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Listen Before You Talk (You will be more convincing)

When I started at the first school of which I was Head, I had clear ideas of where the school needed to go and how to get it there. I also, naively, assumed because I had good ideas and was a nice guy (I am a nice guy, aren’t I?) that the ideas would be met with universal acclaim. 

 I could not have been more  wrong. 

The staff, generally, thought of me as insensitive with no sense of respect for what the school had already accomplished and its current culture.  It pains me to admit, but they were right. And I was right as well. The school did need to change to stay relevant and to continue to thrive. But I got off on such a wrong foot, it took me months, if not years, to recover. 

I was smarter when I started at my second school. The summer I was hired I invited every staff member to meet with me. During the 30--45 minute meeting I asked three questions:

  • Why are you working at Duke School? Tell me about your professional journey. 

  • What do you love about the school? What are the pieces of culture that should not be fooled with?

  • What changes do you think the school should make to become even better? 

 Despite it being summer virtually every employee came to meet with me. These interviews served at least three important purposes:

  • I got to know the staff before school restarted in the fall. 

  • The staff got to know me in a relaxed way.

  • I developed a deeper understanding of the school’s culture as interpreted by the people who made it happen.

However, perhaps the biggest advantage is that it gave me a great segue into starting to work on the changes that would improve the school. Instead of saying, “I think” the school should focus on this issue, I got to say “you think” these are the issues we should focus on. Unsurprisingly, the staff had a good grip on areas of growth for the school so we were in sync.

The difference in these approaches were palpable. Instead of being the know-it-all with the understandably accompanied resentment, I became the messenger of what staff wanted; as a result, staff embraced the change process. 

I offer this anecdote for anyone starting a new position this July. However, talking to folks over the summer about what they think of the school’s strengths and areas of growth is a good investment of time for any leader. If you know where people are, you have insight about where to go.


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