When I became principal almost two years ago, not only was I new to the school, but, having just recently moved to the area, I was also completely new to the district. Because I am a big believer in Stephen Covey’s habit “Seek first to understand, then be understood,” I knew I would need to spend a great deal of my initial energy and focus on learning about our school and most importantly the people on our team. While lots of this learning, and certainly the relationships I would build, would take time and experiences, I knew I needed to front load as much as I could. This would require another of the 7 Habits, “Be proactive.”
In my initial communication to our staff, a July 1st email, I invited each one of them to sit down and share with me. I didn’t ask them to bring anything, prepare anything, but what I did ask is that they think about these three questions:
- What do you love about Taylor Mill?
I wanted to know what they cherished and valued and knew these answers would help me identify the strengths of the school. While I knew a change in leadership undoubtedly means a change in the overall culture of a school (after all, when the principal sneezes they whole school catches a cold), I wanted to ensure that we continued to honor the rich history and strong traditions that had already been built. Plus, what great insight into how each team member felt connected to our school.
- What do you wish for Taylor Mill?
This question was particularly important to me. To be able to sit and hear the dreams of others for their organization, their teammates, themselves, and most importantly for their students, that was incredibly inspirational. It was awesome! I was able to hear about where they saw our school going in the future, their vision for what could be ahead. They shared with me their ideas of what Taylor Mill could accomplish and how they fit into that best version of our place.
- What do I need to know about you so I can help you to be the best you can be?
An essential priority for a leader is to seek out the greatness in others, figure out what they desire, and then build upon those goals and strengths to amplify the overall vision of the team. To be able to remove obstacles and empower others takes more than a surface-level understanding of what gifts they bring.
Our team responded in a way that now doesn’t surprise me at all now but frankly did in the moment. They came in, some nervous, some excited, but all open and extending a vulnerability that was a huge boost for our beginning relationship. They thanked me for giving them the opportunity to have a voice and ensure that everyone’s was heard.
As I’ve said on countless occasions since then, I can not imagine having to make the decisions I needed to in the days and weeks following without the perspective they had gifted to me. I was a more confident leader who was able to make more informed decisions because of each of them.
Like all good questions, the resulting communication is not just one-way. Good questions communicate, as the answers that follow, a great deal. After all, questions are a window into values and priorities. My staff, from day one, got a glimpse of my core values. They knew I value feedback and that I know we are truly better together. The questions are each framed in a way that is positive and solutions-oriented, another peak into what I value. They lean in to thinking big and creating a better future while holding true to my leadership goal of relentlessly seeking out the greatness in each one of them. A question always tell you as much about the questioner as the answer tells about the respondent and I believe my team got a really clear idea of what kind of leader I was going to be as a result. In Covey terms, this would be “Think Win-Win.”
After two years with our incredible staff, I can feel the strong relationships we’ve forged and see the results that can only come from having those relationships in place. But I want to continue to think big, to kick complacency and mediocrity to the curb. How will I amplify this? This summer, I’d like to ask my team members questions that will help us all move forward on our path to greatness. While I haven’t finalized my new set of questions, here are some of my thoughts. I am intrigued by what my Taylor Mill leaders would tell me if I asked:
- “How can we think big?”
- “What would you do if you were not afraid to fail?”
- “What do you love? What do you want?”
- “How can I help you act boldly?”
What would you like to know from your team? What questions would you add?