On The Group Project Podcast, I interview school leaders from around the country. One of my favorite parts of the interview is asking guests to reflect on their biggest rookie mistakes.
Quite often I get the same answer: trying to be the expert at everything.
On Episode #87 I interviewed Brent Barry who is the Superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District in Oregon. In our interview, he reflected on his early struggles as a principal.
“My first year as an elementary principal, I felt like I had to be the expert at everything,” said Barry, the Oregon Superintendent of the Year in 2022. “I quickly learned I was wrong.”
“People were getting too dependent on me,” Barry admitted. “I couldn’t possibly be the fixer of all problems. It was exhausting! After a while, I started thinking, ‘Am I really the person who needs to solve that question? Or, do we have other people with more expertise who can solve that problem?’”
“New leaders believe they have to be the go-to person for everything," Barry explained. "That’s just not possible. You can’t possibly know everything about every subject area and every grade level.”
"Don't put the pressure on yourself to be the expert."
In 2016 I landed my “dream job.” As the head principal of a building with 200 staff and 1,600 kids, I was asked to lead one of the largest high schools in Iowa.
At 34 years of age, I was the youngest-ever principal in this building. When I began, I heard words like “I’ve been teaching longer than you’ve been alive” and “I’m old enough to be your mom” from several employees.
Hearing this feedback made me feel good about my professional accomplishments. However, I also wanted to prove to staff that getting the job was no fluke. Although I was warned by mentors to "take things slow" ... my ego begged me to show people "what was up."
So, I compromised: rather than make building-wide changes, why not focus on leadership-team changes? "Certainly, our department chairs won't mind some changes," I figured.
Without asking for feedback or generating buy-in, I told our Building Leadership Team (BLT) we were changing many of our logistical processes: how often we met, when we met, the topics of conversation, and how we communicated.
“These changes will make us better,” I explained. "We did this in our previous school and it worked really well."
While I didn’t think these changes were a big deal, I quickly realized our leaders weren’t ready. Almost immediately, I heard grumblings that BLT members were unhappy. When I asked my secretary what she thought issue was, she provided some harsh feedback.
“They think you’re moving too fast,” she shared. “They don’t think you’re listening to them.”
“Too fast? Not listening?” I rebutted. “They are getting paid extra to be in these positions. Maybe they just need to suck it up!”
“Hey, I’m just telling you what I’m hearing,” she responded.
This standoff between myself and our BLT lasted months. Despite the fact that I was creating tension with key building leaders, my pride couldn’t handle being wrong. “If I change now, they won't respect me in the future," I worried.
While our team eventually adjusted to the changes, the damage was already done. I senselessly created adversarial relationships with several department chairs - relationships that years to recover.
By stubbornly telling people what to do instead of asking people what to do, I was single-handedly sabotaging my leadership.
“The best leaders are great listeners,” said James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge. “They listen carefully to what other people have to say and how they feel. They ask good questions, are open to ideas other than their own, and even lose arguments in support of the common good.”
Early in my career, I was told that leadership was about asking questions. At the time, that concept didn’t make sense: “How can I possibly lead if all I’m doing is asking questions?”
It took ten-plus years in leadership to build the confidence and awareness to adopt a question-first mentality. But when I did, beautiful things started to happen.
First, I learned that asking questions empowered employees. When employees were asked to share their opinions on a topic, they felt valued and respected. And when employees were asked to give feedback on a decision, they were more likely to support the outcome.
Second, I learned that asking questions made my job easier. Early in my career, I believed it was my role to have all the answers - to be the expert - when employees approached me with concerns. However, I didn't realize I was inadvertently assuming burden of the concern when I jumped in with answers as opposed to empowering employees to work through their issues.
“But shouldn’t leaders assume responsibility?” you may be thinking. “Isn’t that ‘servant’ leadership?”
Assuming they are not causing the issue (which is another topic all together), supervisors should help employees work through issues by asking questions as opposed to immediately providing answers.
Have you ever worked for an administrator who stubbornly demanded that all problems funnel through their office? While seemingly noble ... in reality this approach creates a massive bottleneck in the organization where employees wait days (if not weeks) for issues to be solved.
In short, bosses don’t have the bandwidth to shoulder responsibility for every concern within an organization. Rather be the omniscient source of answers, bosses must empower employees to work through their own concerns through the use of questions.
Research suggests that the best leaders spend 80 percent of the time listening and only 20 percent of the time talking. Consider your conversations: how would you break down your time spent talking versus listening? Unfortunately, many school leaders struggle with this concept.
Several books provide ideas to improve listening through the use of effective questioning. One of the best is The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. In his book, Bungay Stanier outlines several simple - yet effective - questions to guide employee conversations. Here are five of my favorites:
“What’s On Your Mind?” This question is an easy way to begin any conversation with an employee. By asking this question (I also ask, “What’s going on in your world?” and “What’s new with you?”), leaders make it clear that the focus is on the employee. The open-endedness of this inquiry gives subordinates complete control over where the conversation goes next.
“And What Else?” Staff aren’t used to being asked what is on their mind by the boss. Therefore, the likelihood that staff share what is really “on their mind” is slim. Leaders must encourage employees to share what is nagging at their conscience for the purpose of surfacing real issues - which are often thorny relationship issues and power struggles deep within the organization.
“What Do You Think is the Real Issue?” Employee conversations often jump from topic to topic. While this isn’t a bad thing (remember - you’re listening - not telling), it’s important for leaders to help guide employees to the root cause of their frustration. Rather than speaking in generalities, this question gives employees opportunities to share specific concerns.
“What Do You Want?” Given that they tend to focus on what others need, educators rarely come out and share what they need. Similarly, it is criminal how rarely supervisors genuinely ask employees what they need. Leaders who ask this question not only make employees feel valued, they build much-stronger relationships with those individuals.
“How Can I Help?” This question encourages employees to make a direct and clear request and prevents bosses from offering their own solutions. Oftentimes, leaders will hear employee complaints and immediately begin address the issue. Unfortunately, this approach can backfire as most employees want to avoid drama with colleagues. Only after the employee has given their blessing should a boss address a problematic situation.
One last thought: These questions only work for leaders who have already established a culture of trust and vulnerability. Unless they work hard to rebuild their social capital, leaders who lack integrity will find it difficult to elicit honest feedback from employees.
Steve Jobs famously said, “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.”
It took me far too long to realize leadership gets much easier when you quit trying to be the expert.
Don’t make my same mistake.
Stop telling employees what to do.
Start asking employees what to do.
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