Be Like Ella

We have all been there. The administrator is scheduled to come into our classroom for a walk-through or the formal observation. We have planned for every contingency, prepped the lesson, prepped the kids, anticipated every question and have rehearsed multiple answers to all of them, materials “are hung from the chimney with care.” We are READY!!!

Then Murphy’s Law strikes – anything that can possibly go wrong will. Or the correlary – things that work in theory never work in practice, things that work in practice never work during the game.

A trumpet has been part of my life since 4th grade, my undergrad diploma states that my major was music, education was my minor. Before becoming an administrator, I taught kids in the band and orchestra. Given a choice, will always listen to a live recording, (captured music) over a studio recording, (manufactured music.)

Live recordings capture the passion and enthusiasm of the moment. They are raw, unfiltered expressions of the musicians and the music. You can’t put make up over the blemishes, they are there for all to see.

A lot like our classrooms, on Observation Day.

In 1963, Ella Fitzgerald and the Paul Smith Quartet were in Berlin to record “Ella in Berlin.”

Like us, highly trained professionals. They had rehearsed and prepared for hours before taking the stage that night.

Then Ella forgot the words to Mack the Knife. And being a live recording, it is saved for posterity.

She couldn’t stop and start over. The audience was there and the quartet was playing. She had to improvise and come up with something.

Enjoy what she came up with…

Ella Fitzgerald – Mack the Knife

Did the critics pan her performance? Did the audience boo her off the stage? Did she feel like a failure after embarrassing herself in front of a packed house?

Quite the contrary! Because of that rendition of Mack the Knife, she won a Grammy for Best Female Performance on a Single and Best Female Performance on an Album. The recording is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

I try to share this with new teachers every year. Nothing ever goes as planned, and sometimes, our best moments happen when we rely on our instincts and training and improvise.

Let’s all work to Be Like Ella!

And so it goes…

Who Do You Want on Your Team

Part of my PLC is following educational groups on Facebook and twitter. Now that the school year has ended for most of us, the hiring season is on. It is interesting to see the requests posted by some for sample interview questions, and the responses to the requests.

Hiring and growing the right people is the single most critical skill of leadership. Hire the right people, support them, stay out of their way, and let them dazzle you with their brilliance. Tell them what you want done, let them figure out how best to do it. Elite organizations have the greatest teams, not necessarily the highest performing individuals.

Hiring is based on predicting future behaviors/job performance; abilities, values, personality are a good fit for both the job and the organization.

In order to attract the right candidates, you need the following:

1. Precise and specific information about the role – which skills, experiences, expertise are needed to to the job well?

2. Precise and specific information about organizational culture – what are the formal and informal rules for interaction that determine how people behave?

3. Objective tools to evaluate a candidate’s fit with #1 and #2 above – does the candidate have the potential to perform well on the job, and enjoy it? Are they candidates a minimal risk choice?

Most hiring processes are not set up to address the three items effectively. References from previous employers are rarely objective regarding the key attributes that will make the employee successful in your job. Besides, your school probably isn’t anything like the previous school. Organization tend to have distorted understandings of their own cultures. Simply because the leadership continues to confuse climate with culture. Climate is what is talked about during staff meetings. Culture is what is talked about when the staff meets in the parking lot, and leadership usually isn’t there.

Most of us default to subjective evaluation methods, relying on gut instinct on overrated characteristics known as the 4C’s:

1. Confidence. We over-emphasize the candidate’s ability to charm and impress during a relatively brief interpersonal interaction. This favors confident people who are less likely to project insecurities and self-doubt. We confuse confidence with competence. No problem with that, except that ample psychological research shows that measures of actual and self-perceived ability overlap by less than 10%.

2. Credentials. We can all agree that a diploma rarely, if ever, guarantees competence, yer we still cling to the belief that a valid license and years of experience can predict future performance. Then we spend a lot of time and money on professional development. Something is missing for me in this equation. Professional development is critical to organizational change. Shouldn’t we be devoting those resources to growth rather than remediation, usually delivered in a one-size-fits-all workshop? The focus of recruitment must shift from “what the candidate knows” to “what the candidate can learn.” When we look at “credentials” through that filter, previously unqualified applicants can, and will, emerge as superstars.

