One of most frustrating challenges leaders are faced with today is closing what is commonly known as the execution gap (or sometimes the strategy gap). The execution gap is a perceived gap between a company’s strategies and expectations and its ability to meet those goals and put ideas into action. In Lesson #46 entitled “Avoid the Dangerous Gap between Good Ideas and Execution” in The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) explained, “As a Disciplined Leader, it’s your job to become curious but also cautious about good ideas. That starts with discerning the ideas and solutions introduced by your people, making those hard decisions about whether to say yes or no to them. Good ideas don’t mean anything unless your organization is capable of executing them.” (Kindle Locations 2382-2384). Due to the complexity of people, businesses, and the societal constructs in which we operate, it is more difficult than it might seem at first glance to close this gap.
“So whenever any new concept or strategy is put on the table, assess the gap between its good intent and your team’s core ability to implement and execute it.” ~ John Manning
Leaders must become Chief Execution Officers. Great leaders do not relegate and that is the idea behind becoming a Chief Execution Officer instead of a Chief Executive Officer. Relegation is very different than delegation. Relegation is just pushing work to others. By not relegating the execution of strategy, the Chief Execution Officer can achieve consensus and commitment across the task force responsible for the implementation, establish and preserve the integrity of the strategy, and engage the work force. If done correctly, this approach and these achievements can greatly improve performance of the strategy. Unlike a traditional CEO, the Chief Execution Officer gets involved in the details of strategy execution by: translating the strategy into measurable objectives, sharing the story of the strategy with internal and external audiences, establishing a feedback system, and by aligning the reward and recognition system with strategy. Since leaders need the effort of others, they must be able to effectively communicate to them what they want done and, more importantly, why they want to do it. A big problem with going from idea to implementation is simply a lack of clearly defined vision and goals. Leaders who cannot define what they want accomplished can hardly expect others to understand their strategy and participate in their projects with any level of meaningful contribution.
I am a big believer in forming task forces to take on implementation and execution of initiatives and to study needed changes. I am also a believer their are times I need to own doing a major part of the heavy lifting in some of those task forces. A big mistake many leaders make is relegating to others and this can be problematic from a couple of different angles. First, many times the leader relegating is seen as someone who passes everything to those he sees as being under him. This is not being a servant leader and leaders who do this quickly lose the trust and respect of those he serves. Secondly, many times others just don’t have the knowledge and skill that you do as the Chief Execution Officer. The task force provides a team that can develop consensus and communicate to others about the strategy and is an important prerequisite for successful execution of initiatives and change. Careful selection of task force members is important to achieve effective cross-functional integration. Leaders who resist this type of consensus can undermine successful execution and implementation.
Implementation and execution really become part of an organization and become part of the leader’s mantra. Think about it; you know leaders who get things done and those who never seem to be able to finish. Implementation is not just something that does or doesn’t get done; it is not just a tactic, and it is not something to be relegated. Execution should be a central part of a organization’s strategy and goals and the most important part of what any leader does. What are you preparing to implement in the near future?
I will continue my series of blog posts concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) here with a post about what stays the same under ESSA. I previously blogged about our fascination with ESSA in Why Is ESSA So Fascinating? Because of the many years of state’s frustrations over what were considered by many to be a heavy and prescriptive federal role in education policy, I believe we are all looking for innovative and effective ways that could have lasting impact on schools’ priorities and ultimately a positive impact on our children’s lives. All of the talk of new flexibiity promised under the ESSA, I believe we are all excited to get started on getting everyone in our states together to collaborate and innovate. The United States Department of Education, however, is still in the initial phases of rule-making and figuring out what the USDE’s role will be to regulate under ESSA, a process which is looking like will take several months. The law doesn’t go into full effect until the 2017-18 school year, but certainly it is time to get started.
Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity a few of the things, as I see ESSA, that stay the same. These things are worth studying because we now have the opportunity to tweak and continue to innovate. Indiana is in a great position under ESSA because many of the things called for under the new act we are already doing. We now can take the opportunity for continuous improvement. We have the opportunity to further hone our vision for education in Indiana and engage our communities in the conversation. Before we get into what remains the same under ESSA let’s take a look at what the wishes of the law are (adapted from an International Association for k-12 Online Learning [iNACOL] webinar):
- High expectations and tranparency
- Required action for underperformance
- State autonomy
- Local control
- Program consolidation
- Room for innovation
Here is what remains the same. We, the states, are still responsible to:
- adopt challenging state academic standards. Remember, these do not need to be common core and the Secretary of Education has no authority to tell the states what those standards will be.
- test students annually in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school; and science in grade span. There many who keep talking about how the requirement to test is gone and this is simply not true. By forming our ESSA/ISTEP+ Task Force, however, the Indiana Legislature provided great leadership in having us take this opportunity to study and improve our state testing.
