You Just Walked Past Your Work

School leaders are busy.


Walk into any building and leaders can be seen bobbing and weaving through hallways and classrooms to ensure the day runs smoothly. When leaders are on the go, it is easy to have a one-track mind: Solve one issue and on to the next.


Unfortunately, leaders who operate with tunnel vision often fail to notice the most vital aspect of their job: The people.


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"How can a leader walk right by a group of people they work with and not even say hello to them?"


When I initially read this passage from John Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership I didn't believe this issue pertained to me. I was always respectful of employees and certainly didn't pass them without acknowledgement.


However, reading further I realized there may be more personal truth than I first believed: "Don't say 'I've got a lot of work to do today and I really want to get started.' You just walked past your work. Never forget that leadership is about people."


And then it dawned on me: Although I make time for employees - including weekly 1:1s with all direct reports - I have always struggled giving employees my full attention ... especially when in the back of my mind "more important" work needs to be done.


As an assistant principal, a colleague nicknamed me "The Red Flash" due to my red hair and my penchant for dashing around the school putting out fires. While I was a pro at responding to building "emergencies," I was a novice when it came to slowing down and investing time with staff.


As a principal, my nickname did not continue (although students affectionately referred to me as "Dr. Ginger Jesus" - see below). What did continue was my bad habit of choosing problems over people. In a large building with 1600 students and 250 staff, my attention was often focused on addressing "pressing" student matters - at the expense of staff relationships.

As a superintendent, one would assume I had finally learned my lesson about workplace priorities. But while initially I was disciplined about spending time with staff, eventually I reverted back to a mindset where completing "urgent" office work was more critical than listening to employees.


Old habits die hard.


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Energy is precious and the brain is wired to conserve it whenever possible. Therefore, it is human nature to follow The Law of Least Effort. This principle suggests when deciding between two options, people naturally gravitate toward the choice requiring the least amount of work.


Often, this concept pertains to our personal life. Rather than clean out the garage or go for a bike ride, our tendency is to select easier options such as scrolling through our phones or watching television.


The Law of Least Effort impacts work as well. School leaders have many options for how to spend their time, with varying levels of energy needed to complete each task.


For example, when a school leader enters the office, she is faced with two options: Stop to engage with her secretary, or proceed to her office to begin work.


While conversation seems like the easier option, the reality is many supervisors choose the latter.


Why is this?


First - let's face it - many bosses are awkward around staff. One survey found 69% of managers are uncomfortable speaking with employees. It's one thing to feel uneasy giving bad news or constructive feedback, but this survey indicates a large majority of leaders feel a general unease when participating in casual conversation.


Second, leaders are notorious for becoming obsessed with solving work issues. Like a heartbroken teen who can't get his mind off of an ex, bosses who fixate on work-related problems struggle to give their full attention to other matters. And often, those who work closest to them bear the brunt of the fallout.


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When educators move into leadership roles, suddenly they find themselves surrounded by a group of office staff (or support staff). Depending on role and size of the organization, these individuals include secretaries, office managers, department supervisors, student services personnel, and many others.


Often, leaders have a tendency to take these employees for granted. Sure - when we assume a new role - we go above and beyond to get to know our team. However, as the months go by and we settle into our jobs, we forget to take deliberate steps to reinforce those relationships.


You may be thinking, "Well this doesn't pertain to me. I have great relationships with my office staff."


Alrighty then, what are the first names of all of the children of your office staff?


If you passed this test, great! You're doing better than most. If you failed this test, what makes you think you can get full effort from someone when you don't know the names of the people closest to them? While one question doesn't define your ability to build relationships, it does speak to the notion that leaders must put their work aside and focus on their real work - the people.


Beyond learning the names of your colleagues' kids, here are five simple ideas for strengthening connections with office staff:


Potlucks: Leaders must prioritize office gatherings, and one of the best ways to do this is through a good old-fashioned potluck. Not only do monthly (or even weekly!) potlucks create a buzz around the office, they also provide ample opportunity for meaningful dialogue.


Family Quiz: We take getting to know our colleagues to the next level by asking all office staff to give a short presentation on their spouses, kids, and pets. Once this is done, we take a quiz to see how many names we can remember. Prizes go to the best presentation and quiz score!


Text Thread: Our office staff has an ongoing text thread. Not only does this allow teammates the opportunity to quickly send information to the group, group texts are a fun way to share pictures, keep in touch over breaks, and celebrate milestones and accomplishments.


Shift Attention: Whether it's because they believe they lead more "exciting" lives or they are just poor conversationalists, school leaders talk about themselves way too much. Bosses who intentionally cast the discussion spotlight on staff - not themselves - do wonders to strengthen bonds.


Quarterly Meetings: Even though I don't directly supervise all office staff members, I still meet with each individual quarterly. My goal for the meeting is not only to strengthen the relationship, but also to discuss employee feelings about work and explore ways to make work more enjoyable (see below).

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Do you see personal moments with staff as investments or expenditures? When leaders spend even a few minutes engaging in conversation with employees, they do wonders to instill loyalty and trust with those individuals.


Sometimes giving ten minutes to chit chat with a secretary can seem like an eternity. My challenge to you (and me!) is to remember leadership is about people.


Next time you make a mad dash to your office to return a phone call or answer an email without acknowledging staff remember this: You just walked past your work.

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