3. Conscientiousness. Being organized, structured and hard working are certainly valuable traits in most jobs, but there are drawbacks to hiring people who are conscientious. Research suggests conscientiousness is negatively correlated with intelligence and is a poor predictor of creative performance. In other words, too many people can fake it till they make it.

4. Conformity. We have a hard time admitting to this one, but we value those who fall in line with our perception of our organizational culture. While we pay lip service and try to celebrate the disrupters, it’s safer to hire people who follow our rules and do as they are told. Seriously, how many time have you counseled an employee who needed to “fit in?” How many times have you discussed, or released an employee who “wasn’t a team player,” or “wasn’t a good fit?” Conformists are generally evaluated positively simply because they are pleasant to be around and are a good “culture fit.” Just don’t expect much in the way of innovative thinking from these team members.

I learned this during my administrative preparation program, hat tip to Dr. Ed Stehno and Fort Hays State University. As a building principal, my process to fill a vacant teaching position was a team event. For example, if a third grader position needed filled, the interview team consisted of the other teachers of third graders, a couple of parents of learners who were about to become third graders, a teacher designated by our union, and myself. As principal, I alone screened the applicants to determine who would be interviewed.

The event started with a teaching simulation. The candidate was not presenting a model lesson to adults, our team behaved as typical third graders in our school. After 30-45 minutes, we would ask the same questions everyone always asks, and we would get the same answers everyone always gets. Then we would take a vote, the highest vote getter got the job.

This process took a lot of time, but it gave the teachers ownership of who was added to their group. In nearly 20 years as a building administrator, I never had to recommend that a teacher be non-renewed.

When screening applicants, I looked for the following four qualities:

1. Passion. If the candidate has a passion for what the job can become, we can teach the skills. The secret to success is sincerity, and many people can fake that in the interview. Having them walk the talk first, in the simulation, allowed us to match actions with words. I can tell some fascinating stories…

2. High Bandwidth. This is the ability to assimilate relevant data from a variety of sources. It is necessary to understand a rapidly changing workplace, make decisions, and keep momentum toward a goal. Given a choice between bandwidth and experience, I always chose bandwidth. Experience is frequently a false God. It is better to hire people who can get you where you want and need to be than people who profess to have been there before. Don’t confuse bandwidth with a bandwagon, which is something everyone jumps on after the risks are over.

3.  Ability to deal with stress and ambiguity. Working in a school is stressful because of the pace of change. If the stress isn’t enough, there is also a great deal of ambiguity. There is only enough information to cause paralysis, never enough to make a perfect decision. We must have a high tolerance for stress and ambiguity.

4. High Energy. The tasks are difficult and the hours are long. Sustained bursts of high energy are required. Make sure the candidates, spouses, and families can handle it.

The most effective leaders know that it is impossible to be good at everything, know it all, and be on top of everything that is happening in the building/district. “A” level players hire other “A” level players. “B” level players hire “C” level players. Do you have the security and self-confidence to hire the right people who can help you achieve your goals and turn dreams into reality?

Steve Jobs certainly did. “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

And so it goes…

Reflection on the Last Year

One year ago today was my last day in a building with students in my 38 year career.

The 5 or so regular readers of this tripe know that for the last 11 years, I was working in Montana while my wife was teaching in Colorado, and our kids were living in the Denver area, and our 3 grandchildren have joined the world.

I spent a wonderful afternoon on the golf course, something I wasn’t able to do too often while in Montana. Great time to think back to the last year, and the previous 38. After all, hitting a ball with a stick, when one really doesn’t care much about the number if times it happens makes it easy to reflect.

One of the things I wondered about was why we have a “celebration” when someone leaves or retires. Why don’t we do that on their first day at work with us, let them know they are welcome, and we are looking forward to what they will be doing with and for us, rather than at the end of their tenure when we celebrate what they have done.

Apple gives all new employees the following memo on their first day at work:

“There’s work and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end. They want their work to add up to something. Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Welcome to Apple.”

Tried to instill that culture in my schools. I wanted teachers with that attitude. Tried not to manage them, rather, I tried to lead them, empower and energize them. Trust them. They knew they never had to ask permission to try something new, exciting and different.

My favorite Steve Jobs quote-“We don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Still have my finger in a couple of pies in the education oven. All that said, walking up to the first green today, realized that given a choice between  students, teachers and administrators in Montana, and wife, kids and grandkids in Colorado, I made the right decision….one year ago.

And so it goes…