- publicly report scores based on race, income, ethnicity, disability, and English learners.
- identify schools for improvement including the bottom performing 5%.
- distribute Title I, Title II, and Title III formula grants.
In future posts I will be outlining the new opportunities we under ESSA. Every one of those opportunities is fascinating on its own, but we will all need to find ways to collaborate so that all components of ESSA can be knitted together for doing what’s best for the students we serve.
I am so proud to be our Indiana State Board of Education’s representative to the task force, formed under HEA 1395, and charged with studying the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and our ISTEP+ summative high stakes Indiana test. Ever since the bill was signed into law on December 10, 2015 by President Barack Obama, I have been fascinated with the possibilities that lie ahead for our children. I have the opportunity to speak about my views and thoughts on ESSA and most recently spoke at the District 9 Meeting of the Indiana Association of School Principals and led off discussing my own and the nation’s fascination with ESSA. But why? Why am I and so many others so fascinated with ESSA?
I believe there are a three big reasons for this fascination:
- The historic nature of this law that started back with President Lyndon B. Johnson, was revisited in the President George W. Bush era, and now with ESSA being signed into law by our current President Barack Obama. President Obama told us that when ESSA goes into full effect with the 2017-18 school year, we will be maintaining Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which turned 50 last year. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was originally passed as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s War on Poverty campaign. The original goal of the law, which remains today, was to improve educational equity for students from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students. Since its initial passage, ESEA has been reauthorized seven times, most recently in January 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Each reauthorization brought changes to the program, but its central goal remains: improving the educational opportunities and outcomes for children from lower-income families.
- It was also historic and fascinating that ESSA passed by a huge bipartisan margin after eight years of debate. ESSA passed by a vote of 359 to 64 in the U.S. House of Representatives and a vote of 85 to 12 in the U.S. Senate. President Obama acknowledged No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law and the work of President George W. Bush, but also said the NCLB “often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see.” He went on to say that ESSA “creates real partnerships between the states, which will have new flexibility to tailor their improvement plans, and the federal government, which will have the oversight to make sure that the plans are sound.” I believe this opportunity for collaboration between states, including state legislatures, state boards of education, communities, families, schools, and all other external and internal stakeholders, and the federal governments fascinates us and has us dreaming of the possibilities.
- Finally, I believe we are fascinated with the opportunity to invent unexpected solutions. Innovation is a major pillar of fascination. Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican – Tennessee, and a key architect of ESSA said it best when he stated “What I believe is that when we take the handcuffs off, we’ll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom, state by state, that will benefit children.” Ingenuity and innovation – now that is fascinating and we in Indiana and every other state need to take full advantage of the opportunities that ESSA provides for our students.
With this fascination comes responsibility. As I stated earlier, we have the opportunity to invent unexpected solutions – in other words, INNOVATE. Many talk about the POWER going back to the states under ESSA and even as a card carrying fan of my hero, Patrick Henry (who was an advocate of individual and state’s rights), I would rather say “RESPONSIBILITY back to the states.” Power guides action, so we have the responsibility in Indiana to guide the action and bring all internal and external stakeholders together for a true collaboration to develop innovate for great solutions for the children of Indiana and our Nation.
What John Manning (2015) called “Pick Your Battles” in Lesson #45 of The Disciplined Leader, I call deciding whether or not to put the boxing gloves on. One thing is certain — you can’t take on every problem at work. Each person has a finite amount of political capital. If you make a big deal over something silly, you may not be able to get your way when it’s something really important. Or, as I always say, “I am (or am not) willing to put my boxing gloves on for this.” This is not to say I literally want to fight, but I use the metaphor to think about how far, or how passionate I am about the issue – would I break out the boxing gloves?
As Manning (2015) said, “Your leadership needs to reflect your ability to discern which battles aren’t worth fighting as well as your fearlessness in the face of the battles that are.” Even if you’re certain that the issues you want to tackle are critical, your reputation may suffer if you take them all on at once. I believe another important consideration is before taking on a battle, you’ll need to assess whether you have the reputation and authority to succeed. Additionally, you do not want to be seen as an inflexible leader or someone who is more concerned with be right than connecting with others. This type of leader doesn’t value other opinions and ideas.
To decide when to put on the boxing gloves, tackle only problems that are truly important. It’s important to examine your motives. Does the issue really matter to your employer, your colleagues or your ability to do your job? Never put on the boxing gloves without offering a solution or suggested route to one. Engage but do so when it makes real good sense. Win the battles – the big and important ones – and let the others go. That is leadership.
