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Business Strategies Can Work In Education

Several years ago, I transitioned from working in the private sector, Dell, Sony, Harrah’s Casino and started working in education. It was an amazing journey of personal growth, frustration, challenges, and application. Most people I talk to assumed that there were frustrations and challenges in the transition because of their experiences working within K-12 or what they may have heard from other. Challenges associated with lots of bureaucracy, internally focused strategies, outdated systems and processes, unwillingness or slow to respond to change, limited funding, etc. Although some educational organizations may operate this way, what I found is that there are many talented folks that work in education, and like many organizations, they are constantly distracted by changes out of their control or unfunded mandates pushed down from law makers who don’t have a clue about how to operate a successful school.

When I took the job at this district with over 75,000 students and 11,000 full and part time workers, I came in with a strategic vision of how I wanted our organization to contribute to the district’s overall success. My leader, at the time, had a very different vision on how he thought the HR department should contribute. His focus was on fixing the problems and rightfully so. I totally understood because the HR department, judging from the outside and what was conveyed to me in several meetings, was a total wreck. Nothing was working, piles and piles of paperwork everywhere, people not smiling, no one trusting this group, interdepartmental silos, no one answering the phones, a variety of answers f the same question depending on who you talk to, people in the same roles executing differently leading to a lot of confusion for the customer, and the list goes on. I am leaving off quite a bit, but I just wanted to provide some detail to understand why my lofty vision was in such contrast to what my leader needed at the time.

So, getting back to application. What I have learned in the many years working with large corporate organizations, in order to get people to do the small things, you have to provide them with a BHAG. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Now we didn’t use audacious in manufacturing, but I think you can follow me. The BHAG is the one thing that gets people up, get them excited, inspired them to do extraordinary things, and pushed them to exceed your expectations. When we focus on the tactics, sometimes it can create the opposite feeling and that’s why we get what we get – no energy, low morale, high turnover, etc. Because no one wants to shovel, they want to ride the horse. Unfortunately, in some of these organizations, they don’t know that a horse even exists – they just know that they need to keep shoveling.

My BHAG for our organization was that our district would be a Talent Factory and we would have a Leadership Brand attracting the best talent available. Both of my visions came from articles written in the Harvard Business Review magazine years earlier. I remember reading these magazines all the time when working for Dell and seeing the things I was reading being performed exactly, like a script, within Dell’s organization. It was inspiring to work for an organization that was operating like what I was reading. We had great leaders, they knew their business, they knew the competition, they were charismatic, thoughtful, fearless, and very demanding. Damn, damn, damn, were they ever demanding. Sorry, strolling down memory lane.

After a couple of days on the job, I had my first “All Hands”! This is where I would bring in everyone in my organization for a 1.5 – 2-hour meeting to get them fired up about riding that “horse”. Not knowing this was their first “All-Hands” ever, unless you count convocation at the beginning of the school year when the entire district is invited to hear the superintendent rally the troops prior to the start of the school year, I assumed this was typical. I remember seeing my entire staff at the meeting sitting quietly waiting for me to speak. I was honored. I introduced myself, recognized a few team members, celebrated some good things happening within our group, and dived right into our BHAG. I was prepared, flowed so well, pulling in my experiences from all the great leaders I was exposed to at these awesome companies, my leadership team beaming with pride…I was on a roll. I felt like Michelangelo on steroids. Yes, it was beautiful.

After I was done, I asked if there were any questions. Crickets! Silence! Blank stares! Wow, nothing. I asked my leadership team after the meeting what had happened and they told me that it was the first time anyone at my level asked for their input in a big open meeting. Oh! Well, to make a long story short, over time I started getting a lot of feedback in these meetings, we improved our organization’s reputation, we realized our BHAG of becoming a Talent Factory, and created a strong Leadership Brand attracting some amazing talent. It was accomplished with an amazing HR team, district leadership team, and Board of Trustees!

There were a lot of learnings along the way and that’s why I am writing. I believe what we did in my district can be done in all districts. It took courage, grit, persistence, and a lot of great people. I know you also have great people but does your organization collectively have the courage, grit, and persistence to set a BHAG and then realize it?

I would like to start a Superintendent’s master mind group to discuss some of these articles written by Harvard Business Review and see how these would apply to our districts across the country. I don’t have the process or system to do it – I just need a few interested superintendents to start meeting with me virtually every month to discuss. I don’t know if this is something that is needed, but I am one that would like to change the perceptions about our public schools! Will you join me in creating a BHAG for our schools?

Fear is inevitable, but Courage is a choice.

We always have a choice, what will yours be today?


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