The New York Times published Sunday a fascinating article about research at Google on effective management qualities, and it seems worthwhile for those of us who are Principals (and aspiring Principals) to consider the list’s applicability to our leadership practice.
The piece makes clear that this is not just advice from Google’s leadership, but the results of a major research initiative and based on thorough data collection and analysis at Google itself. Rather than being a grab-bag of assorted techniques, it is a rank-order list of effective tactics, organized in order of importance, and so the conclusion to be drawn from those items near the bottom is that they simply aren’t very important. Interestingly,
technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.
Technical expertise ranks dead last. I wonder how my colleagues in educational leadership view this.
It is my humble opinion that in educational leadership, pedagogical expertise is highly valuable. It is not just my thought, but a key motivator in how I spend my time, seeking very seriously to continue my learning and growth in this technical expertise. Also, I have to say I have some mild resentment about the appointment of those without pedagogical expertise (but perhaps strong management and people skills) to the position of principal or school-leader, and so I am sorry to see that the Google research would suggest this is a reasonable practice:
“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”
One reasonable response of course is that Google is a technology company and schools are not, so we should be wary of extending the analogy of their research conclusions too far.
The list, in order of importance, with a few comments:
1. Be a Good Coach: provide constructive feedback, with positive and negative, and meet one-on-one often.
This is first, and it should be no surprise to informed educators: we know that being a good coach is essential teaching practice. But do we practice frequent constructive feedback regularly enough? Regrettably, I know this continues to be a major area of opportunity for my own growth as a manager.
2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage.
Surely this is something at which we in educational management, with our high regard for faculty autonomy, are excellent, though the rise of standardized testing and teaching practice manuals has worked against this practice. Second in importance, this advice reiterates the counsel of Dan Pink in Drive, that providing employees greater autonomy greatly provides their performance and innovative capacity.
3. Express interest in team-members success and personal well-being. Get to know their personal lives, and make sure they feel welcome onto the team when new.
Someone once advised me you have to ask everyone everyday about their dog, something that is simply not that easy for me. The lesson here is also applicable to what we should never forget to teach our students: caring about others will be a great job asset.
4. Don’t be a Sissy: Be Productive and Results Oriented Focus on what you want to achieve, and help achieve it; help employees prioritize.
I’m not satisfied with the term “sissy;” it is not in my vernacular and I don’t like it. In education of course we are in pitched battle about the rise of “results oriented” management in schools and districts. If the wisdom is to seek data and use it to inform judgement, I can welcome it; if the call is to let data replace judgement, leave me out of it.
But this message is not just about test scores– it is also about organizing our work (professional development, educational initiatives, technology improvements) to align with our school’s mission and priorities, and this is something we can not be reminded of often enough.
5. Be a good communicator, and listen to your team. Communication is two-way.
Yes– I am sure we all put this high on our personal lists. I’d add that we should work toward multi-modal communications– electronic, written, oral, visual– and that we not rely on the open-door policy that awaits people come to us: we have to go to them, out into their classrooms and spaces.
6. Help your Employees with Career Development.
I have the suspicion that this is an aspect of management about which educational leaders could learn from corporate managers. This is in part due to our having so much less clearly a many-runged ladder of career advancement, and we typecast our people quickly into career teachers, not-going-to last-er’s, and future principals. The last, maybe, when we have time for it (and not often enough), get some of our support and mentoring; the others get none. We should find more ways to understand the aspirations of those whom we manage and lead, and find more opportunities for them to advance and grow.
7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
The “vision thing,” as it was once described, is not easy for anyone, even for future Presidents such as George H.W. Bush: myself, I think it can only be developed and articulated as part of an ongoing process of learning, research, writing, sharing, receiving feedback, and sharing further. But it is important, though we should remember that in this rank-order list, it is much less important than those items atop.
8. Have key technical skills so you can advise the team.
On the list, but dead last. I am curious to inquire of my colleagues: do you think this belongs dead-last? Does it belong higher than some or all the others in school leadership? Or is it simply an eight-way tie: they are all so important that rank-ordering them is a futile enterprise?