A Simple and Powerful Leadership Truth

We love to ask grand questions. What was your best day ever? What was the worst part of your vacation? What is your favourite book of all time? These kinds of questions can be great conversation starters, but I always have trouble answering them. How can I choose one book of the hundreds I’ve read?

Then last December, Will Gourley posed a big question through a #tweetthehalls hashtag. (It’s a fun idea that promotes lots of interaction on Twitter.) Day 2 was to share your best new learning so far this school year. I jumped right in! Here’s my tweet:

Since then, I’ve also come to realize that making assumptions about anything is a pitfall. You might ask why it’s taken me so long to come to this. After all, that old chestnut says, “Don’t assume, because you make an ass…”, you know the rest. I think agreeing with a statement and understanding the impact of that behaviour are two different things.

An example might illustrate this better:  this year, I’m involved in a Pupil Accommodation Review, a government process initiated by trustees that takes a close look at a group of schools to decide what is needed in that area of city – consolidation, renewal etc. It’s where trustees can decide to build or close schools in the city. I’m facilitating this technical yet highly emotional process with a group of parents, staff and community members to provide advice to trustees before they make their final decision. And I can’t make any assumptions.

I’m immersed in the daily business of education at central office as well as the work of the Board of Trustees. I know the policies, background to decisions, staffing, and pretty much the inner workings of how it all happens. That informs my reactions and decisions. But of course, the committee mostly has none of that. So I can’t assume that they understand how decisions are made or how schools really work.  And why would they? They are immersed in their own contexts, whether at work or at home. So I have to explain clearly and make sure they have the information they need.

The need for setting context, checking in and explaining can be linked to the difficulty of communication. We’ve all experienced how hard it can be to truly make yourself understood. Because we cannot truly know what others are thinking and feeling, unless they tell us, we are often guessing how our messages are received – guessing through facial expression, body language, and words we hear. And all that is filtered through our own experiences and bias.

I’ve read many leadership articles and books that urge over communication and understood that on an intellectual level – sure, sounds great! Good idea. But now I’m getting it in a deeper, more visceral way. I’m paying more attention and seeing this powerful leadership truth. We all need repetition and explanation. All the time.

Phone vs. Email – You Know Which One Is Better, Right?

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Joe The Goat Farmer via Compfight cc

My work world revolves around email. I wish it wasn’t that way. Email is a time sucker. Email is never ending. And worst of all, email is void of tone or context. So the people who read your emails have to guess what tone you might be going for. There are some solutions to this: you can litter your emails with ellipses, exclamation marks and emojiis to convey friendliness or thoughtfulness. That’s pretty much it.

You might think that I had learned this lesson already in my 25+ year career. I guess I’d thought so, too. We’d both be wrong. Just recently, I made a mistake with an email. What I thought was clear and thoughtful, even supportive, was not interpreted that way. The recipient totally called me out – “Sue, why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” And you know what, they were completely right. I should have called.

Photo Credit: DenisGiles via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DenisGiles via Compfight cc

The trouble is, when I have a potentially difficult call to make where the other person may be upset, hurt or angry, it does seem easier to email. Jimmy Casas, a secondary school principal in Iowa who I have mentioned before, recently wrote a post ”  Phone Calls Home: “I’m Not Going to Lie… They Scare Me.”  It’s a great post, because we can all relate. Jimmy also offers some thoughtful solutions to the problem. The reality is that while it might seem less risky to carefully craft an email, often it can make a situation worse where the original difficult issue still exists, but now it’s compounded by lack of trust. Ouch! We all know that a phone call or a face to face conversation is best. Sometimes it’s hard.

So now I pick myself up, dust myself off and vow to do better. More phone calls than emails. If you see me around, can you please remind me??


What’s New with My #Oneword


Yep, there’s been a fair bit of change since January. Not that I’m surprised. One significant change has affected me professionally and personally.

Our previous Director of Education, Dr. John Malloy, took on a new position in Toronto at the beginning of January. We had a six month interim period to June before our new Director, Manny Figueiredo, was appointed by the Board of Trustees. This time on the senior management team was, well, interesting. It exposed strengths and weaknesses in our structures and provided new learning for me as I observed both myself and others deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. It was uncomfortable at times. (I wrote a post about this while in the midst of it, partly as a result of my observations.) It was not a time to take risks.

It was a time to peel away the extraneous activities and content and figure out what is truly important for me.

I already know that learning is paramount. That’s a non negotiable. But I have a few things that hold me back from influence and accomplishment. One is that I can get caught up in the rules. I was raised to be a black and white thinker with a strong sense of right and wrong. It’s taken me a long time to realize in my soul that life is really not black and white, no matter how much I want it to be. Rules and standards are important, but love and caring for people is more important.  There’s always a way to acknowledge and respect others’ feelings and experiences and let people know they matter.

I’ve been tweeting, blogging and talking for a while now about building relationships, how to use words, and how to be a better listener. I want to be a leader who focuses on the person in front of me. I want to support and build people up. I’m very far from perfect, and I wear my emotions on my face, which can sometimes get in the way. I hope that I can finally start to break through and actually be able to do this a little better. Even if I add one feather to the scale (Kate Atkinson, 2015), that could make a difference to our learning together.

Thanks to Donna Fry for her nudge to update where I stand with my #oneword for 2015. Donna’s posts often inspire me to think more deeply – and all with an Ontario perspective. I appreciate having her as part of my PLN.