About Life

About Life, teach, Work

How great teams are made


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I’m often asked about the strategy used for putting great teams together. My teams have always performed well, they have endured under pressure, kept a smile even when sometimes treated in less than professional ways, and do not join in the surrounding gossip. Throughout my career, in different countries and continents, I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of a great team!

How does this happen?

First off, there is no formula. It’s a question of time, and of being patient. For instance, the last team I’ve assembled has taken years to get to where it is now. This is not because there we no suitable candidates. It all came down to the interview process; It was something they said, the way they responded to a question, their outlook on their own future. The interview process consists of 2 parts.

One is to come in for a typical face-to-face interview, usually involving other members of the tech-support team and, if I can pull them away from other meetings, members of the admin team. If they do well in the first part, they are asked to come in for half-a-day trial.

During the trial the team will quiz them on their technical chops, all the while I hang back looking for signs of a personality, how they react to being under pressure and how they react to out-of-the-blue unrelated questions. My team is testing their tech skills, while I am evaluating their question/statement choices. It all comes together after, as a team, we debrief.

At the core of all people who have been in my teams are the following traits:

  • They are personable
  • They are kind
  • They are patient
  • They have a sense of purpose and are passionate about what they do
  • They have a good sense of humor
  • They will go the extra mile for good results
  • They are positive

So, where are the technical chops? That’s secondary. If someone is interested in learning something, they will learn it – they must be forever-students. However, you can’t learn to have a good sense of humor, or to be king, or how to talk to people while they are under pressure. Questions I am more interested in hearing a response to have to do with someone’s outlook, their own past and reasons for doing what they do. I am interested in their story much more than I am interested in their technical know-how.

I read somewhere, a long time ago, an interview being done of a film director as he was making the rounds promoting his latest release. I have a feeling it was about Bruce Lee, but cannot quite remember what the film was, sorry 😦 It was about fighting, and it had a strong protagonist who displayed great martial arts skills. The director was asked what he preferred to start with as he got into his filmmaking process; A good actor or a good fighter. He chose a good actor, because he could always teach a good actor how to fight, but he could not necessarily teach a good fighter how to act. Acting is something less technical and goes deeper than a technical skill one can learn by training. After all, at some point the technical aspect of acting is overtaken by the amount of feeling and self that one puts into a scene.

It’s the same for technical support. Technical ability can only take you so far. When dealing with a stressed-out teacher, in a room full of students and parents, all waiting for a screen to turn on and for sound to come out, you have to know how to deal with the teacher all-the-while making the screen come on and the sound come alive. For as much as you are able to do the technical, dealing with the teacher is something that requires patience, kindness, a bit of humor at times, and cool. If you are showing as much stress as the teacher may be, it will only add to the chaos.

And so it is that I take my time in finding the right person to be part of my team. Once hired, my team members also know that there is more to the position than providing technical support.

Every member of my team has to be part of students’ lives in some form or another. My team members are football coaches, photographers, teachers, mentors, advisors, break/lunch supervisors, and even coding teachers. This is not optional. If we are not willing to step into the lives of children, we should not be working in a school. Sure, we will not take on a full-time teacher load, but schools offer ample opportunity to play a role in learners’ experiences.

 

The hardest part of my job when assembling a team is finding the right members to bring together. As long as do this part well, the rest takes care of itself. Through weekly meetings we keep adjusting our course, ensuring we remember our mission, that we keep to our promises and that we continue to provide the best service possible. I do my best to hang in the background as my team makes things run smooth. I have the best job in the world!

 
About Life, Work

Organizational change is like a drop of shiny liquid chrome


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When I was younger, I used to play with liquid mercury with my bare hands. A thermometer for the house’s heat control was broken, so what is a kid to do? We lived in an ancient house, and I’m sure there the paint had led in it, so liquid mercury was just part of the ecosystem. I know…it explains a lot!

I noticed something very peculiar about the mercury while it was on the palm of my hand. It resembled a big drop of shiny chrome liquid. Any time I broke it apart with my finger, it split into smaller shiny chrome drops that eventually rolled back to the center of my palm and seamlessly became the original big drop it was before. When I saw the movie Terminator 2, with its liquid metal special-effects, it reminded me of my play with liquid mercury.

Change causes schools to behave like that. When a major change comes into an organization, smaller drops split from the one big drop, and smaller groups of staff debate whether the new director/direction is a good idea or not, and whether they agreed with and like it. Eventually, if all is executed right, it becomes one big drop again as the splintered groups join in the new direction.

Coming into any new organization and bringing along substantial change implies expecting, and dealing with, that initial splintering of staff. Smaller groups will form, some talking hopefully about the new that is coming, and some being more skeptical about the unnecessary shaking of the status-quo-tree. Not having sufficient notice and not knowing their place in what is becoming the new organization can be very taxing on people’s nerves. Add to it that in schools the cyclical nature of an academic year means change will often come at the worst time.

