Effective Leader, or Circus Performer?

May 01, 2017

Leaders tend to find themselves juggling quite a bit of information, time, decision-making, and personnel needs in their roles - regardless of industry. And as a district leader, you often add community relations and school board dynamics into the mix as well. With all of this on your plate, how can you make sure you’re being effective as a leader vs. just juggling it all to keep it afloat and not let the audience down?

My personal leadership experience is not as an educator, though I’ve worked with educators for the past seven years in various roles from technology hardware sales to marketing software as a service and beyond. Throughout my career, I’ve been both an individual contributor and a leader, sometimes having multiple layers of personnel depth to oversee. If I’ve learned anything about being effective it’s these three things: be an umbrella (shield them from upper management conflicts), learn how to say, “yes, and” rather than “no”, and stop taking so many notes.

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When I first started managing people and projects, I was quite young. Admittedly, I knew very little of the real world and found myself thrust into a position of responsibility that was in all likelihood too much for me at the time. As a result, I often felt I had something to prove in order to maintain my leadership status and continue my trajectory up the ladder of success. That was my first mistake. I also tried to write everything down, stay on top of every decision, and ended up juggling more details than I really had the ability to handle. That was my second mistake.

In 2009, a TED Talk aired that truly changed my life, both as a marketer and especially as a leader. I’ve since shared this talk with every team I’ve been a part of and I’ve even gifted the author’s book to close friends and family who are in positions of leadership themselves. But the focus of this talk was how to focus on the ‘why’ vs. the ‘how’ or the ‘what’ - something I was struggling to sort out at the time. What do I mean by ‘how’ vs. ‘what’? Short of listening to the full talk, I can summarize it best by explaining this graphic below:

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As leaders, we can sometimes get caught up in the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of what our team is trying to accomplish. This can be helpful when they’re overwhelmed and need someone to grab a shovel and help dig them out, but in general this tends to simply bog us down in the details that we should be entrusting to those that support us. A good example of this is something a former Vice President of mine pointed out… he doesn’t take notes. I know, my gut reaction was the same, “WHAT?! How do you make sure you’re DOING everything?!” He simply replied, “That’s not my job. I oversee the decisions being made in the meeting, then I trust my team to get it done. If they need anything from me along the way, they’ll let me know.” Wow! What a freeing thought!! But when I thought about it, I knew he was exactly right. I had been furiously jotting down every piece of information from every meeting to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks and everyone on the team was meeting the milestones that they were supposed to meet, but in reality what I was doing was cluttering up my headspace by focusing on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ instead of keeping us as a team centered on the ‘why’ of the project in the first place.

In the years I’ve worked with educators, I’ve seen this happen so many times. And to be honest, it’s usually those that came from the classroom that are the worst offenders. When you think about it, that makes perfect sense that a classroom teacher would use those time management and project-based learning skills they’ve honed over the years to try and run their team of adults in a similar way. The difference here, however, is that the benefit of managing fully-formed adults vs. a classroom of students is that you can rely on their sense of accountability to free up your own headspace for bigger, more ‘why’-centered thinking.

Yes, I did just hear you chuckle at the thought of everyone on your team being a fully-formed adult, but bear with me a sec as we think it through. Put yourself in the last meeting you ran where you discussed your highest priority initiative. Think about the action items that you assigned to various other people in the room. Now think about how you left the meeting. As long as everyone knew their next deadline, you can at least rely on the fact that they know what they should be working on. That in itself just relieved at least two pages of notes trying to keep track of everyone else’s assignments. Now think about how to keep up with those milestone deadlines. As soon as you get back to your desk, create a calendar invite for each assigned person asking for a project check-in. Even if the date or time gets moved, it exists on your calendar, which we all know is clearly proof that it will happen. There. You’re done with any notes you would have taken to remind yourself to follow up with them. See how you just cleared your plate and reduced the number of balls in the air you have to juggle?

Now, start to apply these principles in all of your meetings, making sure to take notes from colleagues and superiors but holding back taking notes for those that you lead. As you start to do this more and more often, you’ll find that the notes you do end up with are more filtered and more relevant to your own personal action items rather than trying to juggle your work load with all of those that you manage. Phew! Only ONE person’s action items?? Sounds nice, right?

These principles, of course, require fine-tuning by each individual circumstance, and I’m not advocating for a completely hands-off management style, but over time I do believe that converting your thinking will help you become more effective and less of a juggler for show who can’t stop moving or it all falls apart. That’s my hope for you, because I know that you were put into this position of leadership for a reason, and it’s time to make room for that reason to shine through - not just your multi-tasking abilities.

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Blake has been working in sales and marketing for over ten years, with the last seven years being in the education industry. She has been the SchoolStatus Marketing Director for almost three years and enjoys sharing what she’s learned with others. To learn more about the story she’s helping to tell for SchoolStatus and the ‘why’ behind our product, click here.

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