Monday, 31 October 2011

Ask for Help

As a leader, when and why might you ask for help?

Leaders often hesitate to ask for help because they worry about being intrusive, appearing needy, or not appearing competent. The truth is that it's innately satisfying to assist others, and most people both want and like to help.   The next time you have a question, feel somewhat unsure about something, or simply want to make a connection with someone, ask them for the favor of their help. There are many things you can request that your staff will likely respond very well to.  These can include such things as:

  • Request that they provide input about something you're working on,
  • Ask some colleagues to review something you're writing to gauge the tone,
  • Ask for an opinion about something you are considering doing,
  • Request that some colleauges provide a testimonial of your work,
  • Simply request some comments about how a current initiative is going
  • ...and the list goes on.... 

Don't be shy about it. Asking for help and/or favors can be a powerful way to get people to like you better and see you in a better light, in part, because they become invested in your success.

Adapted from: "The Fear That's Holding Back Your Business" by Dorie Clark.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Inspired Leadership

Guest post by Jan Kielven...
Inspired Leadership

Let’s face it, nuggets on paper don’t inspire.  Board plans don’t inspire, neither do schools plans.  They are necessary.  They’re set up to be ‘information’ and they do that extremely well.   They speak to the left side of the brain.  It’s the “What”, not the “Why” of what we do. 

Plans identify the work to be done, often through numeric targets.  Words like ‘a 3% increase’ don’t inspire. In football, this is like the grinding ground game.  No ‘Hail Mary’ passes, no interceptions, no quarterback sacks.  It’s a game of inches and percentages.   In economic terms, it’s like fracking hydrocarbons.  No burst of thick glistening jets from a deep well gurgling excitedly to the surface.  No Ghawar fields.  It’s trying to get a little above breaking even.   ‘Fracking’ may well be the metaphor of our times. 

So, whose work is the inspiration?  We cannot succeed without it, without undue human cost.  One answer comes from Andrew Hargreaves in The Fourth Way.  He actually uses the word, ‘inspire’!  Rare.  Courageous.  He also identifies it as one of the roles of leadership.   He speaks of the need to trust leaders “…to become inspirational developers of their communities instead of mere managers of imposed targets and external initiatives. (Hargreaves&Shirley, 2008)

Powerful leaders ‘own’ the Board Improvement Plan and the School Improvement Plan.  They have a strong commitment to it, and a passion for achieving its goals – not for the sake of numbers, but because those numbers represent real individuals in their care.  That conversion from data and targets  to individuals’ experiences of education happens when information is transformed into compassion, drive, and yes, inspiration. 

 Andrew Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley

Guest author:  Jan Kielven

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Staying in your Comfort Zone?

As a leader, are you tending to stay in your comfort zone?

In our roles as leaders, there is a certain comfort to be taken from staying in our comfort zones - that is, doing the things that are familiar, routine, manageable, and readily within our range of skills.  However, there is a significant downside to this comfortable territory.  How do you learn?  Michael Fullan (2008) tells us that 'Learning is the Work'.  If we wish to learn, we need to tread into leadership territory that is unfamiliar.  When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory that demands skills that we have not yet mastered, we put ourselves in a position to learn.  If we always stay with the familiar, we don't need to learn.  For you, what might be new or unfamiliar leadership territory?  What might you try when you are there?  How might you learn when you're there? 

Any readers with interesting leadership stories about moving out of your comfort zone into the unfamiliar?  If so, please share through the Comments just below.  

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

One Small Thing

As a leader, what one small thing might you do today that could make a difference in your school or organization?

As leaders, we often think that big, bold, new initiatives are needed to bring about change.  We hope that these new initiatives will make a difference in terms of the work we do and the results we'll get.  Today, I'd like to propose that we flip that idea around.  It's not to suggest that bold initiatives don't help us accomplish what we need.  What I want to suggest is that they can work hand-in-hand with small things, thus, my question at the top of this post: What one small thing might you do today that could make a difference?  A few starting thoughts follow.  What might you like to add to this list?

  • Get out of your office and wander the building - even more than you normally do.
  • Reconnect with a staff member or two.  Do you really know how they are doing and what's important to them?
  • Compliment people who aren't expecting it.
  • Help someone you've never helped before.
  • Speak with someone you don't normally speak with (e.g. a student, a parent, a client).
  • Thank someone for something that seems small or insignificant.
  • Ask someone - whom you've never asked before - for their opinion.

