Culture is one of those things that no leader - in the public or private sector - has ever said out loud that it doesn’t matter. Culture is on the same level of “trust.” Everyone acknowledges with their words that it matters. The actions of leaders and organizations, however, do not always reflect these adages.
We have had thousands of visitors from across the world visit our school since we opened in August 2014. On these tours, we try to know what it is people from different schools, districts, and industries are seeking so that we can best highlight elements that will be most helpful. What never changes though, is the value and emphasis put on culture in the process of our school transformation and the work we continue to do.
Don’t get things wrong - we are not perfect, and we do not espouse an idealistic utopia where everything works perfectly. We have our issues, and we have our bad days. But we have also done what few organizations have been able to do in such a short amount of time. This journey has opened our eyes to a lot and we have learned a lot. Much of our success has come from the organizational culture that we all have helped to establish and tend to.
On our tours, we will sit with visitors before taking the opportunity to go out on campus and see kids in action. We go through our story, and we talk about culture. At this point in our journey, I share about how many leaders opt to pass on the culture discussions. Having had the experience I have with this, I now draw attention to this story before any leader has the chance to say otherwise. It makes things less awkward, and here is why. Over the series of countless tours, what we discovered is that as the discussion about culture gets going, leaders - who were often dressed in nicer clothes & taking themselves much more seriously than those accompanying him/her - would try to cut off a discussion around culture.
“Oh yeah, we agree, culture is super important, that is why I…”
Fill in the blank:
Culture is wickedly complicated. Culture is all about human understanding. Our pastor once made the brilliant observation regarding the complexities of humans in that the section at Barnes & Noble that keeps getting bigger is the Self-Help section. Culture is wickedly tricky because all humans bring to the organization their own triumphs, trauma, joy, hopes, fears, biases, and pain. It is partly what makes us such beautiful creatures.
I once heard, and often share the analogy that school culture is like the hit Food Network TV game show, Chopped. The game consists of 4 professional chefs who are given a basket of secret ingredients that they must not only use but make the star of the dish they prepare and serve to the judges. The baskets contain odd-ball selections: Gummy Worms, sardines, and almond paste -- Make the best appetizer possible! After judging, someone goes home, and then they repeat this for the entree: Bratwurst, Chicken Feet, Bullion -- Make the best entree you can! And so on until there is a winner. In the final decision making between the top two contestants left standing, the judges consider the entirety of all three courses and how the chefs made lemonade from lemons.
This is relevant to schools, because every year, we do not pick the kids who come to us. We do not pick the parents/guardians who come along with them. We don’t pick our grade level teams, and we don’t pick our bosses. But we create the best dishes possible with whatever comes out of the basket. We weave and work and find complimentary flavors to elevate the experience.
Because culture is so complex, we soon realized that it is not just, “culture.” When leaders wanted to brush past the “culture talk” part of the tour so we could spend more time on programming, functional issues, and technical practicalities that leaders and teams have to sort through transformation -- it actually made sense. They know culture matters. Much like everyone knows trust matters. But trust and culture are not things that sit on a shelf that we can reach for when we have time for it. Culture and trust are what we do. Countless times, as leaders brushed off the “culture talk” they would lead it with, “Yep, Culture eats strategy for breakfast” or some other saying that it felt like they had heard, but not really studied. And after a while with these reactions, we started to notice trends with the rest of the team accompanying these leaders. Eyes darting back and forth to one another. Heads down, or heads up looking to the ceiling. Heads cocked to make eye contact with me. All quiet pleads, to please talk more about culture. And because it is our tour - that is often what we would do.
Culture is complex. Culture is not just a word, but a series of beliefs, actions, and relationships. Our experience with transformation and organizational culture led to the development of what we coined the “4 Dimensions of Organizational Culture.” Each element feeds the other and the basic three, when safely in place, allow for an adaptive dimension of culture to exist. That adaptive aspect is where innovation and transformation take place.
The image below helps to visually show what we mean. In addition, a brief description of each dimension exists with a link to a more robust description and examples.
When designing the Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA), we sought to gather empathy from students and as a result made a poignant discovery: students, particularly those from poverty, felt that school was irrelevant to their lives. We endeavored to reverse this by design, and we knew that if we created a school that was more about their lives than “just school,” we could capture their hearts, and then we could get to their brains. Engagement became our first intervention.
Engagement is not a one-way street: we cannot manifest this in our students if faculty don’t experience that same hope. It is nearly impossible for teachers to inspire and support “creativity,” “growth mindset,” or “risk-taking” in their students when those teachers do not have the self-efficacy in those domains themselves. As we contemplated how teachers can create genuinely-personalized and creative opportunities that will engage and inspire their students if they aren’t engaged themselves?