I consider myself a pioneer in the era of the curious leader, where success may be less about having all the answers and more about wondering and questioning. A curious, inquisitive leader can set an example that inspires creative thinking throughout the entire organization. Leading-by-curiosity can help generate more ideas from all areas of an organization, while also helping to raise employee engagement levels. One of my heroes is Curious George – that little monkey who is not afraid to explore new and exciting things. I strive to be like Curious George. In fact I have have blogged about this in Living and Leading Like Curious George.
Walt Disney, another one of my heroes, said his company was great at innovating “because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” But having that desire to keep exploring “new paths” becomes even more important in today’s fast-changing, innovation-driven marketplace. In The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) reminded us in Lesson #44 to, “Be curious about how things can be done better or differently. Identify one organizational norm that could be improved. Remember: just because you have always done something ‘that way’ does not mean it is ‘the way’ today” (Kindle Locations 2320-2321). I believe curiosity leads to valuable insights and understanding. Curious leaders would rather pose the right questions that give them a deeper understanding than compete to deliver answers in hopes of acknowledgment. Curiosity allows leaders to adopt an exploratory mindset in everything he/she does.
Curiosity is all about asking questions and wondering why things are a certain way. Great leaders search for new paths – new products, new and innovative solutions, new talent, new efficient ways of building, creating, and getting things done. Being curious is an important part of a leader’s role in serving those he/she leads. Are you embracing your role as a leader and being curious like Curious George?
Manning (2015). The disciplined leader: keeping the focus on what really matters. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Back in 2010 I blogged about “why” in Why Baby Why? I was reminded about the importance of the “why” in John Manning’s (2015) Lesson #43 in The Disciplined Leader. Ever notice how great leaders ask the best questions and the question “why?” A masterful leader will sit quietly in a meeting, listening intently to the discussion, and then, ask a question that will change the tenor and the performance of the entire team. My dad used to tell me, “There is not necessarily a correlation between the amount of talking someone is doing and their intelligence.” Very true!
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” ~ Voltaire
Watching a great leader ask astute questions is like watching an artist in action. I aspire to always be this kind of leader and hope I can model the wisdom and timing to use less oxygen and get the great results of collaboration and discussion. One question that I love to ask is, “Why am I wrong on this?” Pressing the team to consider what I might be missing demonstrates humility, awareness, and openness to possibility. Wherever you find an innovative culture, you find leaders asking this question. Great things happen when we start with “why.”
We say it all the time, but do we really understand what we are saying when we say, “Success Breeds Success?” As a livestock and dairy guy, I understand the importance of genetics in breeding. My son and I spend a great deal of time studying and selecting which bulls to breed his Jersey’s to in order to make improvements; and hopefully produce the next great one. In Lesson #42 of The Disciplined Leader, John Manning (2015) taught us we must also study success as a leader in order to duplicate that success.
“One of the ways to learn from prior success is to shift your organization’s attention away from trying to avoid mistakes and a bit more toward replicating success. That starts with identifying wins and taking inventory of what was done right to contribute to the outcome. Employees have their own talents, gifts, and hard-earned skills. Considering these attributes and other factors influencing your ability to succeed, the onus is on you to apply this learning to future challenges and generate even more wins.” ~ John Manning
Some of the ways Manning (2015) pointed out to do this are:
- Embrace a positive outlook.
- Analyze successes.
- Success happens for good reasons, and when you start to explore the who, what, where, when, and why of an achievement, you’ll most likely see it wasn’t just some matter of pure luck.
- Pay more attention to what works.
- Find ways to note what’s working well in work and life, leveraging whatever you learn to maximize your chances for more wins.
As you can see it is important to not only celebrate our wins, but analyze and study them. How can you help your organization to ensure “Success Breeds Success?
Lesson #41 in John Manning’s (2015) The Disciplined Leader is titled “Lead From The Front.” To me this is contrast to the idea of being a travel agent. Travel agents send us to places that, in most cases, they have never been. Leaders take us to places they have been or serve as a trailblazer to places we are going together. It’s more than just being a workhorse or riding the white horse out in front of the army. It’s really about influence; doing the kinds of things that cause people to feel better about the work when you’re on the team, and to choose to follow you when you offer suggestions or direction. I like to look at this as leading from where you are. Leadership must happen where and when it is needed; by anyone.
Great leaders who are out front lead by offering solutions and have skin in the game. Out front leaders think strategically and keep learning. The type of leader I am describing here shares resources and information. She is a giver, not a taker. This leader chooses to be extremely generous with her time, expertise, and helping others succeed. It’s about taking an interest in people. Great leaders look for value in every person. Great leaders are a friend and listen to people and what’s going on in their lives, professionally and personally. Great leaders complete others.