These are a few ideas.  Corny?  Perhaps.   But the point here is to do things in a different way and see what happens.  Remember, if we continue to do the things we always do, we'll always get the same results. 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Receiving Negative Feedback

As a leader, what skills do you use to receive negative feedback?

On October 12, I did a post about encouraging pushback.  The intent of that post was to stimulate thinking about how we encourage a range of thinking among those we lead.  Today, though, I want to address receiving negative feedback that is about you or the school/organization that you lead.  When you receive negative feedback, what skills do you use to process it and respond to it?  There is always a tendency to get defensive when the feedback is personal or when it addresses something that is important to us.  How you respond to negative feedback demonstrates to others much about who you are as a leader.  Do you come across as defensive and protective?  Do you accept negative feedback passively and appear to 'give in' easily?  Or do you accept it and process it in a way that demonstrates you have the skills to receive it? 

What are these skills?  Here is the start of a list that might be helpful....

  • listen carefully to what is being said to you
  • relax - as best you can - and breathe regularly
  • seek to truly understand what is being said to you
  • paraphrase concisely what you've heard
    • paraphrase the content of the messages
    • paraphrase the emotion in the messages
  • try to get to the heart of the matter - what is the essential issue?  - what are the peripheral issues?
  • agree or concur with whatever points you can
  • if you have specific information (e.g. a letter, an email, an announcement) that could shed light on the issue in question, bring it forward. 
  • When you bring forward information that supports your position, do it as helpful information, not as a way of providing 'proof' that you are right
  • clarify the points where there is disagreement or a gap in information
  • plan - with the person providing the feedback - a plan to resolve the issue
  • ensure that your plan has at least one opportunity to revisit the issue with the person
  • reflect - Think about how you worked through the process of receiving feedback.  Did you do it with the intent to 'win' or did you do it with the intent to use the information for growth?  Think about this carefully and use your new thinking to inform the next time you need to receive such feedback.
Receiving negative feedback can be very difficult.   None of us likes it but we can benefit from it and grow from it.  It depends on how we receive it and process it.  The skills mentioned above are simply suggestions about how to receive and respond to feedback.  You will likely need to practise.  You could ask trusted colleagues to help you build these skills.  Most probably, they'll be happy to help and you'll be demonstrating that you're preparing yourself to engage with others in positive ways to work though issues.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Mentoring or Coaching - Part 2

As a leader, do you engage in coaching? Do you support your staff in receiving coaching?

As mentioned in the previous post, the terms 'mentoring' and 'coaching' are often used interchangeably but research literature differentiates between the two.  The difference between mentoring and coaching needs to be understood if we wish to use the terms correctly.

It's coaching if:

  • the coach has been trained in a specific style of coaching and uses it at all times while coaching
  • the coachee has a learning plan which forms the basis of the coaching conversations
  • the coaching conversations are intended to support the coachee in the development of identified skills
  • the coach mediates the thinking of the coachee
  • reflective thinking is routinely incorporated into the coaching conversations to deepen the learning
  • the coaching conversations are focused on the growth of the coachee
  • the coach does not talk about him/herself.  It's always about the coachee.
  • there is a time limit to the coaching relationship
Adapted from 'Coaching For Learning' - York Region District School Board

Friday, 21 October 2011

Mentoring and Coaching - Part 1

As a leader, do you have a mentor?  Do you support your staff in working with mentors? 

The terms 'mentoring' and 'coaching' are often used interchangeably but research literature differentiates between the two.  Mentoring is defined as a broad range of supports for individuals transitioning into new roles.  Mentoring is often a long-term relationship between a less-experienced person and a mentor who is well-experienced.  Coaching, on the other hand, is a formal and intentional process designed to focus on a coachee's learning needs and is led by a trained coach. 

Mentoring can be an invaluable support because individuals often choose their own mentors and maintain the relationships over a long period of time.  Below are a few suggestions about mentors over the life of a career.  These suggestions below are adapted from: "Keeping Great People with Three Kinds of Mentors" by Anthony Tjan.

