Saturday, July 1, 2017

Recruit/ Retain/ Support Highly Effective People: Retain Part 1

For this post I am going to write entirely from the perspective of the Principalship, and actions that a principal can take (within their realm of control) to retain highly effective people.  First, notice I did not say "highly effective teachers."  They are the core of the building, and the deliverers of knowledge to our students, but in my building, they comprise about 150 of the 230 that work here.  If you are not paying attention to the custodial, clerical, support staff of your building and viewing them as being held to the idea of being highly effective, that is a problem.

At the core of retaining highly effective staff, I value the principle of "Get out of their way and let them do their job."  What this means is doing everything I can in my avenue of influence to cut the noise and distractions that take time from our teachers, teaching.  I am vigilant about trying to cut down and protect our staff about reports due, out of class items to complete, and the time wasters we all encounter in the profession.  I do not want to paint a picture that we solve all of these issues, but I believe a school leader must be mindful to supporting and protecting the classroom.   Trust me; all of this is a constant work in progress. This includes limiting any overhead announcements in the day; building procedures to get students from class when needed that minimize disruptions and cutting down on the clutter of email that can grind people's time away.

A couple Ideas that I utilize, and are continuing to grow with experience:

1. Transparency and Honesty

Even when it is not going to be popular.  I believe this must be a cornerstone of sound practice as a leader.  If your people cannot trust you, they will not listen to you.  This really is not a practice that you can ‘practice’ in my opinion, you have integrity and honesty, or you do not.  I do not think most people wake up in the morning and say “I’m going to lie today” but I do think we fall into the trap of often making decisions, proclamations, or speech that is less than honest because we want to avoid confrontation.  This is not good.  Even when it is not popular, honesty is a cornerstone to building trust.   I have been told many times that I am ‘blunt’, sometimes in a positive way, and sometimes negative.  I freely admit there are times when I could be smoother, more artful in my communication, but I have found repeatedly people appreciate blunt, forthright talk, especially when they know it comes from a place of honesty.  No one appreciates double talk or mincing words.  As a principal I think it is fundamentally important to say what you mean, openly, even if it will be criticized or challenged.  Criticism is a good thing when it comes from a place of care, and an honest leader will listen to it.

Transparency goes hand in hand with honesty.  If they do not know what is going on they will be confused, that confusion will turn into resentment over time, and resentment means a climate that is not conducive to student learning.  At the heart of transparency is being able to explain your decision making process, stand your ground when you are right, and budge when compelling evidence is brought forth.  I believe people appreciate and expect to understand why decisions are made.  If you commit to this, more folks will stay in your building because they will understand what is going on.  Obviously not all decisions fall solely on the principal.  SBDM, shared leadership models, committees all have their role in the process, but at the end of the day anything that goes on in your building falls onto your shoulders. 

Simple things you can do to be more transparent:
-         Explain decision making openly, and at length.  Give the whys and motivations to decisions made
-         Publish anything you can about the money being spent in your school.  Be upfront on what the priorities for the tax generated dollars are
-         Seek input often, and actually listen.  When you are wrong, or your decisions making process changes, explain it fully and give credit for good ideas
-         When you need to, stand your ground and explain why you are not moving.  I believe people appreciate it more if you make a hard decision and take the time to explain why, and I further believe this will win fence sitters over
-         If you have the means, publish your schedule.  Each week I publish my schedule to my staff.  If I am out of the building I explain where and why.  During the summer this year I’ve taken to tweeting “Summer Principal Day XX” so our stakeholders can know what I do as a year round principal

Be upfront, honest, and ready to explain what is going on when people ask.

2. Build predictable systems of conveying information to your staff

By no means is my system perfect, but I use two primary modes of communicating important information.  Realize that our school is 2000+ with seven grades, so we have a lot going on.  I put out a Monday report that delineates what is going on, common expectation, schedules, and I write a focus for the week.  Sometimes an article study, an opinion, a discussion of data, whatever I deem is relevant for the week as the principal.  Secondly, we publish a Community Report at the end of each week. This is geared to our external stakeholders.  Once again, news, what is going on, common expectations, and I write a focus for that group as well.  The Monday Report is published on our internal staff site, and I usually email out a reminder as well.  The Community Report is published via GoogleDocs, and sent out via twitter, Facebook, Instagram, One Call now, and email. 

One big commonality between these two modes is celebration.  I send out each Thursday a google form asking staff if they have any student or staff celebrations.  Usually 30-40 folks will reply, which is not bad at all.  Replies range from the normal stuff: “Johnny got second in track this week” to the more specific “Tyrell helped a classmate this week with homework and I am proud of him.”  Staff celebrations are the same, and serve as an organic way for people to thank each other in building.  The student celebrations are published in the Community Report for all to see, and the staff published in the Monday Report.  It is touching seeing some of the nice things staff members write about each other, and I think it genuinely builds culture.  There is no mandate to do, and no expectation.  For more on that see

Example of the Community Report:

Example of the Monday Report:

3. Be accessible, but not a buddy

In "
Can Leader's Be popular?" By Thoms Hoerr, he speaks to this point more eloquently than I can.  I have carried this article around with me for a couple of years in my toolkit.

I have stood in front of three different buildings now and said the same thing “I am not here to be your friend.  We all have friends.  I am here to lead our building.”  I say this because I believe that as the principal having tons of “friends” and being the “buddy” principal just creates awkwardness, favoritism, and a cult of people scurrying for favor through nonprofessional means, or eschewing work because they believe the principal is more interested in water cooler talk.  That is not my role.  Please do not mistake that for being cold.  I think it is extremely important to be empathetic to your staff, know who they are, and value them.  I think a good leader does this without crossing the line into the friend zone.  I do not want, nor need to hang out with the staff I supervise outside of work.  That does not mean I will not stop by an after school “faculty meeting”, wedding, or other event if invited, but I certainly do not seek it out.  We all have lives outside of school, and I believe it is important to respect my staff’s family time and not intrude upon it. 

So how does this work into retaining staff?  You are probably reading this and thinking, wow that is somewhat aloof.  I think it is important for the principal to be accessible, open, listening, and empathetic.  I think this is best done when you actively perpetuate the line of professionalism.  This is important.  Your staff will come to you with many very deeply personal things.  I’ve had staff members close my door to my office and talk to me about divorces, infidelity, PTSD, drug problems, children locked out, cancer, their dog dying, the mother dying, the list goes on.  You will be amazed at the level of candor people give to the person in a supervisory role.  It is extremely important to be empathetic and work with your staff through trying times, and I think this is best served when that boundary is clear.  You do not make judgments or decisions based on your feelings towards the person’s worth; you make consistent clear judgments and decisions based on the equal worth of all your staff.   I think you can best do that by not becoming deeply immersed in an employee’s personal life.  The professional distance helps in this situation.  In retaining high quality staff, I believe people want consistent, fair, level leadership that they can bring a concern to and know it will be treated confidentially and impartially, devoid of personal feelings. 

Lastly, staff wants a leader they can speak to and know that their voice will be heard as equal to their peers.  If not, resentment sets in.  Discussions of favoritism become the faculty room gossip.  A further fine line here is giving space to your best to roam and do, and promoting leadership among those who step up, without it being perceived as “well he lets her do that because he likes her” or some other such nonsense.  If you are consistent in showing that hard work and initiative are what gets you noticed, your people will see that, and I think respect that.

If asked if I have favorites my response is always yes.  My favorites are the staff members who work their tails off and care about our students.  I want a whole building full of “favorites”

End of part I of this section, more to come in Part II of “Retain High Quality Staff”

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