Default to Optimism

I was speaking with a friend the other day and we were rehashing the familiar challenges that come with the end of a school year. At the same time, there was a great change on the horizon for her work and she referenced that when learning about what may be coming, she found herself defaulting to the truth. This is an idea I first heard when reading Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. In short, the notion is that when meeting someone new or hearing something for the first time, most of us default to truth and the idea that what we are being told is honest. And possible.

Today marks 55 years since Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. And while I didn’t emerge on the scene until just over 12 months later, I have always heard of the promise that he brought to so many during an incredibly tumultuous time. He had his flaws and the scars he had earned certainly could have left him jaded, yet, from what I understand, he remained steadfast that our best days were still ahead.

While education and politics have certainly become more entangled, I remain optimistic that better days lay in front of us. I believe that the better argument in support of public education exists and it is our duty to find it and make it compelling to others. While I don’t know the full path forward, I do know that there are many people smarter than me out there grinding through all the noise, continuing to inquire and learn, and depending on all of us to sustain the needed effort.

For many years my default has been toward optimism and I’m grateful for the reminder of how buoyant we can become when offered hope.

Resources for Finding Community Pt 2

A couple weeks ago, I shared Resources for Finding Community Pt 1 with the hope that you could begin to find the connectors within your organization or team. Learning who the people are that have influence is the first step.

The next step is to begin to identify the characteristics of your community. Beginning with the premise of “when we are at our best….”, try using the questions below. These are a starting point for conversations that involve the senses. When I’ve used these in the past, I have found that small groups (mixed departments and roles on the campus/department/team) work best.

A community is always in transition – people come and go, priorities shift, and supplies can become scarce. Yet if members have reflected on who connects the pieces, what expectations they can have for their behavior, and how they can memorialize all they value, then the community has the best chance of surviving any disruption.

Try these out at your next opportunity and let me know what you learn.

What Are You Becoming?

The Boston Marathon was the other day, and I had two friends running it. They were excited to be back, especially for this 10th anniversary. And as I settled in to watch the TV coverage, and track them on the app, I kept hearing the announcers talk about individual runners. And they would refer to them by their best times. “That’s a 2:03 guy” & “She’s a 2:25 runner”. They were identified based on a static moment in their running history. As if that’s all there is to them. Hmm.

Nearly three months ago, I retired from public education. And my first day in this new adventure, I did what I thought most retired people do – I went to the mall and walked around. It’s amazing how much quieter it is on a Wednesday. I’m not sure what I expected to find that late morning, perhaps a sense of new purpose….or merely the best place to get frozen yogurt or a fresh cookie. Discovering the usual suspects slumped in chairs and across benches, I wondered if this was my new #squad. I’m far too spry for all this, right? And as I traversed the food court and circled back behind the carousel, a billboard sign caught my eye.

Eliud Kipchogee is the greatest marathoner of all time, and he often shares the notion that no human is limited. From that, I believe he is affirming that we are all on a journey forward; on a path toward more. When we slow down and consider that we are each in the dynamic state of becoming – that we are existing in the place between what has been and what will ultimately be – then maybe we can find the grace & patience that we all deserve. Whether a student in your class, a client for your firm, or a friend that may challenge the relationship, we are all still under development.

And thus it begs the question – What are you becoming?

Say Hello with Your New Summer Collaboration Tool

Each spring, campus leaders live in two worlds.  They are dually focused on all the annual testing amid the quickly approaching end of the semester and also building out the plans for the coming school year.  It’s terribly hectic while amazingly exciting.  And as schools head toward summer, I want to share a tool that I believe can help your team manage the next few months while avoiding the loss of momentum.

The most common questions from non-educators as June approaches are either (a) Do you have to work in the summer and/or (b) What do you do in the summer, just hang out? My polite reply is that summer is the off-season and that, similar to professional athletes, summer is spent both recovering from and preparing for the upcoming school year. Hiring of course is critical, yet planning is also paramount. Toss in the well-earned need for team members to simply vacation, and you can begin to see what can happen.  Finding time to gather and plan is tough. Yet I think there is a tool for you to consider.

Voxer has been described as a sort of walkie-talkie for teams of almost any size. While that is fair, I think it holds even more power in the hands of a user. Unlike most walkie-talkie experiences, the users aren’t tied to be next to each other or close to a receiver/repeater. You can be anywhere with access to data.

Now I understand that you may be thinking that it’s unnecessary since your people on campus are – well – they’re down the hall.  You can already text them, and, you know where to find them, right?

Group Planning

However, I recommend trying to use Voxer this summer so that, as you begin to scatter, you can still actively plan together. Yes, shared docs on a Google Drive can be products of this work, yet I think some of the best learning and ideas come from hearing each other’s voices and having time to process. You can add pictures, videos, comments, and more within the Voxer group. So as one person is on the beach, another cycling across Vancouver, and another hanging in their office, you can all stay connected.  Below is an image I found that offers some basic Voxer101 information.