  • Peer mentors. In the early stages of a person's career, a mentor can help speed up the learning curve. This relationship helps the mentee understand how things work at the organization.
  • Career mentors. After the initial period at a workplace, employees need to have a senior staff member serve as a career advisor and advocate.
  • Life mentors. A life mentor serves as a periodic sounding board when one is faced with a career challenge. Organizations can't necessarily offer a life mentor but they can encourage seeking one.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Why do you want to be a leader?

You're in a leadership position.  But why?

The vast majority of individuals in leadership positions are there by choice.  In many cases, if not most, you have applied for a leadership role and been promoted.  But why did you apply for your role?  What was it that made you interested in leading?  If you are passionate about the work, you likely find the work rewarding and you gain satisfaction from the successes of your team.  However, if you're not passionate about the work, you may find that much of what you need to do feels burdensome or excessively challenging.  If you are thinking about a leadership role, you need to ask yourself why you want it and then to look inside yourself to find if you have a passion about the work.  If the passion isn't there, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.  You'll be taking charge of work that you fundamentally don't care about.  Is that how you want to spend your days, weeks, months, years? 

Think carefully about why you want to lead and what work you'll be leading.  If you have a deep caring about the work, the challenges you'll find as a leader, will be more bearable and the successes that much sweeter. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

If Learning is the Work...

As a leader, how do you support, encourage, enable learning for your staff? 

Michael Fullan tells us that "Learning is the work".  If this is the case, it has great significance for leaders.  It means that we must be aware of what learning needs to take place and then to determine the best ways to support, encourage, and enable it if we wish to create authentic learning communities.  We may even need to help our staff members understand just what this means in terms of their professional practice.  Indeed, it may also mean that we need to understand and come to terms with this in terms of our own leadership practice. 

According to Fullan (2008), "The secret behind 'learning is the work' lies in our integration of the precision needed for consistent performance (using what we already know) with the new learning required for continuous improvement." 

It's a simple statement but it requires thought about what this means and how it translates into practice in a school or organization.  It assumes that we are focused on continuous improvement in both practice and results.  It also assumes that everyone is 'on board' with this type of thinking.  As a leader, this may involve new thinking and reculturing around professional practice - for your staff and possibly even for you.

I look forward to your comments about Fullan's statement.  

From:  The Six Secrets of Change by Michael Fullan (2008)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Now that you have the position

You now have the leadership position.  But do you have the skills?

As a leader, you have a formal leadership role.  But formal leadership roles demand a set of skills that you may not necessarily have.  People frequently are promoted because they were exemplary in their position.  However, this doesn't automatically translate into having the skills required in a leadership role.  As a leader, can you identify the necessary skill sets for your position?  When that's done, can you then identify which of these skill sets you have, which skill sets you don't have, and which ones you are developing?  Once this 'gap analysis' has been done, you have some important thinking to do about how you will build the skills that you need in your role.  In other words, what do you need to learn and how will you learn it?  Every great leader is also a great learner.  Leadership demands learning and continual refinement of the skills of leadership.  What is your plan to be a great leader? 

Here is a list of just some of the skill sets that great leaders have:

  • setting direction for the work of your staff
  • building purposeful, authentic relationships...and then sustaining them
  • knowing how to motivate people
  • knowing how to handle difficult conversations while maintaining the integrity of staff members
  • problem-solving
  • supporting each member of your staff in building their capacity to do the work
  • coaching and mentoring.....and knowing the difference
  • planning for succession and ensuring that there are always others who can carry on the work
  • being accountable
  • taking responsibility
  • identifying the focus of the work and supporting staff in keeping the focus
  • dealing with distracters so that they don't impact on your staff
  • distributing / sharing leadership with others
  • ...and the list goes on....

Monday, 17 October 2011

Student / Staff / Parent Voice

As a leader, how do you access student / staff / parent voice and keep open the lines of communication?

As leaders, we need to stay strongly connected to our students, staff, and parents if we lead schools.  The same applies to staff and clients in organizations.  How do we access the thoughts, perspectives, concerns, and ideas of those with whom we work and those whom we serve?  We need mechanisms so that all of these 'stakeholders' know that they can express their opinions, they will be heard, and they will be responded to.  If we don't have these avenues of communication open and readily accessible, we run the risk of leading organizations that are hierarchical and decreasingly responsive to the needs of those they serve and those who work within these schools/organizations.  In a world where people have previously unheard of access to communication in the palm of their hand, we, as leaders, can create ever-improving schools and organizations by mobilizing the intelligence of our stakeholders.  Avoid open lines of communication at your peril. 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Process, Process, Process

As a leader, how do you use 'process'?

