Educational Coaching for Excellence

Real World Support for Real World Success

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Published Writing

Chapter 14: Building a Successful Flesh-and-Blood Organization

Soul of Success with Jack Canfield, 2015

Chapter by Dr. Marie V. Bañuelos

“Gymnasts, lazy people, complainers and successful people have all practiced to be what they are good at. So if you keep practicing being lazy, you will be lazy. If you keep practicing complaining, you will constantly complain. If you practice compassion, generosity, patience, working hard and having a bigger vision, you will become better at it with time because you will create the causes to become better. You are practicing to become better.”

 – Tsem Tulku Rinpoche

I was always told I had a very unusual management style.  I have a tendency to see the humor in everything, expect hard work but act as if it is play, and do not take excuses or complaints but rather encourage creativity that is outside of the box to create solutions.  I expect work to be fun and exciting without causing major stress in one’s personal life.  Maybe I am unusual.

After 35 years in education encompassing 23 years in school administration, I became a superintendent of schools in a small community.  I was the first woman superintendent since the district’s beginning of more than 100 years before me.  Not only was I unusual as a “female” to them, I was just plain different than the District was used to from former superintendents. The district hierarchy was strongly built and enforced with firm rules and old-fashioned industrial-age philosophy. Every department had its own box and each never stepped outside its definitions of the work each was assigned. The district was a machine made of cogs that did not know their relationship to one another, and breakdowns in the “machine” were major crises. I knew this was going to be a fun job as the new superintendent.

My job was to build a close-knit team that understood relationships with each member and had the same vision for success so it could move forward smoothly with or without me. It was important to me that each person in the organization contributed their expertise with all members to make the organizational parts move in sync and precision to address the educational challenges in front of our students and the community.  It was time for new “rules” different than the old ones.  I began with five ideals that needed to be in place: 1. Participate 100%; 2. Play Together; 3. Learn Together; 4. Work Together; 5. Celebrate Success.

Ideal #1: Participate 100%

Getting to know staff was extremely important.  Not only did I need to know them, they needed to know me.  This was the only way trust would be built. I started by being in my office only a few hours a day. The majority of my day was spent by briefly stopping into other offices, visiting schools and being visible to school staffs and students.  I made the people more important than paper.  The staffs noticed the difference right away.  They were used to being left on their own.  I, on the other hand, was interested in them as people and made sure that they noticed that I put their welfare first.  I also let them see I needed their participation in the organization.  After all, it is the people in the organization that will make success happen.  Engaged and happy staffs who fully participate make a healthy and happy organization. And I do realize that there are usually those who will resist working together no matter what is presented.  My job was to set the expectation and keep reinforcing the ideal. Interestingly, it began to work very quickly to get people involved.  Trust comes easy when you tell the truth and are available for conversation.

Ideal #2: Play Together

It was clear to me that previous rules of the organization had implied expectations. During cabinet (administrative team) meetings with the superintendent, members were not to contribute to conversation but rather wait for “instructions” of what to do.  I also noticed all departments in the organization were not represented in this elite group of administrators. This was the group making the decisions for the entire organization without representation of the entire organization.  It was clear to me that everyone needed to “play” together if we wanted a strong team. My first step was to invite the heads of the missing departments to our cabinet meetings.  Shock was the first response. Current members of the cabinet acted as if I had broken some silent rule of exclusion; the newly invited departments acted as if they were going to be attacked.

The first meeting with all the organization’s heads of departments was almost silent.  It was my turn to set expectations.  I told them how important their input and collaborative assistance in making decisions was critical to make the organization effective.  I told them I needed all of them to keep me up-to-date with their departments’ progress, to let me know what they needed to accomplish work. I expected all of them to learn all about the whole organization so if I was suddenly gone, they could carry on without me having all of the information of business.  That was the beginning of a big change in how the district did business.  Departments got more and more involved when they began to see what they had to say and contribute had value.  And even though I did not always agree with what a department perceived as a need, discussion became more thoughtful and tended toward more organizational problem-solving rather than department problem-solving. The team started to come together because we all began to understand we were all responsible for success.

Ideal #3: Learn Together

I actually expected all of my administrators and department heads to read.  Not only that, I expected them to read the same book and discuss it during staff meetings!  The groans were loud at first but soon subsided when I assigned the first book, Scared Cows Make the Best Burgers.  Just the title alone worked to silence groans since the district was in an agriculture/dairy community and the title made them laugh. The theme of the book was to identify outdated practices that served no purpose and to rethink what works better to get what the organization wants to accomplish.  The book is humorous and easy to read.  We had great conversations about the things we were doing that were outdated practices and wasted time.  Relief was tremendous when we began stopping those outdated practices. 

One example of a “sacred cow” was in my own office. The practice was to create three-ring note books of Board meetings that were kept in bookcases in perpetuity. The office had four bookcases full of these notebooks!  I purchased scanners for all of the departments in my office.  Our summer work my first year was to scan all documents and store them electronically.  We got rid of all the paper, notebooks and bookcases and actually created enough room to have another office and increase the size of the staff’s break room. To say the least, the secretarial staff was ecstatic. No more killing tress and no more clutter in the office.  Just the change in atmosphere changed   attitudes to a much lighter and productive feeling.  Of course reading assignments began to turn into educational and technical books that examined current research.  By then, the staff was willing to read and discuss what they learned.

