Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leadership Lessons From Elementary School

Executive Summary:
Sometimes the lessons we expect our children to follow, we ourselves easily forget.  Just because an activity is good for children, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable for adults.  Make a point of regularly reinforcing your organization’s values and refreshing habits for safety and conduct.

The Rest of the Story:
The school year just started up for my local school district and I spent a day last week volunteering at the nearest-by elementary school.  It was a great experience, and there was so much to do with getting things organized for the new season that I didn’t get a chance to help inside any of the classrooms.  I did, however, get to observe a great deal.

The thoughtful planning that went into the first few days of school impressed me.  Clearly the faculty had an agenda to refresh the student body’s memory concerning values, behavior, and code of conduct, as well as introduce the students to new faculty members and assets. 

It immediately occurred to me that businesses could benefit from following suit.  Let me share with you some of what I observed and you can see if my belief is warranted.

The first observation that I will share is that there was an orientation provided for new parents and students to lay the groundwork and explain important details such as how student drop-off and pickup operates at the school.  It also introduced some of the benefits and programs the school has to offer, including volunteer programs.

Following that trend, during the first two days of school, each kindergarten class was systematically introduced to the cafeteria and given a dry run to learn how the lunchroom process works.  This meant that teachers and other faculty didn’t need to use actual process time to teach newcomers how to follow the process. 

As you might imagine, if the kindergarteners could not follow the lunch process with at least some success, not only would they experience a stressful, morale-destroying lunch in which they didn’t get enough time to eat, but all of the downstream followers of the process would suffer as well.

Next, I witnessed that the school has a new counselor this year.  To introduce the new counselor, each class in every grade had an appointment with her in the hallway outside her office.  During this appointment she introduced herself and then proceeded to review the school’s four values concerning respect, responsibility, safety, and being fun to be around.

It was killing two birds with one stone.  All of the students got to meet the new counselor and all of the students participated in an interactive discussion and refresher on the school’s values and how to demonstrate them.

Last, the school has a new playground this year.  Each class had an opportunity to play on it as a single class, outside of regular recess times.  During these special play times, each class also received instructions of the safety and conduct rules that go with the new playground.  As they played, these new rules were enforced and reinforced.

So, I know, it’s great and all to learn that an elementary school somewhere has its act together with new school year orientation.  How does this have anything to do with our business challenges?  Let’s examine exactly that.

Running through the school observations in order, most businesses do some form of orientation for new employees where these employees get to learn the rules and are provided with accesses and instructions.  However, does your organization also introduce the new employee to the other elements beyond just the basic instructions for how to log onto the system?

Does your organization’s new recruit orientation introduce that individual to the company’s softball team, or a bible study group some of the employees have formed?  Does orientation explain fringe policies such as support for volunteering within the community or using company assets after work for networked collaboration projects or games?

Many organizations have clubs, options, or opportunities, but don’t tell new employees about them.  What a missed opportunity!  Why should we let a new employee find his or her own way through the social network in order to discover these opportunities?  Doesn’t it make more sense to accelerate a new employee’s indoctrination by introducing him or her to these social elements where they might meet others with similar interests?

Second, when new processes are introduced, or when new employees are integrated, does your organization provide some dubious instructions or a quick lecture and turn new users loose on the system, or do you make time to perform hands-on instruction and dry runs in an environment where mistakes and the natural learning curve do not impact everyone on the system?  Clearly the latter is more ideal, but everywhere I’ve ever worked has executed the former.

When new leaders are introduced, do you get an e-mail with a few lines copied from that leader’s resume, or do you get introduced to that leader in person?  I’ve experienced both.  My hat is off to every leader who insisted on shaking the hand of everyone in the business and attempting to commit a face and name to memory.  Leaders especially need to be people we can approach, not titles on an org chart.

Does your organization regularly discuss values and code of conduct with personnel?  I don’t mean the convenient-for-HR e-mail directing us to watch a video and take a quiz.  That’s, in my opinion, a bunch of nonsense and a waste of energy and time.  Think about it.

First, are personnel actually reinforcing values and proper behavior by reviewing a mandatory memo or video?  Do you multi-task while you are letting the video play so that you can get work done?  After all, you did the same exercise last year at the same time, right?  What behavior does that reinforce; that work comes first and values second?

I’m not trying to make you ashamed of your actions.  The leadership inspired your actions.  If the leadership doesn’t have the time to meet with you to discuss the business’ values, then they have already sent that message that work comes first and values second.  We multi-taskers are just following suit and checking the box.

Now, how do you really want it to work in your organization?  Follow the school’s example.  Make sure that you and other leaders invest the time to interactively discuss the organization’s values.  I don’t mean a lecture through which everyone sleeps.  I mean a genuine two-way discussion with examples and questions and answers flowing from both directions.  When that happens, values suddenly become important.

The same point can be made for safety.  Do you make time for employees to receive focused instruction on the safe and proper use of equipment or workspaces?  Do they get an opportunity to practice and demonstrate their learning at a time when experts are on hand to mentor and correct them, before they make a dangerous mistake during normal operations?

Is it focused, interactive instruction, or do they get a memo and check a box as we discussed with the review of values a paragraph or two above? 

It’s funny, but we expect elementary school children to follow along and accept these deliberate exercises and dry runs.  In fact we plan it that way to be sure that we are getting through to each and every child.  Yet we expect adults to read an e-mail and get it.  Why?

Sure, as adults we are expected to exercise a little more self control and to remain focused a little longer, but those expectations don’t change the fact that interactive, focused discussions, personal contact, and low-pressure practice runs are a better way to transfer understanding.  After all, whether we are 7 years old or 70, our learning behavior is the same.

In fact, our learning behavior is programmed into us in elementary school.  Our attention spans are trained to run in 50-minute cycles; something that is reinforced by television programming and office meetings.  We become adapted to an instructor telling us and showing us how to do something, and then mentoring us through our own early attempts. 

We come to expect that someone will tell us what we are expected to learn, for them to teach it to us, and then for us to prove that we have understood.  We expect milestones, levels of achievements, and kudos for success or consequences for a lack of effort.

If we are all accustomed to learning this way, why do we not use the same strategy and method in the workplace to transfer knowledge?  The answers are many.
  • We didn’t put that much thought into it
  • Adults don’t need so much effort to understand simple concepts
  • Adults don’t need someone to hold their hand and are offended if forced to take that hand
  • It’s not efficient

Sure, the list could go on.  But take a look at those reasons and decide for yourself if they are genuine reasons or if they are just excuses for doing it the easy way instead of the right way.  Tell me that those “reasons” really hold water when the concern is safety or values.  I’ll challenge you to hold my gaze while you do it.

Take a good look at the organization over which you have influence.  Could it use a refresher on proper procedure, safety mindset, or organizational values?  If you need to bring on someone new, or need to introduce a new process, or just need to demonstrate some leadership presence, take yourself back to elementary school.

Plan your actions around transferring knowledge to, and indoctrinating, some elementary school students.  I’m not suggesting that you need to patronize your personnel or treat them like children.  I am suggesting that the plan you make that would work for children will be a better plan for your adults.

We learned a lot in elementary school, more than we realize.  We can still learn from the practices that take place in those hallways.  Take some time this week and look at your own organization.  Would your ways work in grade school?  If not, make them better by changing them so they would.

Stay wise, friends.

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