“I can’t keep up. I have too much to do. Everything is a priority and everything is urgent. I’m so busy doing that I don’t have time to think.” This is a synthesis of what I hear regularly from educational leaders in candid moments as they work to meet new state requirements amid tight timelines, little direction and predictable resistance. The Regents Reform Agenda, which state officials appear to view as a set of technical adjustments, is in fact a huge adaptive challenge for schools and, though leadership is necessary in guiding this change, it will not by itself be sufficient.
It’s not enough to do the right things. For success it is critical to do the right things right. Which leads us back to management, a subject still studied in business schools but currently out of vogue in schools of education. Though principals and superintendents are constantly exhorted to lead, it is important to understand that their intelligence, imagination and knowledge are wasted without the managerial habits of mind that mold them into results. Peter Drucker, one of the great figures in the field of management, suggested a five part formula for leaders seeking to guide successful change.
Understand and Control Your Time
In schools, as in other organizations, time in the most precious resource since no one is making any more of it. How students, teachers and leaders spend this scarce commodity is of critical importance. Leaders’ time is frequently squandered as a result of poor planning, systems or communications flow, and is usually not their own but tends to belong to everyone else. If you are constantly overwhelmed by urgencies and can never seem to get to what’s important, there is only one solution—get a grip on your time. Record it, manage it, consolidate it. Once having identified time wasters and having pushed back on unproductive time demands from others, it is vital to manage the small amounts of discretionary time you do have and balance it to address priorities.
Focus on Contribution
I believe that virtually everyone in education today is working very hard to the best of their current ability. Yet, as Deming famously stated years ago, “Doing your best isn’t good enough if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Often, in their haste, leaders get right to work and fail to consider what their special contribution should be as opposed to that of those they supervise and those who supervise them. It is critical to do the right work at every level and not try to run in from left field to play shortstop when something needs doing. Leaders need to assess clearly where their skill and specialty will add value toward intended outcomes and then discipline themselves to act in this zone. They need to learn and practice delegation, identifying what the contributions of others should be and then providing the authority needed to carry out the responsibilities they have assigned.
Build on Strengths First
In a change effort as large and multifaceted as the Regents Reform Agenda, leaders have to find and mobilize the energy that already exists in their schools. What are the current relative strengths in your organization? Maybe they are your guidance office, your third grade teaching team, your middle school administrators and your support staff. Start with them as they are the foundation stones for building a great organization. Focus on what can be done currently and not on what can’t be done. Proceed from there—energy is contagious. This approach is both a practice and an attitude. Believe in people’s potential, recognize that no one (yourself included) is good at everything and avoid dissipating your scarce time and energy on one “bad apple” while ignoring the needs of everyone else.
Concentrate On The Few Things That Will Produce the Greatest Results
Many administrators see the value in current mandates but fault the state for trying to implement too much too fast. Teachers spend the vast majority of their time with students, leaving only a little time and energy left for educational reform efforts. That’s why it is so important for leaders to avoid squandering these resources by overwhelming staff with multiple initiatives implemented quickly and badly. Force yourself to set and stick to priorities. Think deeply about which are the most powerful and worth the investment of scarce organizational energy. The key is the ability to concentrate. The more you can concentrate effort and resources, the greater the achievement. Remember, if you have too many priorities, you have no priorities.
Make Effective Decisions
Using time well, concentrating effort, building staff capacity and prioritizing all require effective decision-making. Unfortunately, given the volume and speed of required change at the moment, leaders often forget to use this skill consistently. Some act rapidly, putting forward plans designed in isolation and seeking to win compliance rather than first weighing competing opinions and rationales. Others delay and drift, hoping for more data that will make the solution apparent. Still others await direction from above instead of discerning the right strategy for their particular context. But it’s the leader’s job to decide and done well this moves the organization forward with confidence and coherence.
In our current situation, none of these actions is easy but they are essential. Simply put, if you can’t manage, you won’t be given the chance to lead. Personal change starts with reflection. Think about it.