Leaders are called upon to do and be anything and everything in today's schools/organizations.  With multiple demands from multiple sources, it can sometimes feel easier and more straightforward simply to provide people with information or answers.  This may be expedient but it doesn't serve your school or organization well.  What happens when you're not there?  Where will people get information or find their answers?  In the interest of building capacity in your staff so that everyone feels capable and self-directed, it is essential to create a culture where processes are used on a regular basis.  Whether the issue is the provision of information, problem-solving, information gathering, planning,.....or whatever,.....there are always processes that can help.  As a leader, the key piece of information for you is to learn appropriate processes that you can use, to use them often, and to create a culture where your staff, students, parents, and others understand the value of processes for bringing the best thinking to an issue. 

One of my favourites is Facilitating with Ease! by Ingrid Bens.  It's full of great processes for anything you need to do. 

Readers, do you have other sources for processes?  If so, please post them in the Comments section.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Being an Enabler

As a leader, how do you serve as an enabler for your staff? 

As a leader, one of your key roles is to serve as an enabler for your staff.  You need to enable your staff to do their work to the best of their ability.  You do this by ensuring they have:

  • the tools they need
  • the knowledge they need
  • the skills they need
  • a workplace that supports their mental and emotional well-being
  • clarity of purpose in their work
  • a belief that their work has value
  • freedom from distracters
  • protection from activity traps
  • easy access to you
  • problem-resolving processes
  • ...and on the list goes....
This list - and all of the other things that could be added to it - demands a significant skill set on your part.  How do you build and refine the skills you need to be a leader who enables others to do their best work?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Encourage Pushback

As a leader, do you encourage ‘pushback’ from your staff? 

Deference to authority is deeply engrained in most of us. As a leader you need to resist this tendency in your staff. If people automatically defer to your judgment, you may miss out on valuable thinking and critical feedback. Try to make it easy for people to speak up, and remember to actively ask for their opinions. When talking about current or future work, give some initial thoughts, but then ask for help fleshing out ideas. Recognize people who speak up and thank those who challenge your thinking. Most importantly, try not to react immediately if you start to feel threatened, or you risk shutting down
the discussion.  This takes courage and confidence but if you want great results and you want to build capacity in your staff, this becomes an essential part of your leadership toolkit.

Adapted from "The Dangers of Deference" by Ron Ashkenas.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Focus and Creativity Matter

If the following is true.....

Leaders in sustained, successful organizations focus on a small number of core priorities, stay on message, and develop others toward the same end, making corrections as new learning occurs (Fullan, 2011)., as a leader, do you:

  • sustain the focus?
  • stay on message?
  • develop others?
  • make corrections as new learning occurs?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Leadership Matters

A thought for your holiday Monday......

Leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.

 (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004)

Friday, 7 October 2011

Getting Feedback as a Leader

As a leader, how do you get feedback on how well you're doing?  No leader improves without feedback from multiple sources. But getting people to be honest about your performance isn't always easy. Be sure to give your staff (students, parents, clients, customers) a way to supply you with the candid information you need to improve.  A simple Stop/Start/Continue process will work.  You can do it by asking these three questions:
  • What should I stop doing? Ask which behaviors stand in your way of success.
  • What should I keep doing? Inquire about what you do right, and should continue to do.
  • What should I start doing? Once you've stopped unproductive behaviors, you'll have more time and energy for new behaviors.

Adapted from "Three Questions for Effective Feedback" by Thomas J. DeLong.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Evidence and Logic in Decision-making

Many leaders rely on gut instinct to make important decisions, which often leads to poor results. On the contrary, when leaders insist on incorporating logic and evidence, and include others in the discussions, they make better choices and their organizations benefit. Here are three ways to introduce evidence-based decision-making into discussions in your school or organization:
  1. Ask for evidence. Whenever anyone makes a compelling claim, ask for supporting data. Don't take someone's word for it.  Equally, be sure to provide your evidence/data if you are promoting something.
  2. Examine logic. Look closely at the evidence and be sure the logic holds up. Be on the lookout for faulty cause-and-effect reasoning.  Invite colleagues to question the evidence and the logic.
  3. Encourage experimentation. If you don't have evidence, create some. Invite colleagues to conduct small experiments to test the viability of proposed strategies and use the resulting data to guide decisions.
Adapted from: Harvard Business Review on Making Smart Decisions.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Supporting and Encouraging Differentiated Instruction

