Tag Archives: leadership

Take What the Mountain Gives You

Nireki Mountain Adventures

Satish Man Pati makes me feel like a thimble of a man. Not because he’s full of great quotes like the title of this essay. Not because he climbed Mt. Everest like I decide to canoe across a lake. Not because he just looks like more of a man than I do. It’s because I watched him sitting with a tin cup filled with hot tea, smiling at 4000 meters as a fading sunset settled behind him on the Annapurna Range (Nepal) and he took the time to ask how I was doing. He watched with calm competence as his team methodically set up camp, assembled cooking stations, and prepared all that was needed to support myself and twenty six people during a trek in his native country. He was the captain of the ship, his love of the mountains surrounding him with good karma, a gentle smile creasing grizzled, unshaven cheeks even as countless details likely ran through his head. This guy who was responsible for so many people at the top of a mountain sipped his tea and asked how I was doing.

I am constantly trying to learn from people that I think are great leaders. And what I loved about Satish was that I knew he had a million things going on, but had that humble majesty of being able to focus on the happiness and safety of the people around him. He was really tuned in to everything, but never seemed to show it. He knew I was nervous about the safety of the students that had never been in the mountains but he took the time to check in to see if I was okay. He was on an emotional intelligence scale that was off the charts.

I took him aside as he sipped his tea, looking contentedly out onto the distant horizon. “Satish,” I asked. “What makes you such a great leader?” He laughed and of course said he was not such a great leader. I disagreed and told him that his team worshipped the ground he walked on. “I’m willing to do any job,” he said. “And I have. They see what I’ve done to get here and I treat them fairly. And I know each of them as people and they treat me the same. We are like family,” he added. “It’s more than a job.” Then what I observed from him that was absolute genius was that he knew his team so well he knew exactly what to expect from them and to put them in a position to be successful. He knew the guys that were the best left to be behind the scenes and the ones that could deal with my students. He knew the ones that could take on the leadership roles and the ones that needed to be told what to do. Not only did he have everyone on the bus, he had them in the right seats. They knew his expectations too. One of the members of the team left a new tin coffee pot that he had purchased at one of the tea houses at the top of the mountain that we had left the day before. It was a five hour climb back. Rather than tell him that it was okay and that they’d buy a new one, he made the guide go back and fetch it. And he did. Satish laughed at my amazement. “The details matter in the mountains,” he laughed. “He’ll remember that.”

When I asked about his relationship to the mountains, he looked past me into the distance and gave me an explanation of the ranges behind us and their connections to the local people. When he was finished, he looked right at me and said, “You have to take what the mountain gives you. You cannot fight that. If it rains, snows, fog, sunshine, whatever. You have to understand it and take it. You cannot fight that.” It sounded so simple, but I thought of how it went against just about everything you heard from adventurers. They fought, resisted what came at them and battled to overcome the obstacles in their way. Satish was not defeatist. Of course, his acceptance was similar to what you hear from great sea captains and those that listen to what their circumstances are telling them.

When you start this new school year, especially if you are going to a new school, take what the mountains give you. When there is chaos all around and you’re responsible for 30 people at a metaphorical 4000 meters, sip some tea from a tin cup, smile with grizzled cheeks, look out onto a setting sun, and realize that by the grace you show towards others and the gratitude you have for what you do in the majestic surroundings of wherever you are, that you got this.

Best of luck this year. The kids need you more than ever.

Hiring Millenials: A Primer for Old People (Like Me)

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Aging has taken on a special significance with me in recent weeks as I witnessed the passing of two giants of my generation in David Bowie and Glen Frey. Unreal and surreal.

When I looked over the images and read the stories, I thought about the special qualities that it must have taken for the two of them to transcend their generations and resonate with subsequent years, no easy feat.

I was listening to The Eagles Greatest Hits, reminiscing and poring over a large job data bank looking for, you guessed it, Millenials. I was looking through a number of applicants through the lens of a Gen Xer but knew that their needs, abilities, and ambitions were quite different from mine.

