In their 1983 book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman chronicle a number of successful Fortune 500 companies, searching for the common themes separating great businesses from all others.
One pattern they noticed was that several thriving companies had CEOs and managers who were intentional about getting out of the office and into the trenches of the organization to listen and engage with employees. But instead of just being friendly, it was an opportunity for bosses to listen to ideas, collect information, and resolve problems.
This leadership approach is called Management by Wandering Around, and although the name may imply an aimless stroll around the office, MBWA is a deliberate strategy for bosses to stay informed on their employee's work, interests, and ideas.
So what does a business tactic have to do with schools?
Recall this previous blog entry where we discuss the importance of school leaders being visible throughout the school community. Rather than govern from the office, school leaders need to be intentional about getting into classrooms and other learning spaces for the purpose of understanding the experiences of staff and students.
Having firsthand perspective is critical, especially when leaders are asked to make key decisions. As opposed to basing decisions off of perceptions and rumors, leaders who engage in the school environment can draw upon personal experience and specific examples to inform their thinking.
Although the expression is typically reserved for business leadership, Management by Wandering Around is an effective strategy for educational leaders as well.
There is a belief the higher you go in administration, the more disconnected you are from student learning and the everyday operations of a school. Having worked as a assistant principal, principal, and superintendent, there is truth to this sentiment.
As an assistant principal, I was heavily involved in all aspects of our school. My days consisted of handling discipline, assisting teachers, supervising lunches, visiting classrooms, and doing what was needed to keep the building running. This steady contact with students and teachers provided direct knowledge of the conditions for learning and a constant pulse on the school environment.
As a principal, my job responsibilities shifted. Two of the most notable changes were that I no longer handled student discipline and I had far fewer supervision duties. Although I did not mind delegating these laborious tasks to assistant principals and support staff, I was missing out on valuable opportunities to strengthen student relationships and sense the undercurrent in our building.
As a superintendent, the disconnected feeling has been compounded. I am now expected to look at our district from a 30,000 foot view. Although this systems perspective is critical for vision casting and resource alignment, my understanding of staff and student experiences is suboptimal. Heck, my office isn't even inside a school - I have to drive offsite just to get a glimpse of students!
Like many other leaders who have climbed the leadership ladder, it's a strange feeling to have so much distance between your work and the real work. However, there are ways to lessen the detachment. One of those methods is to embrace the MBWA mentality.
Leaders who get out of the office and into the educational setting are often amazed by how much they learn. Classrooms, hallways, offices, teachers' lounges - there are no bad options. Simply visiting these spaces with the goal of learning and understanding helps leaders reconnect with their people.
One of the biggest barriers to getting out of the office is that leaders believe they are "too busy" to make the rounds. Certainly, there are times when administrators have legitimate reasons for not leaving the office. However, in many cases being "too busy" is just an excuse.
Let's be honest, a large amount of a school leader's work is done behind the screen of a laptop. Whether they are responding to email, filing reports, sending communications, or analyzing data, much of an administrator's time is spent glued to the computer screen.
When this is the case, leaders should consider killing two birds with one stone by taking their work with them. Instead of working in seclusion, why not take the laptop into the library, cafeteria, commons area, or classroom? Not only can leaders complete work, they learn what is going on in the organization and earn "visibility points" from stakeholders.
Despite seeming like a reasonable compromise, many leaders push back on this idea. Here are four primary concerns (with appropriate rebuttals):
"But my work is confidential!": Many bosses are concerned others will stumble upon classified information. Surely, you'll want to refrain from drafting that employee termination letter in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. However, leaders who keep their distance and are mindful of their work experience few issues.
"But I'll be less productive!": Leaders often overestimate their productivity levels when working in the office. Between phone calls, impromptu meetings, and other interruptions, finding a block of time to do anything meaningful is difficult. Ironically, many bosses experience fewer interruptions going mobile with their work.
"But I have discipline to do!": Many behavior referrals do not require immediate intervention behind closed doors. Instead of calling students to the office, administrators should go to students. Not only does this eliminate students getting "lost" finding the office, leaders can parlay visits into classroom walkthroughs.
"But I'll feel weird!": The first time you sit down to do work with your laptop in the library or lunchroom you may feel out of place. Get over it. Once you get into a habit of working in these settings others will get used to - and appreciate - your presence. Giving staff the heads-up about your new routine can eliminate curious stares.
A few years back I was discussing the importance of getting out of the office with a high school principal in a neighboring district. He asserted getting into classrooms and interacting with students and staff gave him energy and recharged his internal battery.
Until that conversation I hadn’t thought about getting out of the office as having any sort of mystical healing powers. However, I have noticed a stark contrast in how my body feels when I'm working in the office versus visiting classrooms - especially in the afternoon.
When 2:00pm rolls around and I've been stuck in my office I often have a headache, my back is tight, and I feel fatigued. During those afternoons when I'm struggling, I've found the best medicine is to get into classrooms and interact with students. When I do this, all of my ailments seem to disappear.
Put another way, visiting classrooms is like popping four ibuprofen with a double-shot of espresso.
Leaders who prioritize visiting educational spaces give themselves an opportunity to understand the current reality of their staff and students. This firsthand perspective provides leaders with the insight needed to make decisions that accurately reflect organizational needs.
Next time you hear a school leader left the office to walk the building, don't assume she is playing Pokemon GO or trying to get in her 10,000 steps for the day.
Instead, realize these are intentional steps that will drive school improvement.