Guest Post from Trish Yeates, Crosby Heights P. S. (
LEARNING FOR ALL K-12 reminds us that “all students learn best when instruction, resources, and the learning environment are well-suited to their particular interests, strengths, needs, and stage of readiness” – that is, the most effective instruction is Differentiated Instruction, adapted to student interests, learning styles and readiness to learn. Although differentiation occurs in the classroom, between students and teachers, leaders have a role in supporting this key strategy for student success. Tomlinson and Demirsky-Allan write about the need for leadership in their book LEADERSHIP FOR DIFFERENTIATING SCHOOLS & CLASSROOMS (2000):
“An individual classroom teacher, without any system or school support, can take steps toward differentiating instruction in his or her classroom. Many teachers have done so. Even within a single classroom, however, moving toward a philosophy of accommodating academic diversity and individual needs generally constitutes a change. The likelihood that a teacher will be able to make such a significant change—even within the confines of his own classroom—is greatly enhanced by accompanying change in the school culture as a whole. At the very least, a sense of support and approval from the administration goes far to encourage classroom change. More powerful support is provided by alterations in the organizational structure that are catalysts for classroom changes. Therefore, the task of the school leader—whether a school administrator or central office staff member—is to design systemic strategies that encourage teachers to implement differentiated instruction in the classroom and that support teachers in honing the skills of differentiation.”
This passage begs the question: what are we doing as leaders to support and encourage Differentiated Instruction in our own schools? If our moral purpose is grounded in the belief that EVERY student can achieve high standards (given the appropriate time and supports), then at the core of the role of every leader should be providing support for teachers to differentiate instruction in their classrooms. 
The tough part is knowing just how to do this. Tomlinson and Demirsky-Allan suggest that the key element in supporting Differentiated Instruction in schools may be having a firm commitment, tied to a clear vision and purpose. After that, leaders need to give the gift of time – time to collaborate, partner, learn, plan, and reflect.
In your school, is there a culture supporting differentiated instruction? Is there a clear vision and purpose, helping to ensure that teachers have the time and supports needed to differentiate for all of the students in their classrooms?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


This blog exists as a way for leaders - in any type of organization - to read a short piece and then to reflect on it.  My hope in providing these short pieces of writing is simply to stimulate the metacognitive level of leadership.  As I was reflecting on the blog, it occurred to me that the blog is designed for leaders to reflect on their practice.  However, I have not yet asked leaders how they stimulate reflective thought in others. a leader, how do you stimulate reflective thought in those you lead?  If there is value in reflecting on our work as leaders, how do we support those with whom we work in reflecting on their practice?  There is ample research evidence to support reflection as a growth process for learning.  Do we, as leaders, know how to stimulate reflective thought in others? 

A few favorite questions that stimulate reflection are:
  • If you were to do it again, how might you do it differently?
  • What do you believe you did that led to such a successful outcome?
  • Why do you think he/she might have reacted like that?
If you have some suggestions for great questions that stimulate reflective thought, please post them in the Comments section for this posting. 

Monday, 3 October 2011

Are you a facilitative leader?

As a leader, do you lead in a facilitative manner?  Much of what any leader needs to do is to facilitate the meetings, conversations, learning, and the work of a staff.  Yet how many of us actually have the skills to facilitate?  Simply because someone is in a leadership position, it does not necessarily mean that they have the skills of a facilitator.  In fact, many don't.  Facilitative leaders use specific processes that engage and include people.  These processes are carefully thought-out and designed in such a way that the leader provides the time, space, and processes to ensure that everyone who needs to be involved can take part, has a voice in the work that is done, and has a sense of ownership over the work and/or decisions made.  Facilitative leaders have a calm and calming manner because they know the processes to use to work through virtually any situation.  If facilitation skills are not yet part of your leadership repertoire, it might just be a very wise investment on your part to look at how you can begin to be more facilitative in your leadership.  You just might be very surprised to learn just how talented, knowledgeable, and skilled your staff is!