Good Work: A Pretty Good Place to Work

 The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.

After a long weekend I was excited about coming back to work as a public school superintendent but fresh holiday intentions were distracted an hour into the day.  People were lined up at my door, “I just can’t get along with her.”  “I don’t get any recognition for my hard work.”  “It’s out of control—you need to fix this.”
I’m afraid my colleagues found more frustration than encouragement at my door that day.  That night, with gin and a journal, I tried to make sense of a day that went off the rails in the first hour and recalled advice from the Kouzes and Posner about encouraging the heart:

Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.

Encouragement is often relegated to recognition programs that go stale after a couple months.  I think encouragement is architectural—you can’t layer it on top of a crappy culture, you need to build it in to the structure, strategy, and systems of the organization.  As organizational leaders, if you want your colleagues to tell their friends, “It’s a pretty good place to work,” you need to create dignity, purpose, community. 
People deserve the gift of dignity in their work.  People have the right to be heard, valued and recognized for their contribution.  Easy to say but practically difficult to institutionalize, dignity is gradually drawn out of any institution by routine.  It must be constantly replaced, renewed, and re-institutionalized in each process, each department, each contract, and each meeting.  Dignity is the opposite of those “I’m too busy for you” vibes that are so easy to give off.
People deserve the gift of purpose in their work.  Connecting individual contributions with a meaningful cause and better future creates a sense of purpose.  Working in education it should be easy to make this connection, but the work is draining and often conducted in relative isolation.  Like dignity, routine attacks the collective sense of purpose.  A powerful statement of mission, the reason that the organization exists and the customers that it serves, has the potential to recreate purpose.  A clear picture of a better future for all stakeholders, a vision, can do the same.  It is a constant challenge for a superintendent to recreate purpose and meaning for the community they serve.
People deserve the gift of community.   Making a work setting a place were people depend upon each other and work together does not come naturally, it is the cumulative effort of small daily acts done intentional to build community.  It emerges when the values of trust and respect, kindness and generosity, and selfless service are practiced by a critical mass of leaders modeling the desired culture.
The greatest gift you can give is to help others reach their potential.  That is certainly central to everything that we attempt to do in education.  But it is as true to staff members as it is for students.  Skilled leaders help their colleagues identify career goals and help create roles, projects and experiences that will help them accomplish these goals.  It could also mean that they move on to a bigger and better job in another organization, but if their work is engaging, important, and connects with their career goals it will work out for the best for both parties while you have the opportunity to work together.
Recognizing contribution is important.  But a little frosting won’t fix a stale cake.  Baking in renewable motivation to achieve extraordinary impact requires a sense of purpose, a culture of dignity and practices of community.
This is the fifth and final post examining Kouzes and Posner’s Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®. The other four practices and blog posts can be found here:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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