Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

A friend of ours retired from the banking business after 30 years but flunked retirement. Deciding she wanted to work part time, she signed on as the HR director for a non-profit entity and absolutely loved her job. She kept raving about the “culture” of the organization, saying that it was such a rewarding place to work and so much fun. Job satisfaction of the employees was a given.

She invited us to a fundraiser and as we walked into the banquet hall, we knew exactly what she meant. There was an excitement and a pulse and a friendliness that was immediately evident. You could feel it.

When the Executive Director started the program, the source of that vibrant culture was clearly revealed – it started with him. His commitment to positivity and his passion for their mission permeated the entire organization.

When you walk into certain businesses or organizations there’s an excitement and a pulse that is not present in similar entities. It doesn’t just happen. It’s intentional, and it depends largely on the attitudes and people skills of upper management, starting with the person at the top.

 Perhaps Haim Ginnot, author of Between Teacher and Child, said it best:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. My daily mood creates the climate. My personal approach makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. And in all situations, it is my response that dictates whether a crisis will be escalated or deescalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

You may no longer serve in the classroom, but Ginnot’s philosophy carries over to anyone in leadership. You do create the district’s climate. Your response to problems does determine whether the situation will be escalated or deescalated and whether those involved will be inspired or insulted. Your leadership style does determine whether people around you will be motivated or demotivated.

In education, the leader in each component determines its culture. As a Superintendent or member of the district’s leadership team, you determine the overall culture of the district. The building principal largely determines the climate in his or her building. The teacher determines the mood in the classroom. You as a district leader have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility, to mold and shape a warm and vibrant district-wide culture.

Jeff Gau, CEO of Marco Business Solutions in St. Cloud, Minnesota, said “We have been intentional about creating a culture that people want to be a part of and a workplace where people enjoy coming to work.” Intentionally creating schools that people want to be a part of and environments that people enjoy coming into doesn’t just happen – it takes three things: commitment, leadership and training.

As we explore the intentional quest to create a culture, keep in mind that culture isn’t an emotion, it is a decision. It’s not about hearts and flowers and a fluffy attempt at positivity but rather an endeavor to achieve a genuine climate of mutual respect. To echo a common theme, it starts at the top and permeates the organization, and effective leadership skills are developed from the inside out.

Everything hinges on our attitudes, our people skills and our commitment to pay close attention to the way we treat others. That includes not only our teachers, staff and students; but parents and the general public as well.

Catch the Measles

Let’s borrow another idea from Marco CEO Jeff Gau. He said we needed everyone to “catch the measles.” First upper management had to get excited about creating this dynamic and exciting culture. Then our supervisors and managers had to “catch the measles.” Then we had to train everyone in the organization to “catch the measles.” It was simply getting everyone to commit to excellence, optimism and positivity.

Getting Started

Please acknowledge that you have always had and always will have a commitment to excellence. You are already good, or you wouldn’t be where you are. So, when we explore ideas for personal and professional growth, we do not approach it from a standpoint of lack but a realization that there is no limit to your potential for continuous growth.

Allow me to suggest this. Set aside some of your administrative meeting time on a regular basis to examine your progress on school climate and culture. Here are some questions from our Educational Leadership From the Inside Out training that you can use as a springboard for discussion. Use them as you wish.

  1. What is the general attitude and friendliness of our district and building leaders?
  2. How are mistakes dealt with? Are we punitive or supportive? Do we view mistakes as something that need to be condemned or corrected?
  3. Do we create a non-threatening environment that leads to open communications?
  4. Are we approachable? Do people feel comfortable coming to us with problems or concerns? Can we put aside our defensiveness and skillfully guide a calm and civil discussion with an upset staff member, student or parent?
  5. Do we teach and train? Are we coaches or police? Do we support or just supervise?
  6. Do we create non-threatening environments that lead to open communications?
  7. Is our overall climate fun? Do we provide enjoyable experiences that allow us to get to know each other better?

Paying attention to district climate and culture is like anything else. You use it or lose it. Setting aside a few minutes on a regular basis to discuss questions like those listed above will keep our quest for improvement at the forefront of our thinking. It’s not rocket science, but it produces astronomical results.

In closing, reflect on something we visited earlier. “You’re good, but you’re getting better.”

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