Don’t forget that sometimes leaders must also go alone. Sometimes we must boldly go where no one else wants to go. Many times leading out front means going against conventional wisdom or the consensus of others. Those who lead change transformation know that there will be times when they will truly be trailblazers – going where no one has gone before. As the great leader, Robert Gates, says, “The change agent must be an oak, not a daisy.”
This past week I had the opportunity to take another deep dive into the new Every Student Succeeds Act during the Legislative Conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). It was also great to not only listen to Charlotte Danielson of the Danielson Group, but I was also able to have a lengthy personal conversation with her about innovation in education, teacher evaluation, and teacher leadership. The thing that impresses me most about Charlotte is that she is always thinking continual improvement and innovation. She made a few comments that are appropriate as we consider leading learning. Let’s face it, students learning is the ultimate goal we need to be achieving in education. The phrases that Charlotte said that resonated with me were, “Learning is done by the learner,” and “Teaching is cognitive work.” As we lead learning I believe it is very important that we keep these two thoughts in mind.
The goal must be to shift the thinking on the student and how the instructional environment supports student thinking. Teaching is a constant work of improvement – a career that involves learning and rethinking our approaches daily. It’s a very interesting concept if we reconsider that we’re always developing our practice. If we are to be successful we must start with the student as the focus and lead the learning from there. The student must always be at the center – this is always critical to success in leading learning.
In my studies at Harvard University around leading learning, I have had some key takeaways that came from the idea that, “Learning might be best described as the process by which information becomes knowledge” (City, Elmore, & Lynch, 2012, Chapter 6, p. 153). This when put together with the thought that, “Knowledge…is information plus meaning, where meaning is acquired through experience or education” (Chapter 6, p. 153) frames a fertile environment for innovation in education. It allows us to take education outside the walls of the traditional schoolhouse. It allows school to be any modality where some combination of information, knowledge, and learning flows from some portal to the learner (City et al, Chapter 6, 2012). As a leader of learning I want to continue to use the lens of education as learning instead of school as a physical place of learning. (City et al, Chapter 6, 2012). These key takeaways came from studies of the book The Futures of School Reform (2012) edited by Mehta, Schwartz, and Hess.
As a state board of education member and someone that works in education leadership and policy development, I want to continue to make sure and educate fellow policymakers on the learning core and make sure we are leading learning and not just leading school as usual. I want to continue to improve leading learning from a policy side to help others understand how to make policy meet reality.
Being involved as a school leader of a network of schools offering fully virtual enrollment, as well as blended learning centers, I have experienced both the joys and challenges of being involved in innovation. Keep in mind online learning is very much still in the pioneer stage of development. Through this experience I have learned first hand the push back from individuals, organizations, and policymakers who will not even accept trying innovating in the space of online education and school choice. The same holds true for many other innovations in education as well. This makes it extremely hard at times to reach consensus for having education policy, accountability systems, and funding meet reality.
Some of the push back I refer to is well founded. When you think that we have been educating our children in much the same way for two centuries, it is natural for there to be some resistance to change. Interesting to me, however, is that an analysis of data from all the traditional means by which we deliver education to our children suggest we should be pushing back on some of those means as well. By their very nature, innovations are new and untested. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect that all innovations become immediate success stories and be evidence-based. At the same time, the education field has a long history of promoting the latest fads and “flavors of the month” that turned out to be, at the least, ineffectual, and at the worst, have children falling further behind. I am certainly not suggesting we contribute to this unintended consequence either. Sometimes, though, I worry that we have not given some very effective and innovative ideas enough time to see if learning gains will be experienced.
In the world of education, innovation comes in many other forms than just the online world. There are innovations in the way education systems are organized and managed, exemplified by charter schools or turnaround academies being managed by education management organizations (EMO). There are innovations in instructional techniques or other delivery systems. We need ongoing innovation in the area of customizing learning for every student. This is very important in serving every student. There are innovations in the way teachers are recruited, prepared, and compensated. I have had the opportunity to work with Teach for America teachers and would put them up against any teacher preparation program. The training and disposition of these teachers to work with struggling urban students who are behind on both skill and grade level is outstanding.
We must continue to encourage creativity and innovation in addressing our most important challenges in education. I believe we need more opportunities for innovations to pass through a peer review process focused on the project’s design. This would provide an opportunity for vetting of the ability of the innovation to be brought to scale and be duplicated. Schools and other innovators of learning must place rigorous, experimental evaluation designs in place so that, over time, we can learn if practices are effective.
Additionally, we need to continue to think about how to accelerate innovation time and evaluation of the effectiveness of those innovations. I believe collaboration is the key here. Innovations are best designed when they are a direct result of a need in a specific school context. We need to make sure our teachers and staff have the necessary time and resources to reflect and be creative in developing customized solutions for the students he or she serve. Finally, we need to continue to develop robust networks for sharing innovations and best practices.