Voxer 101

Full transparency, I have tried this before with mixed results.  The people that jumped in and tried to leverage the tool found some success.  With others, it was a mixed bag.  And that’s alright.  I know that if I didn’t make use of this then we would have hoped we were individually working on plans, and we would have spent time reading texts or emails or even sharing Google Docs.  All of that is in isolation, right?  My point is that there was no synthesis, no energy, and no excitement as an idea began to crystallize. How would we genuinely know we were sharing the best ideas and making them better? It would be a static experience right as we were seeking something dynamic.

I hope you’ll consider giving it a go.  The added touch of voice matters.

What kind of tools are you using to ensure your off-season is highly productive?  What other resources have you tried for collaboration?

Resources for Finding Community Pt 1

Whether you are new to campus or looking for new insights from a familiar place, there are various means to further your learning. And my intent with this post is to focus on a few just-in-time strategies you can use tomorrow to find community.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the idea of connectors in his book, The Tipping Point. The quick of it is that for any idea to gain traction and hit that “tipping point” then it often comes after the leader learns who the connectors are within his organization. And in order for you to have a better chance for success, it’s critical for you to assess who they are starting today. It’s important to remember the notion that your connectors/leaders aren’t necessarily in positions of power; rather they have influence.

I like these questions for a few reasons. As I’ve noted in white on the image above, they begin to inform you where the connectors are in your organization. I also think it’s equally revealing who is not connected. If they don’t have answers for each question, or they simply seem to list themselves, then that is important for you to know as well.

The last tip that I’ve learned when using these is that, since these are personal questions, it is better to send them to people in a Google Form and allow them a couple days to respond. Then you have all the information together.

These questions are flexible and can be adapted in many ways. It’s also reasonable to expect the replies to evolve over the semester or school year. I hope you’ll try them out at your next opportunity and let me know how they work. And please also share any resources you may have curated in your continued attempt to find community.

“This Might Not Work…”

I was listening to a podcast with Seth Godin as the guest and the discussion covered many topics, eventually landing around the ideas of “saying no” and “learning how to fail.” Seth goes on to share that as a teenager he started to employ the phrase “This Might Not Work” as he was introducing a new idea or strategy for action. And what emerged for me was inspiring.

In this time of accountability and school ratings (accompanied by the lack of patience), I think we can agree that mistakes have too often been stigmatized. Consequently, we shy away from trying something new or taking that bold step forward.

I learned that the power of the phrase – This Might Not Work – lies in how it sets expectations. Consider the two approaches below.

The former sets the responsibility at the feet of the person that originated the idea with the operational assumption that it will work. The latter makes clear that this may very well fail, and that we only move forward if the team wants to do it. One places the pressure, and possible joy, on a single person while the other permits the joy to be shared regardless of whether it works. Thus the fear of failure is minimized (if not removed). This is important if we want to be a part of creating anything original.

Think about it – we’ve all hatched an idea or shared in the development of a plan that we “never thought would actually work.” Or maybe the response was something along the lines of, “this might be just crazy enough to work.” Those memories usually include smiles and a nostalgic look back on the entire process. That’s the joy I am referencing.

I know that I’m going to try this out in my next planning meeting and I hope you’ll do the same. Let me know how it goes.

Reminder Outside Rockefeller Center

Service is black & white….hospitality is color. Getting the right dish to the right person (delivering the curriculum) is providing the service. When a connection is made, when a person feels heard and seen, then you are sharing hospitality. Add color and life and movement to the interaction & that’s what will be remembered.

In this episode of the A Bit of Optimism Podcast with Simon Sinek, his guest, Will Guidara, shares the story of a group of foodies that visited his 5 STAR restaurant in NYC. They gushed over all the wonderful meals they had enjoyed at the best restaurants in the city (and in the world). One of them then remarked that the only thing they had not had in NYC was a “dirty water” hot dog. Specifically, for anyone that has not enjoyed this delicacy, a “dirty water” hot dog is bought from a vendor on a street corner in Manhattan. So Will overheard this comment, rushed out to the corner vendor, and purchased a hot dog. He then had it served in an elegant fashion, and the table of foodies was amazed. Their experience escalated to unforgettable and they now had a story to tell friends for years.

The big takeaway for me from the episode was that when unreasonable hospitality is experienced, either personally or as a witness, the release of oxytocin and other “feel good” chemicals is the same for both the recipient AND those that witness it. In essence, it is the brain teaching us that being kind to others, whether hearing a story of kindness or witnessing generosity, makes us feel better. I mean, think about the TikTok videos or reels that touch your heart – and we are merely a witness to them. Small moments can inspire big notions to perform something similar for another.

It makes no difference whether we are in the restaurant business or the education profession, we always have the chance to add color to someone’s life. Often we merely need to slow down, listen, and then leap. And while our attempt/success rate may not be as high as we wish, there is never a shortage of opportunity. Strive to be deliberate. Moments matter.

