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More Real World Business Advice

March 19, 2012
Dan Pink

Dan Pink, addressing the NBPTS Conference in July, 2011 (photo by the author)

As faulty as business-to-school comparisons can be, there are some guiding principles that can apply in both realms, especially if we set aside the serious differences in mission and resources, and focus on interpersonal dynamics in complex organizations.  Authors like Dan Pink (left), Bob Sutton, and Samuel Culbert offer insights that are not drawn specifically from schools, but speak to the motivations and goals of educators.  In yesterday’s blog post, I mentioned that the Sunday Business Section in the New York Times (3/18/12) had a couple of articles that had useful applications to education, and that it would be nice if business-minded education reformers would actually apply this kind of thinking to policies they advocate in schools. I went on to discuss a business consulting service that helps executives work more effectively with employees by paying attention to personal styles and habits.

As promised, today’s post features Exhibit B from yesterday’s New York Times Business Section: “Can’t Admit To Failure? Don’t Apply” – an interview with Tracy Matura, General Manager of the Smart car unit at Mercedes-Benz USA.  Surely the automobile business is a “real world” workplace, populated by executives who are data-driven, results-oriented, objective and concrete.  And yet, Matura’s lessons in leadership and management seemed focused on the softer “people skills.”  Here are some quotations from her interview, with educational corollaries:

“In one of my jobs, the people who seemed to be the most successful, in hindsight, were successful at the expense of other people.”  In business, that might be tolerable, but in education, “other people” will include children, by impeding the effectiveness of their teachers.  When teachers complain about policies that introduce competition into the workplace, this is our concern.  Here’s a “real world” business leader suggesting that internal competition may hurt more than it helps – even in business.  Certainly in schools.

“I watched a lot of people, and then I started to realize that some people had their team behind them. …[The] people who took the most time with their team might not have had the greatest people, but they had the most passionate people on the team or the people who were the most thought-provoking.”  If you’re an education leader whom educators  do not respect and have no desire to follow (see links and comments on that link, too), then you’re not an effective leader, no matter how many non-educators might sing your praises.  If you’re a school or district administrator, you need to spend enough time with your “team” to cultivate that mutual support, and to inspire that passion and creativity.  If you’re a teacher and you want your class to follow your lead, you have to have the time and freedom to build that community, and demonstrate your own passion for the “team.”

“I’ve learned the importance of building the right team, and I’ve also learned I have to open up about who I am, and understand how people on my team like to work. Some people need you to talk to them for the first five minutes of their day about what they did over the weekend, and you can’t undervalue how important that is. I make it a point now, which I probably didn’t do early on as a leader, to know what everybody’s about.”  So, when teachers talk about the importance of smaller classes because it aids this kind of approach to working with our students, do we have to back it up with data every time, or can we just say we’re borrowing a page from “real world” business management techniques?  Matura is also articulating, in slightly different language, one of the Core Propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards: teachers are committed to students and their learning.  We know our students as individuals and do what it takes to help them learn based on who they are, what they know, how they learn, and where they need to improve.

“[If] something went wrong, just tell me it went wrong. I just want to hear it from you, and it’s going to be O.K. The other thing is, we’re in it together. I like risk-takers, but if somebody takes a risk and it was the wrong one, at the end of the day, I’m the leader of the team. I’m not hanging them out there or saying, ‘See, you shouldn’t have taken that risk.’ Because guess what happens then? Nobody takes a risk again.”  The current “education deform” mania for finding and firing bad teachers takes the exact opposite approach to what we hear from this business leader.  She has confidence in the people she hired, and expects failure as a natural consequence of the risk-taking necessary to grow in the job.  She values the collective atmosphere of respect and trust more than she seeks to impose negative consequences.

Matura adds that she asks about failure in job interviews: “I would also ask them about a time they took a risk and failed. I have not hired people who have told me they’ve never failed. You don’t learn if you don’t fail. …My leadership style is to be transparent and authentic, so if you’re going to tell me you’ve never failed, it makes me wonder if you always hide your failures.”


A National Board Certified Teacher asks Arne Duncan to reflect on any lessons learned on the job.

I’m reminded of a moment at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 2011 Conference, when Arne Duncan took questions from the audience.  One of my peers, John, noted that critical self-analysis and reflection are fundamental to our certification, and asked Secretary Duncan if had learned from any failures.  (I snapped this picture as he asked his question.  I seem to recall that John is from Illinois, and if anyone can identify him, please let me know).  In response to John’s very clear and specific question about the Secretary himself, Duncan spoke only in the first person plural, offering some generic ways that “we” could improve education policy.  He either completely missed the point, or ignored it.  He had a chance to gain or lose credibility among the people who actually do the work he’s supposed to lead.  #leaderfail

Meanwhile, as John suggested, National Board Certification offers the highest available professional validation we have, and it requires the type of thinking Matura values in her employees and colleagues.  Almost every teacher I know engages in this kind of critical self-reflection to some degree, and those who do it most carefully and habitually are the outstanding educators who excel in the classroom and should be leading our profession at every level.

“Passion and fun are also important. You have to have fun at what you do. You have to have a passion for what you do — otherwise it’s just a job. And if it’s just a job, then when somebody else calls you and says, ‘I have a job and it pays $5,000 more,’ then you might leave. But if you’ve invested in something and you feel like you’ve built something, I think you stay.”  

If passion and fun and personal investment are part of a successful “real world” workplace, then I enjoin the “real world” critics of public education to advocate for more passion and fun in schools.  Consider the circumstances in which your own best learning experiences have occurred – whether in school or outside of it.  What can we do together to bring those qualities to every school, and every classroom?

[edit, 3/18/12: a prior version of this post contained an erroneous variation on Sam Culbert’s last name. It is now correct, and I apologize for the error.]

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