I remember the day quite clearly: the door to my portable classroom opened and my principal walked in. My heart skipped a beat — it was my first year teaching and the first time any school leader had come into my room. I was immediately worried about the clipboard in her hand and the uncapped pen. I was convinced that whatever I was doing would be wrong, that the moment would be off, that my students unengaged or the lesson would go off the rails. I was nervous about receiving feedback, but I now know that I needed it.
I was really fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at a number of really great conferences, one of which was the Responsive Conference. The Responsive Conference is in it’s third year and features presenters and attendees focused on the future of work. There were so many great sessions but the one led by Rajkumari Neogy, Founder of iRestart, on The Epigenetics of Teams still stands out weeks later. Rajkumari shared an incredible synthesis of research around the science of feelings and trust. She helped us to understand the chemicals in our body and the impact they have on trust, collaboration, and team dynamics. For example she shared, “When teams are more engaged they have greater levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces the fear of trusting a stranger and helps signal trust. When we have higher levels of oxytocin we are able to build connections faster.” Similarly we organically, internally create serotonin when we feel seen and heard; opioids when we feel warmth and respect; and dopamine when we have autonomy and purpose.
Appreciation and showing gratitude, to ourselves and others, is powerful. The British Psychological Society shares the results of a series of experiments from Psychological Science, which concluded that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.” In the study:
“Participants were asked to write a letter of thanks via email to someone who had touched their life in a meaningful way, including expressing what the person had done and how it had affected their life. Across these experiments, the participants were asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Meanwhile, the researchers made contact with the recipients to find out how they actually felt and what they actually thought. The senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be. Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of findings.”
I was fortunate in September to be able to attend and present at really great conferences. One of these was TinyCon, TinyPulse’s annual conference focused on employee engagement. The event featured fantastic speakers, and one of my favorite talks came from Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks. Howard is on our board at Education Elements, and I’ve been lucky to hear him speak a number of times. However, at TinyCon I found that his message resonated in a particularly deep way with me, both personally and professionally.
Often as leaders, we want to make things run smoothly. But Howard continually pushes us to see that people are not machines who can be “smooth” all the time. As he often says, “People are not assets. Assets are trucks, boxes, etc. Assets always give you what you expect. People are people. People never give you what you expect. You don’t even give yourself what you expect!” People are inevitably going to surprise, wow, and disappoint you. Howard offers this powerful question you can ask yourself and your organization when these people moments occur. “What happens when someone makes a mistake in the organization?” This singular question can have a tremendous impact on how we as leaders reflect and act.
Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling from state to state talking with superintendents and systems leaders about how to create a culture of innovation. One of the key themes we discuss in these conversations, workshops, and keynotes is around developing deep trust. For me, and many other leaders, deep trust is built through fostering a psychologically safe environment. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Researcher who coined this term, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
One of the unspoken rules of The New School Rules is “make your organization human.” From the way you make decisions to the way you shape rules and communicate information, being responsive is at its core about making your organization value people over processes. There is no better way to start valuing people than starting to put connections before content.
I had the opportunity to attend a webinar with Lynn Carter, Director of Talent Acquisition at Netflix. Many of you know Netflix as the first company to ship a DVD straight to your home (my mom still loyally queues up movies to be delivered to her Oregon home every week). In the past decade, Netflix has also gained recognition as a leader in organizational design and culture. Having had the chance to learn from Carter, I listen to Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings on Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. From these two interviews, I discerned three key lessons from how Netflix thinks about building and evolving their organizational culture that I think are relevant to any leader who wants to strengthen their own organizational culture.
Take a look at your calendars and consider the number of meetings you have each week. Can you say that you go through most of those meetings and 100% finish on time and in each of those meetings you get 80%-90% of the agenda items covered? While getting all this done, can you say that 100% of all meeting attendees get a chance to participate? I can. Just tweaking a few things about your meeting will make a significant difference in your organizational culture.
We all are familiar with the Trust Fall – the stereotypical team building activity where you fall backwards and another person catches you. The goal of this activity is to promote trust in the workplace; unfortunately, it doesn’t work. That is, although we almost always catch the falling teammate, the trust isn’t easily transferred to the world of work, where the circumstances, the speed, and the definitions of roles and accountabilities are apt to be much different.
If there was ever a time in my career as a school and district leader that I wish I could have a “do-over”, it is now.
Why, you might ask? Well, I just finished this fascinating new book about teaming.
In fact, as I read through Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black’s recent book, The NEW School Rules (NSR), I was taken back by how clearly they identified the dysfunctions that occur so often in school district work. They point out what I experienced time after time. Teams I led, and teams I was a member of, worked so hard to develop plans to solve our problems. We had, what Anthony and Alexis refer to as the “effort of the engine.” But, we weren’t addressing the underlying structure, processes, and rules that our teams were using to focus and shape our efforts. Looking back, we missed in three key ways.