Work

My favorite tools to keep things moving


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I love automating things, speeding up team interactions, making everything move faster. Naturally, I love leveraging any digital system so that my team functions better, and communicates efficiently. My tools of choice in my current team are:

  • Freshservice for all things tech-support ticket management, tech support agent reporting, asset management, asset-assignments, ongoing monitoring, software licensing management, etc… It is great! Not perfect, but perfect for our small team.
  • Google Hangouts for all communications with my team. We have a small group created, and often will go one-on-one, depending on the situation. I have it on all my devices, so even if I leave my phone in the car or at home, I still get the message.
  • LastPass for all things systems/users/pswd related. It keeps us organized and secure. If I need to provide an outsider temporary access to one of our systems, I can share the credentials without that outsider seeing the password. Very useful for the hundreds of username/accounts we use for the various subscriptions and systems we use.
  • Google Docs/Drive helps us keep organized. Budget decisions and documentation, ongoing meeting agenda recording, etc., are all on a shared Team Drive for team members to find.

On this last one, the Google Doc piece, I’d like to share a bit of an insight into how I work with my team.

Each of my team members and I meet once weekly. I have a shared spreadsheet with tabs at the bottom for each of my team members. We can all see and edit this spreadsheet. Each row of the spreadsheet has an action item that the team member and I have agreed needs to take place. S/he will action that item and record the date once finished. These are my key performance indicators (KPI) for each of my team members. Whenever I get audited, I pull a sample from this sheet and on to the next audit item 🙂

As for team meetings, I like to rely on an agenda so we cover basic items of urgent need. I use a simple template, so we can breeze through and still record key points. Google, bless their programming fingertips, recently added a nice function to GDocs. You enter the name of a team member after “AI:” and suddenly that item becomes an assigned task that the person gets in their email and now has to complete. Read all about here; it’s a cool feature, and so timely!!!

The way I like to start meetings is to have a team member do a reading, share something personal that is not related to work, or show a video of a personal passion they wish to share with the rest of the team. I learned to like this idea after working at Vistamar School in El Segundo, CA. They start each day of the week with the whole community in a “morning meeting” where students/teachers/parents are free to come up to the mic and share something deeply personal to them with the rest of the community.

Any ways, back to the agenda. Linked here is where you can get yourself a copy of a template I’ve created so you can use it with your team. Add it to your own Google Drive, update the name and start using it. Modify and use as you need. Following are two screenshots with a quick description of what each part of the document is meant for:

Screen Shot 2019-09-27 at 13.35.05

Screen Shot 2019-09-27 at 13.35.17.png

Hope this was helpful to you. I always welcome comments and suggestions, so add a comment and I’ll reply as soon as I can.

 

About Life, teach, Work

How great teams are made


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!

 
Work

Time in the classroom moves at the speed of life


Speed_of_LifeWhen I got into K12 education I had no clue how a school ran. Sure, I knew a lot about infrastructure, technology, networks, etc… but nothing about managing a school, or a department within it. I did not realize the value of personal relationships, the importance of clear communication, or the huge need for patience. Coming from consulting in large NYC financial firms meant I needed to downshift drastically from every second counts to impact takes time.  Though not intentionally, as there was so much that needed to be in my first role as Technology Director, I downshifted enough to have a profound impact in my first K12 independent school. Touching base with old colleagues brings a smile to my face as they speak of current life at the school referring to things I put into place nearly 20 years ago.

Here are key takeaways that, to this day, play an important part of how I go about leaving a lasting impact wherever I go:

Personal relationships are valuable
K12 schools run on a different time dimension than most for-profit businesses. Teachers have various balls in the air as far as child-specific things to tend to; pre-assessment, formative, summative, feelings, academics, maturity, hurt finger, lost notebook, divorcing parents, bullying, reports, weekly curriculum, photos, nutrition, etc… are only a few of the things teachers must deal with constantly. To give teachers time to take in new practices/initiatives is to understand, and relate to, the cognitive load they carry daily.
A very long time ago I worked in radio. One thing I learned in radio is that even if everyone hears a message/commercial at the same time, not all listen to it in the same way. Radio stations repeat and repeat for this reason. Repetition eventually sinks in and ensures and more universal understanding.
Introducing teachers to new tools, practices or initiatives must happen in stages, and must take place personally. Sure, you can present a major project to all teachers, but when it comes down to putting it in action, face-to-face conversation and support is important. Each teacher is fighting to improve something in their practice and understanding their current set of priorities allows you to see where there is room for what you wish to see happen. It will not happen any other way. Trying to do it en mass is acting on assumptions that are usually incorrect.
Get to know your teachers.
Clear communication
I like to tell people all the time that to do my job right I must drink a lot of coffee. Though I love coffee, the reason this is accurate is that I sit with many people individually to tell them the same thing over and over, over coffee. Sending emails is okay for operational information of how to use a tool, for example. For an initiative to be successful each player must be clear on their role and responsibility.
I worked one year under Tom Northrup, at the time Headmaster Emeritus at The Hill School in Virginia. He came into the school where I was as Interim Head of School. One thing that I loved that he did all the time was that he would have town-hall type meetings with many people in the room. Say we were preparing for parent-teacher conferences. He would ensure we all knew our role. He would then ask questions to some people in the room, such as, “if a parent calls asking about their schedule, what will you say?”, and, “if it rains, where will you place yourself to be more useful?”. Over time, this practice made our events run more smoothly, our own actions become more assertive, and our confidence to increase. We each had a place, a role to play, and a way to act. With a bit of repetition we were clear what we needed to do, and if we were not, we could trust one of our colleagues to help us out, without having to go to the top. Tom was a basketball coach, too, so he ran his teams in this fashion.
Patience, patience, patience
Back when I worked for financial firms in NYC it was stress 24/7. Even when there were bank holidays, the mere fact of living and working in NYC made things stressful. Transitioning to education meant I had to shed some of my habits, and to adjust my perception of time.
Technology moves at the speed of light, but time in the classroom moves at the speed of life.
Now that I have more experience under my belt I value time. Like cooking a great dish, it’s important to let things simmer. Tools are introduced, teachers are supported, communication is consistent, expectations are set face-to-face, and eventually you see traces of your ideal scenario materialize. Schools are human enterprises, and things will not shift overnight.
I am fortunate that I am a patient person; I try my best to be fair; and I do my utmost to push innovation, but not at the expense of good teaching. These qualities have inherently helped me be successful in my career. A lack of tact and personal connection lead a project to failure. Teachers are passionate about their students, and most administrative matters fall far down in the priorities list. To act under a different assumption is to ensure disappointment.
About Life, Work

Organizational change is like a drop of shiny liquid chrome


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.