“Seven Bridges Road” had just started when one walked in. “Sorry to interrupt you,” she said, confidently. “But can I talk to you about such and such. I’ve thought the direction of it and I’m not sure that it’s where it needs to be, etc. etc.” I put my glasses down, minimized the postings on my computer, and gave her my full attention for nine minutes. I had to. She’s a Millenial.

(Disclaimer: The definition of millenials is filled with sweeping generalizations about the cohort of people born between 1980 and 2000 such as being entitled, precocious, digitally adept, trophy kids awarded for participation, and the offspring of the first generation of helicopter parents).

My point is that a lot of them are international teachers.

Like the young teacher who came to see me, a lot of Millenials are mobile, well-travelled, social media savvy, curious, tolerant, passionate about what they do, and hungry to be involved. They were the first real “net generation,” encouraged by sometimes over-involved parents to “follow their dreams,” and didn’t seem to respect authority as much as their angst ridden Generation X counterparts (like me). They seem to have a much more optimistic “can do” outlook than me and my somewhat more sober GenXers, and their questioning authority (they’d say ‘confidence’) keeps administrators like myself on our toes.

All of which makes these people fantastic international educators.

Yes, it’s difficult to manage folks who look at us like they could do our jobs in their sleep. Yes, it’s difficult to accept that their disregard for the way things have been done can be hard to take. Yes, it’s difficult to be democratic and inclusive in the decision making process when we were all weaned on the “my way or the highway” generation of administrators. (Those would be the baby boomers).

But it’s worth it. Even though I could do a much better job of delegating and involving Millenials in the hard and complex structures of managing an international school division, it’s their ability to make the complex simple with their time tested confidence and acceptance of diversity both in style and opinion that I find very compelling. Bowie and Frey transcended their generation and their industries because they understood this. They made the necessary adjustments to stay relevant, and weren’t focused on convention as much as resonance. That type of thinking motivates me.

I’ve written about it before and I’ll write it again that it’s not so much the alignment of what’s happening inside the classroom that has to change dramatically (and there’s plenty written on that topic) so much as the structures and frameworks outside of the class to enable these changes to happen that is critical.

I cannot think of a generation better equipped to handle this than the Millenials.

They’re not an easy group to manage. They have high expectations, demand results from us, have little patience for bureaucracy, and seem at times irreverent when it comes to ‘paying their dues.’ But, like the generations of kids behind them who cannot wait, their impatience and energy are critical for the innovation that we need to change the way we do business.

That doesn’t mean they can’t learn from us. There’s plenty to learn; about politics, managing people, consequence of action, expressing opinions, taking responsibility, and so on.

When the Millenial was done with her question, I opened my laptop again and said, “Now I have a question for you,” to which she was receptive. I asked how I could attract and retain more teachers like herself so that I could build a school around the future instead of the past.

“Ask us what we think and let us act on it,” she said…confidently.

Good luck GenX admin. And don’t worry, just because there’s a new kid in town doesn’t mean that you’re not relevant. You just need a little adapting to the times. It’s what made Frey and Bowie timeless.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUW_sGwMECc

The Importance of Being ‘Urgent’

As I travel to dozens of international schools each year, I am always struck by the earnestness of everyone – the teachers, the leaders, the kids, the parents. EVERYONE is positively earnest and passionate – wanting to do the right thing, willing to put in hours and hours of thought and planning and attention to whatever are perceived to be the current RIGHT goals. So A+ on the EARNEST scale.
But I am UNSTRUCK by the plodding pace, that nothing is terribly urgent, that the PROCESS seems always to be as important – sometimes MORE important – than the actual outcome on student learning.

This is in part driven by two pervasive leadership myths that seem to permeate our international schools – and can cause serious learning damage or at least missed opportunities on the part of the school, to influence student learning.
Myth one: In your first year in your headship or principalship, don’t DO anything – just try and understand the culture of the school, the way things operate, get to know people. Just ‘gather data’, build relationships and perhaps by the second year you can actually begin to do your job.
While leadership gurus may come back at me and argue that this approach does work – my practical experience in international schools is that it is a major contributor to our often being ‘behind the curve’ rather than leading the way. When the typical leader is in a school for 4-5 years, one year is a significant loss.