I’ve Moved!

There comes a time in life when a new adventure unfolds and the choice as to whether or not to plunge is in front of you. That moment came for me a few weeks ago, and I have chosen to accept the full-service retirement that the state of Texas offers public school educators. I am not certain yet exactly what may come around the corner yet I’m proud of the 30 years I served in public education.

My entry into Twitter and the incredible learning that has occurred there began upon my appointment as the Principal of Bellaire High School. My Twitter Handle for the last nearly ten years has been @m_squaredBHS and my identity with the school has been synonymous with the professional learning I have experienced. However, I am no longer leading that campus and so it feels appropriate to move on to a new handle that is more indicative of the learning I want to continue in the education space. Thus I have made the shift to my new Twitter Handle @mcdonoughEDU.

I’m excited to embark on this new adventure while remaining solidly within the Education Setting. I plan to begin more regular posting this month and look forward to continuing to explore leadership alongside you.

5 Coaching Questions

I have to admit that, for a short time each day, I’ll watch TikTok. In addition to some incredibly creative videos, there is quite a bit that can be learned. Of late, I have stumbled on to @Askvinh – a resource that either affirms practices that I’ve tried or inspires new strategies to use. If you aren’t familiar with him, then I would encourage you to check him out. Some good stuff there.

An important element for any leader to learn is how to coach someone that has a dilemma. Often we default toward consulting, wherein we give them specific advice to move forward or solve a situation. And sometimes that’s what is needed and is completely appropriate. The more challenging piece for both members can be a coaching scenario. This is where the leader helps someone reach their own conclusion. It is harder, takes more time, and can lead to frustration. I think these five questions from an @askvinh TikTok can help & I’m eager to share them.

  1. What’s on your mind? This opens the door for anything and avoids the trap of embarking on the conversation from a specific mindsight. So instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, which can set a tone of discontent, you are expressing to this partner that you have an open mind and are available for whatever might emerge.
  2. What else? This allows the speaker to share everything they want with your permission. They can empty the tank.
  3. What’s the challenge? This focuses them on the obstacle or hurdle that seems to be in the way. You are giving them the opportunity to define this which takes it from a “soft or gooey” state to something more specific, more objective.
  4. What do you want? This forces them back toward a solution. Essentially, you are pointing them forward and it remains personal. This is still about them.
  5. What can I do to help? This is where you learn whether you need to offer a specific set of next steps or if they feel confident to move forward. Either way, you have helped.

It’s not uncommon for people to elevate to leadership positions based on individual accomplishments. Sometimes the resulting personal struggle revolves around the development of management muscles. And at the same time, we are mentored to strengthen our leadership potential by becoming active listeners. I totally agree with a commitment to that skill.

Through my exploration of leadership, I have come to the conclusion that we can more explicitly develop leadership in others through the questions we ask. I believe those five questions are effective, and I encourage you to try them in your next conversation. Let me know how it works.

The Need to be Significant

A couple years ago, I committed to exploring leadership with this blog. I think I’ve been pretty good (maybe a B-) about doing that though I’m trying to be more consistent with my own learning (and then sharing it). This post is a direct result of that.

I recently listened to an episode of Simon Sinek’s Podcast – A Bit of Optimism Truthfully, I’m a bit hooked right now. The episode had Angela Duckworth as the guest, so you would expect that the idea of Grit emerged. And while it did, there is a different aspect that resonated with me. And I think it absolutely is an extension of leadership, specifically building leadership in others.

During the conversation between Simon & Angela, there is a brief mention of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and how it works. I did not know this yet it was revealed that the data points toward the conclusion that even if someone masters the first 11 steps, if they fail to accomplish step 12, then they have a very high likelihood that they will succumb to the disease once again. The 12th step – help another alcoholic.  Essentially “help someone else with the thing they are struggling with.”

There is an inner need within us all to be significant. In moments where we are struggling, having the chance to act in a significant way for another is often exactly what we need to begin to turn a corner. I believe this can also work as we build leadership in others. Purposely seeking out opportunities to ask for advice or input from an aspiring leader allows them to contribute. And by reflecting and offering their words, they often walk away having gained more from the experience than you. 

To be clear, this is not limited to adults. In my more than three decades of working with young people, I often found that struggling students can begin to prosper when they are asked to help another. Being trusted by an adult is powerful and builds assets within that young person at the first moment. Honestly, I wasn’t always aware enough to act on this wisdom as too often I employed the “usual kiddos.” That was a missed opportunity and I needed to be better.

Finally, it is the act of committing ourselves to each other that also leads toward the further development of a community. I talk about this in a previous blog regarding Everyday Leadership Who Doesn’t Like a Lollipop?. I would challenge you to be purposeful the next time you have the chance to enable someone to be significant to another. A tiny shot of “I believe you can do this” or “I need your help/insight/wisdom with this” can go a long way.

So who comes to your mind right now? And how will you act on that tomorrow?