In part three of my webinar series on talent management for school leaders, I took participants through ten tips to nurturing educator talent that I’ve garnered from my own leadership along with insights gathered from some of the more impactful and innovative schools that I’ve visited over the years. I offer them below for your consideration.
Relentless Mission Talk & Shared Vocabulary
In part one of my webinar, I started with mission and vision talk because that is where everything begins. The best person for one school will not be the best person for another. It depends upon the mission of the school as well as the context. That is the first key task in talent management, getting the right people on the team, people who live and breathe your school’s distinct mission, vision, and philosophy.
Yet, when you look at great schools, it doesn’t stop with hiring practices. Part of investing in and nurturing top talent in your school is working hard at keeping the mission, vision and philosophy alive and central to who you are and what you do. That means embedding it into everything, being relentless about it. It means having a shared vocabulary that supports the mission, vision and philosophy and nurturing the intentional use of it.
When people visit your school and wonder if they’ve stepped into a strange cult, then you might be on the right track. Of course, I don’t mean that completely literally, but I’m referring to this idea that people continue to have their own ideas and opinions, but they have a strong alignment with what matters most in the school. Like a best friend, you start finding yourself able to finish each other’s sentences (even if you don’t actually do it). You have a shared understanding of certain words and approaches so that you don’t have to waste precious energy redefining and re-defending everything (even when outsiders are not sure what you are talking about). This takes intentionality and investment in nurturing a certain culture, but once it is developed, it amplifies the impact and distinctiveness of your school community, not to mention cultivating a strong sense of loyalty and belonging among team members.
Quarterly measurable goals (team & individual)
It doesn’t have to be quarterly. It could be more often too. Yet, it can’t just be those painful and largely unproductive annual evaluations. A year is too long. We will see much more growth and progress if we are setting short-term goals and having a time for reflection and feedback that is frequent.
The Google approach is a promising option. As I understand it, this involves 1 to 3 team or unit quarterly goals (which could be the entire school if you are a small staff). In addition, each individual can have 1 to 3 quarterly goals that feed into the larger team goals.
Consider using something like the SMART goal system. The goal should be specific and measurable. It should the worthy and challenging, but measurable and realistic. It should also be time-bound.
Persistent Feedback Loops (as it relates to individual and team goals)
Goals are good but then we need feedback on our progress. Are we on track, on target, going off target or something else? People in pursuit of excellence tend to crave feedback because they know it is key to getting better. If you are building this into the culture and it is a standard part of the interactions among teachers and others, then you’ve won half of the battle. You’ve made huge strides toward a high-impact culture, especially if people heed the insights from the feedback and make adjustments accordingly.
If people are nervous about feedback, then that might be a sign that we need to do it more often, so often that it becomes more familiar, less frightening, and more fundamental to how you do things. Of course, we also want feedback to be about getting better, not just beating people down. This means building trust, respect and making it about growth and learning.
Best people on biggest opportunities, not biggest problems. (ala Jim Collins)
As Jim Collins notes, you want to beware of wearing out your best people by always giving them the biggest problems. Give them a chance to invest time in promising opportunities that resonate with their gifts and passions as well. Also, money matters to most people, but we underestimate the power of meaning in our work. That is a huge part of helping people stay engaged and growing. As such, take the time to find out how the other person sees a project. Do they look at it as a problem or opportunity? You might be giving them a great opportunity, but they might not see it that way.
Significant investment in self-initiated and group agreed upon high-quality professional development.
When I’ve visited many high-impact organizations, they don’t tend to cut corners when it comes to professional development. I went to one school that paid for a skilled teacher to leave for a full year to get her MA in English at Harvard (the school was 1000 miles away) and then return (for a minimum of 3 years) to help build a world-class writing across the curriculum program for the school. Now that is investing in top talent for the sake of the school. The principal found outside funding to cover the costs.
Another school paid for all new teachers to go on a cross-country trip and attend an immersive 2-week training that cost them about $4500-5000 per person as part of their orientation and professional development. It made sure they were grounded in a key brain-based learning philosophy that they wanted to permeate the school. Was there a local graduate course that taught brain-based learning? Probably so. Yet, they were committed to the best training they could find.
In the end, this is the key. These great schools look for learning opportunities with the best minds they can find. Who are the 5-10 best minds or most skilled people in the world in this area? How can we observe them or learn from them? Then invest in bringing them to the school, reading their work, connecting via online technologies or something else. In the world of Skype and Google Hangouts, this is easier than ever for individual and group learning. It is also inspiring to many people to connect with some people.
Don’t forget experiential learning. Consider finding ways for people to get away and go observe great teachers and schools in action elsewhere. These field trips can be quite powerful and high-quality learning opportunities and they often cost far less than a course or conference.
Growth & personal development is a non-negotiable part of the culture.
This is another consistent trait. If we want to invest in top talent, we want to create a true culture of learning among the teachers. I mean, how are we ever going to have a great school if the people designing the learning experiences or nurturing the students do not embody traits like curiosity and a love of learning? This must be a non-negotiable that everyone embraces and encourages of one another. We read and discuss ideas together. We independently pursue new knowledge and skills. We thirst for getting better and/or learning new things.
You know that you have a culture of learning when more learning is seen as a reward. In some schools, teachers groan about professional development because they see it as irrelevant and a chore. Yet, in these impactful schools, a teacher “reward” might be two sub days and the money to go visit other high-impact schools. It is like in a video game. Your reward for winning one level is that you get to go to the next level. Now that is a sign of an engaging environment and it is possible among teachers (and students) in a school. Embed it in the rituals and practices and see what happens.
As this is part of the culture, we will see people peer mentoring, engaging in observations of one another, encouraging each other, setting up peer accountability and more. You know that you have a strong learning culture among teachers when peers hold one another accountable and that isn’t just the job of an isolated leader.
Communicate how they are an asset.
I can live in my head so much that I admit this is not a current strength. I can forget to do this and have to be quite intentional about making it a priority. Yet, this is powerful. You can have highly competent people who don’t reach their potential because they don’t have high levels of confidence. Yet, you can help nurture that by pointing out, in objective ways, how they are an asset, how they are contributing to important parts of the school. Do it sincerely and often. Do it in writing, in person, and in front of others (except when that is de-motivating for certain personalities).
Mandatory show and tell.
When people do go away to learn something, pursue new knowledge through a formal degree, go visit another school, take a class, go to a conference or something else; set up time for them to share what they learned and maybe lead a discussion with peers. This is a great way to spread the learning but also to further build that culture of learning.
Give them a voice.
We want people who have a voice and sense of agency. Invite the community into the decisions. This builds community, generates great ideas, and gives people a growing sense of agency and ownership; which is a key to engagement.
Be deeply invested in their optimal impact, even if that leads them elsewhere.
I believe that the mission of individual schools is important but there is a broader educational ecosystem that matters too. If you do all of the above, you will be helping people to grow and develop in amazing ways. This may well mean that they discover gifts and abilities that make them great leaders in other schools. This is a good thing. Invest in them while they are there and then genuinely desire the best for them and for their gifts to be best utilized, even when that means their moving on. In the end, you will have a strong connection that will likely benefit your school in unexpected ways after they leave. Who knows? In the future, they might end up sending you more top talent.
Of course, there are many professional development ideas as well, but the 10 ideas above are what I considered to be key areas. If you are looking for other professional development ideas, please see the following article on 20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age.