Two of Eight: Mixed Messages

Confusion sets in.  You can see it in their faces. You think that you are being very clear on next steps and expectations. What is wrong with what you are saying or doing?  How can they not understand? In our personal and professional lives, we experience moments when clarity seems impossible.  To ourselves or to others, sometimes, things do not make sense.

Despite our best intentions, we don’t always match our words with our actions.  First of all, we have to understand what we prioritize and expect.  It takes self-discipline and commitment to stay focused on what we have decided is the right work.  And, we have to know what it looks like when we follow through with what we say is important.

In Leading with Intention, chapter two, (, Jeanne and I share our thoughts and suggestions about ensuring that schools are well organized systems.  We open the chapter with an example of going to two concerts- one is really well organized and the other is, quite simply, chaotic.  Both operators promise the same thing- an amazing experience but only one delivers. The one that is the epic experience is different because of the procedures in place. UnknownThere is clarity on how things are done, there are systems in place for crowd control and procedures for safety and there are people visibly available to support you.  There are no mixed messages. You, as the concert goer are clear on where to park, how to enter, what to bring, how easy it is to get food and beverages and you see the thought that has gone in to aligning the actions with the message of delivering on a great experience.

While we were writing the book, we were saddened by the number of school shootings that occurred. As hard as these situations were, it helped us think about the importance of school safety and how this has to be part of the planning that is done to ensure that a school is well organized and does not feel chaotic. We invited our readers to reflect on current safety practices and procedures and to adjust what you need to bring clarity to what would be expected.  Years ago, I worked in a school where no one knew what the procedure was for a bomb threat. One happened on a day when the principal was out of the building, taking with her the procedures for what we all were to do.  One of the assistant principals was in charge and when the bomb threat came in, she really didn’t know how to inform her teachers and students to evacuate.  Out of desperation, she finally went on the intercom and made a school-wide announcement that we were to evacuate because we had had a bomb threat.  You can likely guess that some chaos followed.  This wasn’t exactly what the principal had in mind with her safety procedures but it was not clear to the other administrators or staff. When she returned, she was quite surprised that we didn’t know what to do. Needless to say, there were mixed messages (or no messages) in our safety plans.

In our school improvement coaching roles, Jeanne and I are often asked if the principal should focus on “organization” or “instruction”. As Jim Collins writes in Built to Last, the Builders of greatness reject the “Tyranny of the OR” and embrace the “Genius of the AND.” They embrace both extremes across a number of dimensions at the same time—purpose AND profit, continuity AND change, freedom AND responsibility, discipline AND creativity, humility AND will, empirical analysis AND decisive action, etc.”.  The reason that we lead schools is so each student can succeed. That happens in the classroom and, as Collins writes, it isn’t about or. It also happens because of the structures and practices that school leaders put in place so students feel safe and are clear on expectations for behaviors and learning. Learning happens because of the classroom experiences and the organizational culture of the school. Students tell us all the time when their school is “a mess” as one high school student recently described the way the daily routines were in his building. The adults too-they must have clarity on what is expected. That really is the underlying theme of being organized; the structures have to be in place and people need to know what they are! It cannot be an or.

In many countries and districts, schools will soon be closing for the summer. In other countries, schools are in to their new school year. It doesn’t matter where you are in your timing, it is always a good idea to review and reflect on the “organizational” culture that you are creating. Or, maybe it is about what you are not creating?  Are you avoiding setting things in order because they require making changes and asking people to do different things? Is it because you really haven’t thought about what others “perceive” the expectations to be?  Is there clarity or mixed messages?

We end each chapter with some suggestions of what great leaders do and what great leaders avoid. We also ask you to reflect on what you would do differently based on what you read.  For example, we suggest that you walk the building for eight minutes each day to identify aspects of school organization and safety that you can improve.  Or consider developing a school survey to determine aspects of school safety and organization that are working well and what others suggest that you might need to update or change.  Another great idea is always to ask others what they “perceive” or “understand” your expectations to be. I sure wish that we had done that before a bomb threat, not after one.

Finally, I invite you reflect on what clues will help you know when you are not being clear? How can you determine what actions will provide alignment?  Whom do you need to talk to?  And lastly, how important is this to you? Really?

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned next Saturday for a glimpse of chapter three.


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