Around the same time in our school transformation, Gallup came out with findings that only 30% of teachers nationally were “engaged” in their work. An “engaged” teacher was defined as “involved with, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work… They know the scope of their jobs and constantly look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes” (Gallup, 2015, para. 2). It leaves one to ponder how And as school leaders, how might we make our own teachers engaged in their craft?
A priority for our school transformation then begged the question: how might we best engage teachers? One of the leading mantras for that effort came from a central frame of empathy that sought to honor their humanity. “What have you always wanted to do with students that you have never been able to do?” It is an easy question to ask, but once teachers gave their answers, we had to figure out ways to fully realize those answers. We worked to turn those lost wants into brand-new, specialized elective classes and/or other opportunities on campus to engage the strengths, interests, and values of teachers. School leadership aimed to foster the conditions that would make teachers jump out of bed, put both feet on the ground, and want to run to school each day. The theory of action was that this energy would bleed into the soul of the school and pump into the veins of its students.
Why Talent Development
Our next level of growth around teacher engagement has become Talent Development. It is deeply empathetic work, in part inspired by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, when he wrote that “even the most optimistic workers will become discouraged if they are not being developed” (Nadella, 2017, p. 118). Often, when we mention Talent Development to school leaders, they default to thinking professional development. To be clear, this is not what we are referring to.
We foster Talent Development through supporting teachers to realize the best future version of themselves. If we have teachers working to achieve this feeling, they will genuinely support students to help achieve the best future version of themselves. We support teachers in first recognizing and defining their identities and then in refining and seeking the best stage for their talents to shine.
How we are working on designing for talent with our faculty
Talent Development is one of the most human concepts we infuse in our work on campus. Teachers seeking their own best version of themselves is contagious for the students they work alongside everyday. This work is about love, hope, and care. It is soul work and deeply human. It is work we tend to daily. An important note to leaders is that this is not something we were just able to dive into. To get to this point was built upon a strong culture of trust between teachers and administration.
3. Strengths: All adults take the StrengthsFinder assessment and are encouraged to share their Top Five Strengths via email signature and/or classroom poster, making it part of their functioning as a team on campus. Students take the Thrively Strengths assessment, and we are currently working to make these more prominent in students’ awareness and tying them to metacognition and reflection.
4. Interests: All adults take the Strong Interest Inventory to identify their Top Three RIASEC Codes. The follow up conversations have been profound. Everyone spoken to feels very connected to the results, leading to insights such as “I am in the perfect career,” “I am not sure why I am in this career,” or “I can be doing more within this career.” All students have access to the assessment, and like Strengths, we are in the process of better tuning this information into daily experiences. In addition, each year we offer parents the opportunity to take the assessment.
5. Entrepreneurship: This overlays our Design Based pedagogy and is a key component driving discussions and actions around “Identity and Talent.” In addition, Entrepreneurship helps develop the sense of craftsmanship for us all. This provides a platform for interested teachers with their own personal branding around “strengths” and “expertise” to provide added value to the organization while they realize and spread their influence as conference presenters, budding consultants, and more.
6. Flatten Hierarchy: Charon et al (2018) shared that “hierarchy can isolate and bury talent” (p. 8) and that cross-functional teams help to triangulate talent development as levers for improvement and growth within an organization. We have two standing leadership teams and a number of other pop up teams and councils. These pop up teams come together to perform a targeted task and then disband when the work is accomplished. This is also an effective way to build trust, allow other to see how the process works, and to create a sense of ‘we are all in this together.”
Empathy is something we are continually working to hone. It requires us to be vulnerable as users within our own system and to practice humility to not assume that we know all of the answers. We have found, time and time again, that we avoid many pitfalls faced by conventional organizations by being human-centered and designing both for users and alongside users. By being empathetic to others and seeking humility, we are mindful of the assertion in Talent Wins that “talent can never be about the ego fulfillment of leaders” (Charan et al, 2018, p. 166). Our school transformation is now in its fifth year, and like any good innovation, we know our edge is in our ability to continue iteration and evolution. Failure to iterate and evolve would lead to stagnation and mediocrity. Some of the things on our mind as we engage with this work are:
Charon, R., Barton, D., and Carey, D. (2018). Talent wins: the new playbook for putting people
first. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press
Gallup. (2015). Lack of teacher engagement linked to 2.3 million missed workdays. Retrieved
Gallup (2016). First, break all the rules: what the world’s greatest managers do differently. New
York, New York: Gallup
Nadella, S. (2017). Hit refresh: the quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a
better future for everyone. New York, New York: HarperCollins
One of the most magical experiences our little family has shared together was a vacation where we spent 3 days exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. My wife and daughters were already raving fans of the Harry Potter books & subsequent movies, and the enchantment of the park experience made me a fan. It was on this trip that I learned about the Sorting Hat at a special school for training young witches & wizards called Hogwarts. This Sorting Hat divided the students at the school into different Houses based both on what it could sense from a student, and what the student wanted.