Myth two: Once you DO begin to act, don’t do too much too fast. After all people can only handle so much change….we would not want to overwhelm the paid professionals whose one and only job is to get the kids in their charge to learn. Well that’s just perfect. So we have 20% of kids in grade 6 who cannot write to standard (or worse yet we don’t even KNOW what they can do)…but that’s ok, we’ll go at the pace of the teachers or at least the leaders’ perception of that pace. We’ll just tell those kids parents that next year, grade six will be great – too bad your kid will be in grade 7. Great strategy.

And by the way, what qualifies as ‘change’ that we must carefully plan for is just about anything that is even minimally different than the way we did it last year. So remarkable that we sit around in curriculum sessions discussing how important it is to teach kids that they will need to be adaptable and flexible if they are going to make it as productive adults, yet we have to make a two year plan to get to the notion of something as obvious as differentiated homework into routine practice. I’m guessing there is maybe a double standard somewhere in there?

‘Urgent’ is not the opposite of earnest- but they do seem to be in a less than productive competition. I vote for at least TRYING urgent wherever learning might be the loser.

Voices Carry

Being in the people business, good communication seems so obvious, yet we rarely talk about what makes good communication. Raise your hand if you wish that Google had a pop up screen that said, “Are you sure you want to send this email? (It seems angry).” Note to self, send an email to Google.

Is the way in which you communicate as a teacher to your students the same way that you communicate with a parent, your Principal or Director, or a colleague? Of course not, yet it is these complex interactions that cause us the most stress and angst during the day. It’s what we talk about with our spouses over dinner, and it’s the root of what we do as educators. So, let’s communicate about whether or not you have the skills to be a good communicator.

1) You choose the right medium for the situation: Tweet, phone call, text, hand written note, personal conversation, email, snapchat, etc. etc. As I write this, I think how much the impact of a hand-written note has changed over the past decade. Imagine the power of getting one of those today? And I heard recently that teenagers think that calling is rude as opposed to texting which is less interruptive. Unreal.

2) “Can I think about that?” In this era of instant communication, we all know that instant does not equate to effective. How many times have you been trapped in a hallway conversation that you wish you never entered into? (For me it’s at least a hundred). Or quickly responded to a text that caused a firestorm? Believe it or not, you can hit ‘pause’ and respectfully tell the person you’d like an hour or a day to mull it over. And refer to #1 on how to respond!

3) “Got a minute?”: FYI, it’s never a minute and FYI2 your supervisors rarely enjoy these conversations. They don’t know what’s going to hit them, they have a million other things on their minds, and there’s a high likelihood they’re going to tell you something you don’t want to hear just to get the issue off their plate without really thinking about it. Why not send a message (refer to #1 again), and frame the issue before entering the communication? I know it takes more time out of your busy day, but it gives the other party a chance to think. (And for those of you who like the ambush technique, shame!)

4) “Email Boomerang”: If you email back and forth more than once (or if your response is over a paragraph) it’s time to talk. Oh, the power of email. How has it made our lives worse? It has set us back on communication at least fifteen years. This is especially a nightmare for the international educator dealing with parents. Throw in language and cultural differences, and your Principal will be involved faster than you can say, “Why did I hit send on Sunday night?”

5) “Action through inaction”: How many of you have those annoying notification reminders popping up on your smartphones demanding action or attention? (usually from games your kids installed). Just because you get a text or an email, even a message, doesn’t mean you MUST respond. Let it chill. Sometimes the person on the other end will let it go (possibly out of their own guilt for hitting send), or maybe they’ll even approach you and say “Did you get my email? (At which point you can say, “Yes, I did, can we talk?”). The point is, it is not your station in life to bounce back answers to everything just because something pings you.

Good luck. And before I go, please spread the gospel about talking about good communication. We spend ten times the amount talking about accreditation, but that’s not what makes our lives miserable (well, not entirely). It’s bad communication. There’s nothing as cathartic as a meeting of hard-working adults in a school talking about what is working and what is not when it comes to good communication. It can alleviate a lot of sleepless nights. Believe me.

Of course, there’s only one apt way to play this one out: The ‘Til Tuesday classic: Voices Carry