Having been part of senior leadership for over 20-years has allowed me to see various versions of this scenario play out. In my younger years I found myself on both sides of the fence, not knowing that my position requires me to be on the positive and hopeful side, and not providing fuel for dissent. Along the years I’ve learned that certain things are best said in the shower in a song and not shared out loud with staff. Senior leadership must stick together, regardless of conditions. Staff will hear a scream even if we whisper. We must weigh our comments and non-verbals carefully, especially when staff are commenting on ongoing organizational change. It’s part of the trust that is granted to us by our proximity to the catalyst of change. We cannot go unguarded in behavior, however daunting the challenge.

Likewise, staff should understand that what is happening is not only happening to them but to the whole. As part of the organization it is a must that if there are unanswered questions we don’t join in the game of “who can make the best guess or assumption” of what is happening. Conversation should be hopeful and fuel should not be added to the skeptic-fire.

It’s inevitable that change comes into your school, sometimes with relentless repetition. The best way to brave through it is to stay focused on your contribution, and if you need to smile, students are great at providing reasons for that. Trust that eventually the smaller drops will join and form the original big drop, and all will point in the same direction once again.

About Life

Fellow travelers…look up


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They look travelled. Not like a person rolling their carry-on holding a Starbucks cup on one hand at the airport travelled, but worn down brown-leather boots travelled. The travelled whose face skin-creases’ light shaded color glows as if out from the center of the leather fold of the boots’ worn cover. Their eyes half-open, and without energy to form emotion on their tired faces. Still, they stand firm, holding on to three children all-the-while holding on to one oversized canvas shopping bag. Their luggage.

She is vigilant, looking around at her surroundings, trying to pick up as much as possible to ensure no mistakes are made as her and her family’s documents are scanned by the Homeland Security officer sit-standing between the line of waiting travelers and their turn at taking off shoes and enduring never-ending renditions of “take everything out of your pockets, take off your belt, take off your shoes, and take all electronics out of your bags and put them in a bin”. The family’s clothes look like they’ve been on them for weeks. Clean, but worn. 

He has the youngest child on his left hand, the family bag on the other, and holding on to the other two by sight alone. He is slightly shorter than his wife, but looks stronger than the more-average, and well-fed, 6’ 1” American officer scanning their documents and faces in front. He says nothing and seems to understand that his wife will tend to documents and surroundings while his role is with the family bag and the children. 

The kids are not wrestles. Odd for kids that age. One is no older than 4 years old, followed by a 6-year-old, and the oldest, a girl, is 9 or 10 years old. They are tired, quiet-excited by the adventure, and intimidated by so many people and their hectic rhythm of shoes flying into a bin and jackets coming off their bodies almost simultaneously. They are in awe.

The youngest little girl is holding a dirty stuffed bear in her arm. It used to be white, but is now the color of grey skies before it rains. There is no telling if the bear was with her from the beginning of the 23-day journey the family took from their native Costa Rica to the US-border, or if it was given to her by someone at the immigration detention center where they have spent the last month after being detained by border police on the US side of the border. 

As they deposit their sweaters and jackets into bins, she looks exhausted, not being able to keep up with the same steps other travelers are taking at different bin-belt lines. He remains vigilant, ensuring the children are within arms-length. Simultaneously, both seem to have eyes on their hands as they can take off shoes, belts and other garments from the children without taking their eyes off of the horizon, their surroundings and of the distance. As they wait for their bins to disappear into the dark tunnel of the x-ray machine, the children quietly stand near enough to feel their body-heat, and mom and dad look at uniformed people to lift a finger pointing the way to the next action step. They are ushered through a separate entry, sparing them of the dreaded body-scan “empty your pockets, stand here and put your hands up like the image in front of you” machine. Security officers must understand this family is not trying to bring anything illegal into an airplane, as they barely understand where they are to begin with.

The last I saw of them they were waiting for their bins to come out of the x-ray machine on the other side. As a plane’s take-off was now visible through a large window nearby it dawned on the middle child they were about to get on a plane, and his eyes opened wide with excitement. A tiny smile was visible as this secret was his to keep for the time being. His mother was standing next to him, looking at the same plane take off, and her eyes watered until a tear appeared and glided down her cheek.

About Life

Getting to the Left coast


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On June 27th Ana and I arrived at our final destination of a five-day trip across the U.S. We started in South Hempstead, NY, and headed to El Segundo, CA. Why El Segundo? Well, it just so happens I just got a job here.

To backtrack a bit, let me just share that Ana and I were staying with friends in Manhattan, NY – in the West Village. We were with them for a bit more than a month. We stayed in the city during the week and took a train out to Long Island on weekends to be with my family. All this time I was trying to land a job. (more…)