These Houses can most quickly be named and described as:
Brave & Adventurous
Loyal & Kind
Intelligent & Introspective
Cunning. (Most “bad” characters are Slytherins, but not all Slytherins are “bad” people).
It was during some silly familial disagreement on that trip that one of our daughters explained to us that if we knew what each other’s Hogwarts Houses were, that maybe we could understand why we were bickering. It was a brilliant insight from an 8 year old, and immediately a light went off in my head about an issue I was dealing with 3,000 miles away, back home in San Diego.
The reality of the modern world, especially in schools, is that we work in teams. Teachers may work in grade level teams, PLC’s, vertical teams, cross-collaborative teams, and a million other configurations. Administrators also have teams - perhaps at the site level, but also typically across a district. Sometimes these teams gel and they are off to the races moving forward on the work. Sometimes these teams struggle more. Sometimes the beliefs, the personalities, or behaviors within a team can cause strife, frustration, discontent, mistrust, and otherwise slow or derail the work.
A few years ago, I was on a team (not at our school, and the team has since gone away). That team was for the most part dysfunctional. There were five of us, and we had very different views of the world, we had very different views about our work, we had very different understandings about our roles in the work -- we even had different outlooks on what the work actually was. This, sadly, as in many organizations, led to discussions by a few behind the backs of others to air frustrations, discontent, and otherwise unproductive behavior. I was as guilty as anyone else in all of the mess.
In reflection, at the root of the team’s issues was that we were unable to have any real discourse with each other. We talked, but there was no understanding amongst us. We lacked perspective. Perhaps we didn’t like each other. Perhaps our viewpoints of the world were too different. Perhaps our purposes for doing the work were not aligned. Perhaps the ways we went about any & everything were all totally off from one another.
So, building off the advice of our 8 year old daughter for how to figure out our familial bickering, I did what any well-seasoned & mature person in management would do: I sorted everyone on the team into Hogwarts Houses!
It turns out we had 2 Gryffindors, 1 Ravenclaw, me the Hufflepuff, and a Slytherin. Standing there in line, this insight began to sink in.
Just as in the books & movies the audience was able to expect something from the characters based on the House that they were sorted; so the puzzle of dysfunction was beginning to make sense to me. What if we knew what to expect from someone because of how they are predisposed, or wired, and you allowed that knowledge to provide context for things? What if that context made you more patient? What if that patience allowed you the time & space to be more empathetic? What type of perspectives might be gleaned from that empathy and how might that then change the interactions and functionality of a team? And how would you do all that at scale in an organization?
Sorting us into Hogwarts Houses immediately helped provide me context clues for why our team was in fact dysfunctional. When we returned to work, I let the Gryffindors in on this wild insight of sorting, and eventually everyone knew. It immediately made a huge impact. Suddenly in our interactions: the way we spoke to each other, the framing of questions, the patience to imagine the origin of behaviors, dispositions, and mindsets began to take root. By the time the team disbanded a few years later we had grown in our work and we had actually all become genuine friends. In that time, no one changed who they were. No one caved in on what they stood for. Rather, context led to patience. Patience led to hearing. Hearing led to empathy. Empathy led to grace. Grace led to a willingness to grow from the perspectives of others, and it allowed for the team’s thinking to be expanded.
It may seem like a silly scenario, but it was one of the most profound moments and realizations I had had as a leader. Perspective. Before you knew it, I was sorting everyone into Houses: my bosses, our teachers, the students -- it was radical -- and I wondered: How might we purposefully design for perspective-building in our own school culture?
When we opened our school, we knew that there was a lot we wanted to do to re-imagine the learning experience for modern learners. This meant assessing what schools “do” and what made sense to continue to do.
One of the issues we wanted to address was “traditional” parent-teacher conferences. What our collective experience as school employees and parents informed us that Parent Conferences essentially meant 1 of 4 main things:
Yet, as a new school, we found ourselves still working within an established and larger system that set aside specific dates for “Parent Conferences” with attached Minimum Day bell schedules and Teacher Contract language associated with them.
So we began to ideate. How might we make a more meaningful experience out of Parent Conferences? We started by researching options such as “Student Led Conferences” (SLC’s) made popular by different progressive education outlets.