We were learning together, building common understanding, and agreeing on common goals for change.  Those are big leaps in an organization.  To keep the progress going, we had to continue to learn together and stretch our knowledge not only in technical information but in exploring ourselves and our personal and organizational beliefs that may hold us back from success.  The group began to build trust to talk about issues that were not before spoken of before we began the process of learning together.

Ideal #4: Work Together

This ideal was the most complicated to infuse.  “Playing” together which required deeper conversation and more organizational unity was the first step.  Now, actually working together was the big jump in changing how work was done. Playing together helped break down boundaries between departments but the real task was to get them to work together as a whole. The organizational machine is made of flesh and blood not of metal cogs.  There is more work to do to get the flesh-and-blood machine to work effectively together than a metal machine where cogs only have to fit together on the exterior.  A flesh-and-blood machine had an interior made of beliefs, concerns, personalities, doubts and trust issues. This was my biggest challenge.

We all had to share a Vision in who we were and what we wanted to accomplish.  The rhetoric   was always there, Vison and Mission statements, but meaning was never agreed to by all parts of the organization.  I think that was because the parts of the organization never saw themselves as part of a whole on the same path.

Now that we had experience of talking together, sharing ideas and solving problems together, and having common knowledge in what we read together, it was time to really work together.  That meant we had to envision the same results and identify what each of us was responsible for to make the vision happen.  It also meant that we needed to trust each other, especially trust me, to keep everyone informed, involved, and respected, to get the work done efficiently.

We began tearing apart those vision and mission statements that had been in place forever and identifying what they meant to each of us individually, departmentally and as a whole.  We had to agree that the vision and mission were important, relevant, and reachable. We defined how each of us could participate in making the vision and mission come alive and what and how each department had to offer to make them come to fruition.

It may seem to readers that this should have happened first.  It couldn’t.  Building working relationships, work ethic, building common capacity by reading and learning together had to happen first.  The failure of many organizations is that they move too fast or ignore basic human needs. It is the human cogs that will break and can’t be fixed if we ignore basic needs of the human organism of connection and safety.  An organization is successful if its contributors are well, feel valuable and are respected.

This Ideal took the longest. The process challenged beliefs and defined who we were and what part we each played in the vision and mission of the district.  It helped us all agree we all were important in making success happen. The process of deep conversation, deep self-examination of what individually each needed to contribute, and deep respect for each of our contributions resulted in deep commitment.  The real work could now begin.

Ideal #5: Celebrate Success

Who doesn’t love a party?  Success sometimes goes unnoticed because we don’t build the habit of recognizing success and progress as we go along during a big effort; we have a habit of only celebrating at the end of a big project. Big mistake. We need to party when things go right along the way.

Human beings need to know how they are doing in order to keep going.  Positive reinforcement encourages continued forward movement and willingness to keep going when movement seems difficult. Organizations sometimes recognize errors constantly; this practice demoralizes staff and makes staff believe they don’t have what it takes to do well.  When something went off track in our organization, our groups talked about it honestly.  Our ground rule was to “tell the truth faster” so we could work together faster to solve problems. Blame and excuses were not appropriate conversation because they did not solve problems.  Any problem identified was a success.  Any accomplishment that lead to our goals was a success.  We celebrated at least monthly.

Every month I held an all-staff meeting to discuss what we had done that month and to identify all the successes we had toward our goals. I recognized individuals and departments.  Departments and staff got funny “presents” of little cost but you would think they got a pricey recognition. We, of course, had cake. 

We kept a chart of accomplishments posted on our meeting room wall that accumulated successes all year.  Staff used to go into the meeting room to read the successes when they felt stuck or because movement forward was getting difficult.  They reported that it helped them see the big picture and that, sometimes, slow movement forward was just part of success.  Wise insight.

We accomplished changing our culture in our organization.  Culture was changed by action, not belief.  We needed to do things differently to make the “machine” be more effective.  This organization needed to do things very differently to move forward.

We had very simple Ideals: Participate 100%; Play Together; Learn Together; Work Together; and Celebrate Success. I trust the order in which we did these things because I have experienced that the order works.  I have used these ideals in my second superintendency with success.  They may have worked because I am unusual, but I don’t think so.  I think they worked because it recognizes that organizations are not machines, they are people with feelings, concerns, trust issues and fears.  Good leaders support human growth not just organizational growth.  Human growth will result in organizational growth.  The organization CAN have fun.

When I retired, I wasn’t positive how the district would move forward under different leadership but had faith that the organization would continue because their operating procedures were different and had become habit. The rewarding news is, 10 years later, I still hear from that staff and administration. Sometimes they say they want me back because they miss all the positive energy.  I remind them that they are the positive energy and they can continue to support each other toward success, and they can do just fine without me.