When Akbar Cook took over Westside High School in Newark, NJ, it was a mess. Students were divided into cliques that never interacted; teachers did their work in silos; and an attitude of distrust prevailed on the campus. Further, it was a low-income area, with 85 percent of the student body chronically missing school. He knew his work was cut out for him.
He soon discovered students cut school because they were getting bullied. He then discovered that many were getting bullied because they smelled bad. They wore dirty clothes to school because they had no washing machine at home or no parent to help them clean their clothes.
So what did this great school leader do?
He installed a new facility on campus: a free Laundromat. Mr. Cook literally cleared out a room and installed washers and dryers, complete with detergent and fabric softeners. Students are learning life skills by coming in early and taking responsibility for washing their clothes.
What he did in the end was to build a culture of ownership.
A School Culture of Ownership
If you Google his story, you find that Mr. Cook loves his students, greets them outside every morning and creates a climate of inclusion and belief. A sense of ownership is a natural outcome. Both students and faculty own the school culture. And when you foster a culture of ownership, you don’t need to be involved in every detail. You need less accountability because everyone owns their responsibility. You can give a long leash on team members because of the high level of trust. But it usually requires a few big steps.
Akbar Cook is just one of the school leaders I’ve come across over the years who’ve done this. This list includes Michelle Pinchot, Jason Lane, Jill Harrison, Julie Diaz and Gary Davison, to name a few. I’ve discovered that great school leaders share a handful of common characteristics—and each of these leaders created a culture of “ownership” on their campus.
Five Ingredients to Build a Culture of Ownership
1. Autonomy in Their Role
Ownership doesn’t happen unless you offer autonomy to people. Otherwise, you own the school and no one else does. We genuinely must believe the principal is the CEO of the school and teachers are the CEOs of their classroom. Administrators must manage by objective. They must create goals together, then allow team members to pursue them in their own way. One high school principal told how he felt absolute terror when his seniors wanted to decorate their caps for the graduation ceremony. He was afraid of breaking with protocol, and he knew that one rogue student could ruin it for everyone. But, he wanted to build a sense of ownership so he allowed those students to create their unique looking caps. It was a smashing success and because influential student leaders “owned” the idea, they avoided disaster. Autonomy may mean letting students start their own “traditions” on campus that can be passed down over the years. Few things foster ownership better than students creating a new tradition that all four classes feel they helped to birth. If you want folks to own it, you must give ownership away.
2. Trust When in Conflict
A culture of ownership is accelerated when leaders err on the side of trust. Distrust among staff and faculty actually obstruct ownership. People start dividing into different camps and talking about each other. They only own their own piece of the pie, not the whole. Creating ownership means you cultivate deep relationships with everyone and you conquer your fear of failure. It means you believe in your people and err on the side of believing they’ll get the job done. It means school administrators create a safe place for both teachers and kids to make mistakes and recover. Show them you trust them by allowing them to try out new ideas. If they betray your trust, act completely shocked as if to say: “I really do trust you and I am stunned you broke that trust. Let’s rebuild it.” All good leadership operates on the basis of trust and relationships.
3. Constant Storytelling and Communication
A spirit of ownership prevails when school leaders are constantly communicating within the campus community, as well as the larger community and neighborhoods. Post comments and pictures of people who model “ownership” of the school’s mission. Make it fun. Defend your staff and students with parents. Brag on them for how they’ve come up with their own ideas and implemented them on campus—from theme nights at sporting events, to fundraisers, to service projects in the community, to holiday decorating contests. Create a strong presence on social media and offer shout outs consistently to anyone who gets on board. Remember—what gets rewarded gets repeated. What gets talked about, gets done. People support what they create.
4. Work Toward Alignment on the Mission and Culture
Alignment is a must. “A house divided cannot stand,” warned president Abraham Lincoln. When there’s campus division, departments begin to form silos. It diminishes a spirit of ownership. In fact, what happens is a spirit of “every man for himself.” Alignment requires school leaders to share the same message—from administrators, to teacher leaders, to department heads to student influencers. Alignment prevents sideways energy and moves everyone in the same direction. Deep down, people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Great leaders create this spirit of ownership by cultivating three elements:
- Sense of destiny
- Sense of family
- Militant spirit (we will do whatever it takes to get the job done)
5. A Practice of Developing Your People
A culture of ownership accelerates when administrators don’t just manage the school, but they develop the people. The best leaders are equippers of their teams. Under John Maxwell’s leadership for 20 years, I was on the receiving end of this. I now practice it with my team at Growing Leaders. Leaders must embed time into their routines for personal and professional growth—not once a year, but regularly. I know, I know. You’ll get pushback at first on this. But in the long run, people want to feel you’re investing in them. They need to recognize that they’re growing. Ownership occurs when you build leaders at every level. Remember the stages of leadership maturation:
- Doing – This is when you feel you must do anything of significance yourself.
- Dumping – Soon, you feel overwhelmed and begin dumping tasks on others.
- Delegating – Here, you finally plan ahead and organize the passing of tasks to others.
- Developing – The final step is when your delegation leads to the building of new leaders.
Now that we’ve discussed the five ingredients of building a culture of ownership, I challenge you take a first step towards cultivating a healthy school culture. To help you do this, we have created a free assessment for principals and administrators. How well are you doing at creating a culture of ownership? Click here to take the free school culture assessment.
It’s important for leaders to occasionally stop and evaluate your school’s culture and yourself as a leader. That’s why we put together a free assessment to help you better understand what you need to do to develop a healthy school culture. This assessment was designed to be done individually and for you to analyze your results and then determine where the areas you need to improve in. Click here to take the free school culture assessment.