I am an avid taskmaster. As an Enneagram 3, success (however I choose to define it that day) is important to me. I want to be highly regarded and respected by others (whether I want to admit it or not), and thus, much of my attention is achievement-oriented. The structure of my day is built to ensure productivity and high levels of performance. My mental energy emphasizes deliverables. I clearly define my goals and what it takes to achieve them. In short, I have a tendency to over-identify with work and my job title (high school principal) to the point where I have been guilty of letting my job define me. I’m a work in progress, friends. God made me this way.
Within my role as high school principal, you might imagine that these highly-driven traits are assets. In many ways, they can be and often are. However, I quickly noticed during my first year navigating the intricacies of the principalship that I wasn’t quite the taskmaster that I used to be. I was actually interrupted so frequently at work that I changed location and holed up in the (slightly smaller) corner office (more about this in a future post). I simply could not be front and center in our hallway and get anything done.
Then, as He so often does, God whispered.
The interruptions are the work.
Y’all, I regretted this whisper vehemently. How could I utilize my core gifts God had given me if I was constantly being interrupted from my inborn efficiency and goal orientation? (Yes, I realize that this is a lame paradox. God whispers, and I offer a weak rebuttal about my lame inborn efficiency. Does anyone else have a pattern of God whispers, forced rebuttals and God laughter in their lives? I digress.) This is perhaps the most valuable leadership lesson I could have learned as a young school administrator. Here, we will dissect three reasons why the interruptions are the work.
Relationships are the foundation of any thriving organization
The sooner we acknowledge that nothing worthwhile can happen in a school (or any organization) without deep and meaningful relationships, the more quickly we can influence outcomes. The first task of any leader of an organization should be to build strong, healthy relationships with constituents, both inside and outside of the organization’s physical walls. When new leaders are introduced to a company or a school, there is underlying doubt about the employee’s future (whether well-based or otherwise). The sooner an industry leader can acknowledge that he/she cannot go it alone in an organization, the sooner everyone involved can come together as a team and commit to the collective work to be done.
Let me preface this by saying that driving home mission and vision statements, programs and policies do not shape culture (Helgesen, 2020). While important to the cohesiveness of the work to be done, none of our fancy phrasing or excessive handbook taglines can create the culture of a school. Relationships engage in this work. When relationships and trust are lacking, full engagement of the work is impossible. And guess what? You can’t build relationships sitting behind your desk.
What I failed to realize in the first few months of my new position is that although I was known on campus prior to my leadership appointment (first as a teacher, later as a mentor, and eventually as a curriculum and instruction specialist, aka Master Teacher), my staff did not yet know me as a school principal. How would I act? Who would I become? Although strong relationships and trust already existed with most of my colleagues, there was still doubt. How would I lead? How would my leadership decisions impact my employees, students, and school as a whole? Sitting behind my desk vainly attempting to smile when someone popped their head in the door, half-listening to their laments as I finished an email only allowed others to experience me as impatient, rushed, and dismissive of their needs. I needed to get up from my desk, join them at the table, and attentively listen, lament alongside them, and offer easily implementable solutions if I was going to maintain my relationships in this new role.
Principal Pro Tip: Get out from behind your desk.
Valued individuals drive the work home
When an individual feels valued, they trust their leadership. When individuals trust their leadership, they trust their organization. And when individuals trust their organization, they have strong relationships with members who make up that organization. And when we have strong relationships within an organization, we know that an organization can thrive.
All leaders should have an internal desire to treat each person within their organization as a member of their team. Teams do the work, and the work propels an organization forward. Whether you are new to an organization, or have been around for a while, there are various individuals in power positions within the company that can make an organization thrive. Beyond the obvious leadership personnel, there are also people with personal authority, trusted by staff, who have the ability to inspire the work. There are people with the power of connections - they have influence with other individuals on the team who might not be on board just yet. They have street cred, if you will. There are also people who have expertise that you do not have. You need people on your team who know what you do not know. If you can value each of these individuals by tossing aside your taskmaster mentality, you will further the work of the organization more swiftly than any individual actions you could accomplish on your own.
There will always be a list of to-dos. There will always be one more email, one more report, and one more deadline to meet. However, if you can build in strategic times and places for the paper to take precedence, you can build in strategic time for people before paper, too.
Principal Pro Tip: People before paper.
Interruptions create opportunities
Remember that goal-orientation I was lamenting about at the beginning of this post? Something I didn’t think about in my early days in leadership was how to leverage dialogues to drive the work of our organization forward. I saw the interruptions as nuisances during the day, rather than opportunities to shift the focus from problems and complaints back to solutions-orientated discussions related to the vision and mission of our school. I was a great sounding board for people who wanted to complain, but I would walk away drained and feeling like I hadn’t accomplished anything actively related to fulfilling our vision and mission at the end of the day.
Somewhere along the way, as I became more laser-focused on the what (having already clearly established our why), I realized that I needed to maximize every face-to-face opportunity I had with my staff to drive our work home. Our vision of “every child, every day, prepared to meet life’s challenges” and our mission to ensure high levels of learning for all students through an intensive cycle of remediation and enrichment had to be at the core of every dialogue we had about kids. Thus, when a teacher popped her head in to complain about an unmotivated child, instead of listening to an endless lament, we began to break down the why behind the behavior. Did we have a relationship with the student? What did we know about the student outside of class? What types of patterns could we identify in the grade book? What did we really know about this kid? The same went for other interruptions as well. If we could continuously shift our focus back to our kids, we were suddenly talking strategy rather than stress. Friends, this is a great place to be as a leader of a school!
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, people simply need to be heard. We all need a safe place to vent every now and then. But if we can take those interruptions as opportunities to improve our mindset and our skillset, the interruptions become just another part of doing the work.
Principal Pro Tip: Leverage every opportunity to drive home the work.
Putting it into Action
Recognizing why the interruptions are the work are all good and well; however, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few tried and true tips for leveraging interruptions for good during a busy professional day.
Gail Hyatt tells us that "people lose their way when they lose their why." If we can remember that the interruptions are the work - that people deserve our attention before paper - we can take one next step toward fulfilling the what by paying attention to our why.