There’s a tendency you’ll notice with far too many people as they progress upwards in an organization: the higher a leader goes on the org chart, the less you see them. There’s always some rationale, most commonly that work load grows with greater responsibility, making it harder and harder to get away from the desk or computer. Yet, leaders are responsible for staying abreast of and positively influencing the workplace climate, and it is highly unlikely much meaningful inspiration and team connectiveness comes from someone rarely seen on an informal day-to-day basis.
For this installment of Leaders in the Trenches, we would like to highlight a story shared with us about a public school educator whose daily actions inspired generations of students and colleagues:
“After an eleven-year hiatus taking off from my teaching career moving around all over the United States with my husband’s career, having four kids, and volunteering a bit, I completed a graduate level degree and was finally certified to teach in the state where we lived. I’d had several interviews, but repeatedly found out I was the “second choice,” and someone else was hired. Finally, I had what seemed to be a successful interview at an elementary school. After we’d visited a bit, the principal, Jim Lewis, asked me if I’d like to take a walk around the school with him. As we left the office, we encountered an aide pushing a young student with special needs in a wheelchair. As Jim made eye contact with both of these people, asked about their day, and then touched the child and spoke further with him, I was impressed. There was a sincerity and evidence of purpose here that impacted me greatly.
“After working with Jim for a few years, I was telling my husband a story about something remarkable this principal had done, to which he said, “You’d eat glass for him, wouldn’t you?” I thought about it a second, chuckled, and then replied, “Yeah, pretty much.” Besides demonstrating a sincere interest in his employees and students, what else did Jim do to command such loyalty?
“He knew the value of learning about others and then using that information to aid in collaboration for future success. After the horrific school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998, he wondered what could be done to help better protect students. He visited with an involved parent, and the two came up with an idea to start a program to encourage fathers of students to volunteer a day to walk the school halls and make sure doors stayed locked, among other things. As parents would come in to volunteer, master collaborator Jim would visit with them and find out about their connections and interests. Many programs and the facility itself were improved over time because he knew who to call for help with common, shared goals. It’s important to note—that school safety volunteer program, WatchDog Dads, has gone national!
"One education consultant said, “If you want to impact change in your school, get out of the office, get out of the office, get out of the office.” While Jim probably had a stack of paperwork on his desk and a colorful pile of Post-It notes scrawled with names and numbers of parents to call, he made the time to walk the building to see what was going on. How else could he “brag” on the incredible work being done by teachers, students, and volunteers?!
“Jim Lewis went on to be a superintendent then a retired grandpa who enjoys hanging out with his family and traveling. When many former students and colleagues hear his name, they inevitably sing, “See the sun, shining in the window, time to start a new day,” the way he often started morning school announcements.”
-Teresa Cornett, Retired Teacher
At a time when management of employees is increasingly done through email—or leaders rely on formally scheduled meetings rather than impromptu and casual check-in conversations, it’s no wonder many teams don’t really feel like teams. Add the challenge of workplaces that are a combination of physical office space and remote digital workstations, it’s more important than ever that leaders develop and practice effective methods of staying engaged with their teams.
Here are a few ways a leader can make a real impact:
- Get up and walk around the workplace on a daily basis—and not always at the same time. Talk to people where they are doing their work, ask questions, request feedback. Don’t leave anyone out. (If team members work remotely and walk-by visits are not an option, impromptu phone calls and video conferencing can achieve a similar effect.)
- As casual conversations arise and team members feel more comfortable engaging, take the opportunity to use those discussions to reinforce values and vision. When a leader is able to illustrate the organization’s purpose in the context of real talk about real situations, it can have a positive, crystallizing effect for individuals and the overall team.
- If a problem is identified in the course of visiting with team members, provide support right then. Not having all of the answers or the ability to remove barriers immediately is not what is important—but showing a sense of urgency to help problem solve and not default to “I’ll look into it” is key to helping team members believe leaders have their backs.
At Milestone Leadership, our work with leaders worth following over the years has shown us the enormous value of connection and the lasting impact of making a commitment to team engagement.
Step away from your desk. Go learn something new about someone you work with—and what is challenging them. Repeat. And repeat.