While intrigued by SLC’s, we were hesitant because while the onus shifted from teacher to student-talk, it still seemed like an isolated event. Students, instead of their teachers, reported about their successes, struggles and other issues -- but all still in private.
Since Project Based Learning (PBL) is important to us, and an essential element of PBL is “public audience,” we prototyped a riff off of SLC’s where a student would prepare a presentation about their learning and give this presentation publicly to their family and invited friends, a teacher, and three other families. Students are given a template to help structure their 5-7 minute presentation, but allowed the latitude to tell their story in their way. Students talk about how they are doing academically, where they are exceeding and show evidence for it. Where are they struggling, and what is their plan for improving. Students also talk about their relationship with the core values (GILLS) of the school. What core value have they been challenged by and what is their plan to improve. What core value are they best exemplifying and what is the evidence to prove it? Students also discuss in general about what their challenges are and where they have grown over their time at the school.
These experiences are called “Celebrations of Learning” and we began doing them in the Spring of 2015 (our first year).
When we opened our 4th year of the school, we thought about authenticity a lot. Both in the projects & prototypes students made, but also in what we were asking the students to reach and do. We agreed that it would be meaningful if the adults stepped up and engaged in their own Celebrations of Learning (COL’s) in front of our peers. On November 6th, 2017, we did just that. Four members of our Staffulty took about 25 minutes during a meeting and presented to their peers. There were tears, there was vulnerability, there was open-honesty, there was humor; but most of all there was love and appreciation. The Staffulty who gave their COL’s gained empathy for what we ask our students to go through on four occasions during their time at our school. The audience gained respect and appreciation for their colleagues stepping well out of the comfort zone. Some of the email comments that followed summed up the experience well:
“I just wanted to thank the brave souls that shared their COL this morning with the staff. Thank you for showing us a side of you that we don't always get to see and being VULNERABLE. I was so impressed. I feel more and more like family here and I'm so grateful to be a part of this great work that we do. I was again inspired by the power of a Celebration of Learning. I can't wait to see what the kids come up with this week.”
“This morning's Adult COLs profoundly touched me. The personal reflections were courageous, humorous, and touching. I was also moved by those in the room that listened attentively and supported our colleagues as they shared about themselves.”
Image Credit: http://www.shmula.com/about-peter-abilla/what-is-andon-in-the-toyota-production-system
When my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, we moved into my parents’ spare bedroom. We had just rented out our house, and we were six weeks away from closing escrow on our new home where we would go on to raise our little family. While we were living in the spare bedroom, we had to quickly adopt some survival skills. This was a great adventure, mainly because of me. I am not only a super-sensitive person, but I also think that I am funnier than I actually am...
To survive this six week adventure, my wife and I quickly realized that we needed a special “stop” signal that either of us could invoke without angering the other. We needed an alert system that, without words or sensationalism, indicated "feelings are about to be hurt." Living in such a small space with so much external stress, we needed to ensure that effective communication and systems were in place to end teasing, nagging, questioning, or eye-rolling before the point of no return. The signal? If one of us were about to experience hurt feelings, we were to extend our arms and close them shut, like the jaws of an alligator. This signal means, without question, hesitation, sarcastic remark, or huffy sounds, that everything was to stop. Immediately.
Almost a decade later while reading the book The Lean StartUp (2011) by Eric Ries, I was fascinated to learn about a mechanism at Toyota that worked in radically the same way. It is called the "Andon Cord." The Andon Cord is a cord that any worker along the assembly line is expected to pull if a problem or concern is seen. Pulling the cord is not something determined by rank or seniority. Pulling the cord illuminates a series of immediate responses by supervisors that may or may not actually stop the entire line of production. Ries (2011) explains that it "allows any worker to ask for help as soon as they notice any problem, such as a defect in a physical part, stopping the entire production line if it cannot be corrected immediately" (p. 187). Without naming it, in How (2011) by Dov Seidman, he explains the power of this concept as "it (quality) became the responsibility of every employee at every level of the task. Power shifted from the top of the hierarchy down to its base; anyone, at any stage of the process, could stop the line" (pp. 211-212).
This is much like what my wife and I had developed to get through our in-between-houses-time, and in fact we still use the signal today. Frankly, much of the success of our marriage has been forged by this strategy that puts the responsibility on both of us for acting and responding appropriately in a predetermined and understood fashion.
I was speaking to a visitor touring our school in the spring of 2017, and he took the story of the Andon Cord as a quality control tool and superimposed it as a strategy for ferreting out instruction that didn't meet “his” standards. In fact, he quite-excitedly gleaned that this proven concept from industry empowered him to be more direct and quicker to make note of low-grade instruction at “his” school.
