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How Great Leaders Create Engaged Cultures

After meeting with a national champion athletic coach, a president of a growing university and an amazing principal of a 3,600-student high school—I’ve drawn at least one conclusion about quality leadership:

Great leaders create the campus culture.

This means, when you arrive, you are the “Chief Culture Officer.” You improve the culture, through your own style and personality, and lift everyone to a higher level— enabling them to perform better. You realize that the better the organizational culture, the less policies and corporate processes are required to enforce behavior. When the culture is strong, it’s like the tide that raises all the boats on the water. Think about organizations that seem to get this:

  • Zappos
  • Starbucks
  • Chick-fil-A
  • Netflix

This works in reverse, as well. The weaker the culture, the more leaders must rely on policies and procedures to make people behave in a certain way. What you lack in culture, you must make up for in legislation. Colin Angle, co-founder of iRobot said it this way: “Culture is the magic start-up ingredient.”

How Do We Do This in Education?

Schools, athletic teams and non-profits have one thing in common: The majority of the people involved are not paid to be there. Think about it—students make up most of the people on campus; athletes make up most of the people on a sports team, and volunteers make up most of the population at non-profit organizations or churches. So, when great leaders lay plans for their organization, they know that culture is the top priority (not money). It is as tangible as currency. Bryan Walker, Ideo Director said, “Culture is like the wind. It is invisible; yet its effect can be seen and felt.”

So, what essentials do educational leaders embody to build a positive culture?

The Culture Is Framed by Unique Values and Customs

One word almost every organization places on their list of core values is: excellence. The word is so ubiquitous, it almost means nothing. If we’re all excellent, do we really excel above others?  I suggest you try something different right from the start. What if you asked your core team members to attempt something that lights a fire within them to begin the conversation? For instance, what if you asked them all to:

  • Do something scary.
  • Go someplace different.
  • Meet someone significant.
  • Learn something important.
  • Risk something in order to grow.

Once the core team members implement this list, ask them to answer two questions. What do they most value?  What list of core principles should be put in place? Simon Sinek said, “Your customers will never love your company until the employees love it first.”

The Culture Is Deepened by Staff/Faculty

What if your key team members pair those values with actions, enabling them to sign their name, like an artist signs their work at the bottom of a painting? Their signature would represent ownership. I suggest that your core team members choose 2-3 actions they will practice regularly that demonstrate each value. This commitment moves values from simply poetic words hanging on the wall, to tangible actions that are really happening down the hall. The litmus test is: even if no one ever verbalized your core values, would students be able to identify them by watching what the staff and faculty embody each week on campus?

Next, effective leaders hire the culture they’re building. Every new team member must already possess the qualities you’ve chosen, rather than hope they’ll catch them. “Employee engagement arises out of culture and not the other way around,” say authors Carrick and Dunaway. I know I’ve embraced this at Growing Leaders. It is my conduct, not my speeches or list of values that make the difference.

The Culture Is Led By Students

Once the kind of culture you want is chosen and articulated, you must find a way for the students to practice it in their own way—one in which they choose. Remember: students support what they help create. This means, key influential students meet together and determine what actionable behaviors they could practice to illustrate the culture:

  • They act.
  • They connect.
  • They practice.

I’ve written before that I believe youth want to do something that’s very important and almost impossible. By their teen years, the primary way students engage is through action—not through better class lectures; not through more intriguing exams; not even through projects. They both learn and engage more deeply via personal action on their part. Student, Sam Levin, illustrated this with his “Independent Project.” He convinced his principal to give up part of each week to allow students to work on any project they chose in order to learn: cooking, writing a book, engineering a machine, testing soil samples to grow plants, you name it.

The Culture Is Watched and Measured by You

The truth here is timeless: anything that is watched and measured improves. You can expect what you inspect. What gets rewarded gets repeated. So, in the midst of all the other tasks on your to-do list, culture must be a high priority for you to evaluate. Why not create a list of practical benchmarks that you observe each week on campus:

  • What are the attitudes (morale) of students and staff?
  • What is the participation level of students?
  • What are the energy levels of key people?
  • What is the productivity of the team as a whole?

An Opportunity for Administrators

This summer, our team at Growing Leaders will host the 2019 RoundTable for Principals on June 20-21, 2019. Our theme: “Own It—Creating an Engaged School Culture.” We will hear from extraordinary speakers like:

  • Ginger Hardage, Author and former Senior VP, Culture & Communications, Southwest Airlines
  • Dave Katz, President and COO, Coca Cola bottling Co., Consolidated
  • Cory Epler, Chief Academic Officer for Nebraska Department of Education
  • Derek Johnson, Author and long-time Consultant to Walt Disney World

And I will also be sharing the leadership insights I’ve gleaned over the years from working with and studying the next generation of students.

This is an exclusive discussion, limited to 200 school administrators, held in Atlanta. It is first-come, first serve. Interested? CLICK HERE for information and registration.


Transform Your School Culture at the
2019 RoundTable for Principals

The 2019 RoundTable for Principals is a two-day event from June 20-21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia designed exclusively for principals who work in middle and high schools. The 2019 RoundTable for Principals will be a forum-style discussion all about culture and how to create an engaging one in your school.

This year’s RoundTable will help school leaders:

  • Turn core values into actions that inspire students, parents, and more
  • Improve teacher satisfaction and student achievement by increasing the levels of trust between faculty, staff, students and parents
  • Increase collaboration between all parties to creatively solve problems and accomplish the year’s school goals
  • Develop a big picture perspective in others that motivates them to commit to the school mission
  • Apply the best practices to your school from companies that have legendary cultures, including Southwest Airlines

Don’t miss out on bringing your leadership team to this year’s RoundTable. Registration is open, but is limited to the first 200 school leaders who sign up.

Learn More Here

3 Comments

  1. Julian Wong on November 29, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    Hi thanks. Good information Tim. Culture is not physical but can be seen in action…emotion…relationship…thanks again.

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How Great Leaders Create Engaged Cultures