What I Learned from Business


Recently I had the privilege of traveling for a training session out of the area with a business my district does work with.  The training they were having was actually for independent contractors and employees of that company, so I was the only full-time school employee present – and I learned and experienced a lot – a lot about what makes successful businesses successful.  Which got me thinking: what could I take from this successful business to apply back in education?

One of the first things I noticed was how happy everyone was to be at work every day – they were excited, engaged, and believed that what they were doing made a positive impact on their customers.  Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t like everyone pretended there weren’t problems to overcome or obstacles in their paths, but they viewed those problems and obstacles as opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and worth rather than complain about how “difficult” things were. Additionally, the executives had an attitude and air about them that was simply infections – they were excited, motivated, and energized; their dreams and vision became the driving force for everyone at the company, and they sold their vision to everyone.  Finally, they not only sold the vision, but they also sold everyone on the fact that only together could they see the vision become reality.  Which was one reason everyone was so engaged – because they were personally vested in seeing it succeed.

Another major characteristic I noticed was that everyone was both treated as a professional and also acted as a professional.  I’ll be honest and say I’ve spent time with too many people who cry that they aren’t treated as professionals – but they don’t act like professionals, either.  They wine, they show up late, they shirk duties, or they sow discord among staff.  One of the things that really struck me in a big way was that a big part of the company executives and trainers treating people as professionals meant that expectations were high, accountability was high, and the consequence for failure was equally high.  In one meeting the lead person over a particular project told us all, “I’ve been told if this project fails it’s my fault – so I’m going to make sure it doesn’t fail!”  Seeing that level of honesty from both the executive and the project leader was refreshing.  Another evening I was having a conversation with someone from the company over dinner and I asked about another employee whom I knew about six months ago but had not seen.  I asked if they still worked for the company and was simply told that, no, they did not, because there were some concerns that could not be addressed.  Then they said, “And our leader has no patience for that.”  It was simple: you step up and shape up or you ship out.

Why can’t we do that in education?  It has always amazed me that so many people feel they have a “right” to work in a field where the consequences of their actions impact not only themselves but (literally) hundreds or thousands of children every day.  I’m not suggesting we fire everyone with bad test scores, I’m simply suggesting that big part of acting like a professional means both taking credit for success and accepting responsibility for failure. We’ve got to get past the excuses and recognize that it is our responsibility – my responsibility – to make sure the job gets done.  Remember, no one is irreplaceable – if I were to die tonight someone would eventually come in and sit at my computer and do my job.  Sometimes we have this over-glorified vision of ourselves that no one else can do our job.  That’s not true – eventually someone will.  Let’s start working like our jobs depended on it (and then maybe those “mean” people over us wouldn’t need to be so “mean”)

Which brings me to the next thing I noticed…. The leaders lavished the workers with praise, encouragement, and even food – every day we were there lunch was provided, and on three different occasions I was treated (to my surprise) to very nice evening dinners – along with many other people from the company.  Now I’m pretty positive this was not an every day occurence since we were all out there getting trained, but the fact that it happened at all made me feel welcomed, important, and valued (even though I was the outsider!).  And it made me want to give even more to them by contributing to their ideas and offering my feedback.  I felt as if they were interested in investing in me, which is a powerful feeling.

How do we apply that in education?  Obviously with budget cuts and restrictions I’m pretty sure providing lavish dinners and daily lunches is not possible, but if you walk away from this post thinking that was the point of it I’ve done a terrible job of communicating.  What was important is that they invested in me, they valued me, they communicated to me I was both an important person and an important part of their team (again, even though I’m not formally part of the team) – and they communicated a real desire to see me succeed and a willingness to assist me in any way possible.  And then they backed up those words with actions.

And that’s what we need to do a better job at in education – whether it be as leaders or teachers.  Leaders need to value and invest in their people, teachers need to value and invest in their students.  Lunches and dinners?  They’re nice, but they don’t even come close to what it means to feel like you’re believed in and respected.

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