I’ve had the opportunity to connect with several school leaders over the past few years.
During these conversations, my goal is to come away with at least one new idea that I can try in my own setting. To help meet this goal, I often ask the following: “What is one professional practice that you would recommend to others?”
This prompt has produced numerous great ideas that I have implemented in my own practice. Ideas include sending birthday postcards to students, developing a communication protocol, encouraging “discipline on wheels,” and journaling daily gratitudes.
However, one practice has produced the biggest return on investment in my current work: Rounding Meetings.
In The Effective Manager, Mark Horstman proposes the following: “The single most important (and efficient) thing you can do as a manager to improve your performance and increase retention is to spend time getting to know your direct reports.”
Unfortunately, many school leaders do everything but spend time with their staff. Rather than connect with their people, school leaders send emails, supervise hallways, sit in IEP meetings, handle discipline, complete reports ... and send more emails.
To be clear, these are all important parts of school leadership; school leaders must address the building's logistical processes. However, school leaders cannot neglect the staff they manage.
“This isn’t my issue,” you may be thinking. “I talk to my people all the time.”
Yes, many school leaders are in constant communication with their direct reports through email, text, and face-to-face conversation. In fact, many school leaders “talk” to their employees so much that they hardly have time for their own work!
However, most school leaders have no idea how one-sided those conversations are. Walking up to an employee and saying, “Hey, got a minute?” does not count as “talking” with employees. Why? Because these conversations are driven by the leader’s agenda.
“But I’m super friendly!” you may be thinking. “I always ask how the kids/spouse/pets are before asking my question.”
Regardless of your small-talk skills, impromptu chats with staff do not build deep, meaningful relationships. Furthermore, spontaneous conversations rarely produce feedback from employees that push an organization forward.
Enter rounding meetings.
Rounding can be traced back to the healthcare field. Rounding is when doctors "make the rounds" to see how patients are doing. These conversations are ideal for patients to discuss health developments, medical care, and steps toward discharge. Although simple, physicians have found rounding to be especially helpful because the conversation is focused on the needs of the patient.
The success of rounding in healthcare has led to extensive implementation in the business world. Rather than visit patients, CEOs, VPs, and managers check in on the status of their employees. During these discussions, supervisors ask how the employee is doing, what issues need to be addressed, and what supports the person needs to be successful. Most importantly, the conversation is focused on the employee.
Unfortunately, rounding meetings have been slow to work their way into schools. Whereas many school leaders say “I check in with my staff all of the time,” they fail to realize that - at their core - these conversations are dictated by the leader and rarely focus on improving the employee experience.
Curious to give rounding meetings a try in my setting, I committed to completing one 20-minute check-in conversation with every certified employee in our district. When I told my awesome secretary - Jess - my plans, she looked at me a little funny: “You want to set up meetings … with 130 employees?”
Recall that my calendar is pretty scripted and full of routine meetings, including ten weekly 1:1 meetings with building principals and district directors. So finding time to slide in so many meetings seemed a little aggressive.
“I know it sounds crazy, but we have the whole year,” I assured her. “Besides, I really want to hear what is going on in the trenches of our district. Do you think you can come up with a way to schedule these meetings? Pretty please?”
Jess playfully shook her head, wrote down a few notes, and assured me she would come up with something.
“I owe you big time!” I told her as she left my office.
Using Calendly, Jess gave staff access to my calendar and allowed them to pick a time that worked for their individual calendars. Within the invite, staff had the opportunity to pick a location for the meeting - either my office or a location of their choosing.
My next step was to create a set of questions to ask during each meeting. In speaking with others, I learned that scripted questions - as opposed to informal conversion - was a vital piece of the rounding process. Administrators only have a short amount of time with each employee, meaning that questions must be well-crafted to elicit productive conversation.
Now that meetings were scheduled and questions were written, I was ready to begin. It didn’t take long to realize the incredible impact of rounding meetings. Not only did I get to know each employee on a personal level, I also received great insight about the experiences of our employees.
One of the biggest takeaways from my first 30-ish rounding conversations was just how stressed our teachers were. Because these meetings occurred in September and October, I assumed most staff would still be in the "honeymoon" period to start the year. I was shocked to discover many employees were already reporting very high levels of stress.
Armed with this information, I went to our administrative team asking for solutions. Eventually, we approved a plan to add monthly two-hour early dismissals for teacher planning. Although not a huge commitment of time, staff loved knowing that school leadership listened and made adjustments based on their feedback.
Had I not implemented rounding meetings, I would not have had the insight to make this timely decision. Furthermore, the knowledge gained from rounding conversations has given me excellent perspective for other decisions and for working with building leadership.
Thinking about trying rounding meetings in your setting? Here are seven ideas to consider:
Start Light: I would encourage bosses to start with a question that encourages employees to share something new or exciting outside of work. While some employees may not have much to share, a majority of staff will have plenty to talk about. These stories - whether they are about family, hobbies, or trips - are a great way to make the person feel comfortable and are valuable for future interactions.
Keep Notes: When employees are talking, I type notes directly into the Google Form. While some may say this disrupts the intimacy of the conversion, I believe notes are essential because they allow me to go back and see what each employee said at a later time. Furthermore, I share my notes with building administrators, which enables leaders to read staff concerns and positive feedback.
Refine Questions: When I began, I asked the following: "What do you like most about our district?" Although this question was well-intentioned, I received answers such as "I like the diversity" and "I like the size of the district." While these are great answers, they did not speak to practices within our control. I have now found that "What are 1-2 things our district does that you like the most?" does a much better job of providing me with actionable information.
Build Trust: One of the most important parts of rounding meetings is encouraging staff to share their true feelings. While there is no perfect way to put staff at ease, I have found, “You can be honest - it won’t hurt my feelings” and “The only way we get better is to know what is really going on” as helpful prompts for encouraging staff to open up about their experience in our district.
Dig Deeper: Once trust has been built, employees may voice frustrations with school leadership, co-workers, or the work environment. When they begin to share their grievances, many staff will pause to gauge their boss’s reaction: “Am I ok to say this?” Administrators must notice this hesitation and encourage employees to keep sharing, as these insights are the most valuable aspect of the rounding meeting.
Follow Through: As is the case with any meeting, conversation, or survey, bosses must be careful not to waste employees’ time. If staff don't feel like their feedback is being used, they will be less likely to trust administration with their time in the future. Bosses must look for timely opportunities - such as team and faculty meetings - to explain how they are using rounding feedback.
Positive Feedback: The “Tell me about 1-2 people who have been especially helpful that I can compliment on your behalf” question is my favorite part of the rounding process. After the meeting, I copy and paste the positive feedback into an email template and share it with both the person giving the feedback and the person who was identified. Quite often, I receive a reply saying “this just made my day." This makes my day as well!
In a recent rounding meeting with a middle school teacher, I received the following feedback:
“You have made it feel like you listen to all the teachers. You listen to what we say and you make the best judgement. You don't just sit in the office and make decisions. I've worked in four other districts and haven't seen this before. You actually listen and then make decisions - that's amazing.”
Consider the decisions you make in your own setting.
Are you making arbitrary decisions from the comfort of your office?
Or, are you making well-informed decisions based on staff feedback?
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