, is significantly enhanced by my desire to be open and transparent in communications. In the past several years, I've taken advantage of the expansion of real-time communications through technology to build on this characteristic.

Here are a few suggestions regarding leading out loud:

Bring everyone to the table. In my district, this includes first and second tier administrators as well as labor association leaders. Our teacher association president sits as a member of my administrative leadership team, attending and contributing to all of our meetings. The association leaders also sit at the main table during our Board of Education and administrator work sessions and they have an opportunity to participate in the development of the agenda. There is no “us” and “them.”

Think out loud. I use a variety of technology tools to supplement personal connections to create a climate where everyone feels confident that they know what I'm thinking and where I'm going with something. In addition, I strive to model their use as well as self-learning as new technologies become available. Here are several primary tools I use:

Blogging – I have an official district blog site (Superintendent's Notes) as well as a personal site (Rebel 6 Ramblings) both of which I use frequently to convey my opinions about global, national, state and local matters and share professional knowledge about teaching and learning.

Facebook – I personally manage the district's Facebook page and use it daily to communicate with parents, staff, students, alumni and other community members providing updates on school events, links to my blog postings and other news items, as well as recognition and celebrations of success.

Twitter – this misunderstood and underused tool affords me the capability of updating followers will real-time information while collaborating with my peers in the education field regarding a broad range of critical issues in public education. No other technology communication tool matches the speed and simplicity of Twitter. I maintain a district account as well as a personal one, using both to create valuable connections to not only boost my professionalism but provide me with a platform to help influence needed educational reform.

Of course, our district website and email continue to play specific roles and our expanding use of Google applications has also helped to develop a whole new approach for open communications. As an example, we're using Google Docs to collaborate on the development of agendas for our administrative and board/admin work sessions. Last summer, we set up a Google Site to collaboratively develop a critical school improvement grant application that included many components and a short time deadline.

I've also done some exploration of Ning sites and other social-networking tools. As an example, I interact with students at various grade levels through their classroom Edmodo sites, giving me a window into what they are thinking about school while affording me a chance to encourage them through an interface they are very comfortable with.

Be visible and accessible. Technology certainly is not intended to be a substitute for face-time with staff, parents, or with students. I try to be in at least one school building every day and all of them at least once each week, venturing into classrooms, offices and wherever teachers and students congregate. I also spend a great deal of my time attending after-school events, getting to know the students outside of the regular school day and extending that to their parents, as well. On these occasions I try to spend most of the time listening but I never pass up an opportunity to bounce my ideas off others and gage their initial reactions. Many of these ideas are in their infancy and often have not been well thought out, but leading out loud requires a willingness to be transparent from the start, exposing yourself to personal risk and rejection. It comes with the territory.

Leading out loud is nothing more than developing a culture of open communications in your district. An increasing number of folks in the business world are coming to the realization that open communications – up, down and sideways – can lead to greater employee engagement and overall improvement, yet most of our school systems and other public organizations still operating under a blanket of secrecy, especially when it comes to labor, budget and other difficult issues.

Creating a culture of open communication can be a scary proposition for upper management, but in today’s social mediums, the sharing of ideas and content continues to grow at a rapid pace. If your organization continues to be secretive or less than forthcoming about company issues, you may see your workforce alienate you and seek better opportunities when the market turns. ~ Jessica Nelson, HRRemedy

So, talks unnecessarily? Maybe sometimes at the wrong time but in my role as leader of a preK-12 district and my potential impact on teaching and learning, verbally or in writing, I don't feel I can talk enough.

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