So bothered by his interpretation, I was inspired to write this post. I told him that I thought the transference of the concept of the Andon Cord from manufacturing to education was more to do about empowering all people in the organization and flattening the hierarchy, aka, culture. It was not immediately about quality control on instruction. I told him that, in fact, I thought the story taken in the context as he processed it was actually damaging. Whether he wanted to hear it or not, I continued that, 'from my perspective, the power of the Andon Cord idea speaks to...'
Travelling is one of my favorite things to do. I enjoy the adventures of a new journey - both the joys, stresses, memories and the learning that happens every time I venture out into something new.
On a recent journey, I stopped at the Concierge’s Desk to get advice on local eats. I was visiting New York City, and I was overwhelmed with the quantity of Yelp reviews, travel website suggestions, and other “noise” that was creating inner stress for where I should eat.
While standing in line, I listened to the Concierge help a couple that was in town for the first time. They only had one night free in their trip, and they were desperate to see a “terrific” show. The Concierge took the time to ask questions about the couple’s preferences. Did they want a musical, did they want more of a traditional play, did they know that there are a number of uniquely spirited “Off Broadway” productions that may be enjoyable. The couple left, with tickets in hand, with clear directions about how to get to the theatre, and even a recommendation for a coffee/gelato shop for after the show that will give a 10% discount by showing the ticket stubs from the show! Wow!
Next, was my turn. I love the theatre, but that wasn’t my concern at the time. I wanted the real story on where I should get some good food. I mentioned a few “celebrity chef” and “tourist joint” places that I had heard about. And on my own, I would have just gone to one. But the Concierge looked at me and said, “Those are good choices, but you only have so much time in New York, you should really get something authentic. Do you like Italian food?” I do, and I left with a suggestion for a great “Mom & Pop” restaurant out of Times Square, where the locals ate. I left the Concierge’s Desk with exactly what I wanted, even though it was unexpected, and with reservations made for me. I also had detailed directions of which subways would get me there in about 20 minutes. I was off on my journey for the night!
As I was wrapping up the conversation with the Concierge, a woman had stepped up next to me to a second Concierge. She had just gotten to the hotel after a long flight with weather delays, she had checked in, gone to her room, and realized she didn’t pack a toothbrush. She came to the Concierge’s Desk for help on where the nearest convenience store was. The Concierge, not only gave her explicit directions and explained that it was a 5 minute walk down the block, but he reached under his desk and pulled out a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste. He said, “Here, this will take care of you for now, how about you just stop at the convenience store on your way back into the hotel.”
What I realized in this moment is that the role of a Concierge is to meet the specific needs of individuals, for wherever they are at in their journey, because all travelers are on a continuum of need. The similarities of the travelers is that they are all away from home, they are all seeking temporary residence in the hotel, and each of them is on a journey. The role of the Concierge is to be empathetic, to listen, and to hear for and act on the things that a person doesn’t say as much as what they do say. The suggestion for an Off Broadway Show, the tip about ticket stubs getting 10% at a coffee/gelato shop close to the theatre. Providing tickets in hand for the show and detailed directions to get there. For myself, directing me away from what was known to something authentic - and providing directions, and reservations being handled. Then lastly the woman without a toothbrush. All she wanted was directions to a convenience store, but the Concierge knew he could do better than sending her back out into the city after a long day of travel.
Each of us who came to this desk in the short span of time were on a journey. We were at different points in the journey, and we had different needs & interests at that time. The Concierge’s job is to be human-centered, lead with his ear, and meet the stated needs of the users at the desk, as well as listen deeply to understand some unstated needs. Everyone who comes to a Concierge’s Desk is on a continuum in their journey. A Concierge is in a human-centered profession.
This makes me think about being a school leader in an era of drastic change and even uncertainty. There is much said about “leading innovation,” building culture, and change leadership. I also hear a lot of people talk about how they are “servant leaders,” which roots back to work by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.
As we lead in an era of uncertainty and change, this idea of the Concierge Continuum is useful for me to conceptualize theory to action. Good practice establishes that we use a theory of action when building more innovative, more personalized, or more creative learning experiences for students. But it is the theory to action that gets things done. We spend too much time “talking” and too much time sharing theories to explain behavior. Let’s be more biased towards action. Let’s be more human-centered, and let’s DO!
And to effectively do so, I contend that we need to work like a concierge, where we intentionally take the time to recognize that everyone on our team will always be at a different level of implementation - they exist on a continuum in their journey. Our job as a leader is to listen, to be mindful, and find out where each person lies, and what needs exist that we can meet, to help them advance up the continuum - towards progress of our intended outcomes.