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Staff Leadership and Management

Lead People, Not Programs

workplace culture

If you are in any sort of leadership role in any type of organization running any type of program and managing any number of people, I’m asking you to do something.

I want you to copy the sentence below, paste it into a Word doc, increase the font size to about 200, bold it, italicize it, and post it somewhere in your office where you read it every day. Here it is:


Do it. Seriously. Do it. Now. I’ll wait…

Okay. Back? Good. Let’s explore this mantra a bit further.

That sentence is essentially what I do for a living.

I work with organizations that might be struggling with recruitment, retention, or morale of staff. They are consistently facing the friction of reaching their organizational values and vision while coming against the realities of difficult work in difficult times. Sound familiar?

So in response to some of this tension, many thoughtful organizations take steps to rejuvenate and sustain staff. Perhaps a “staff wellness” committee formulated, addressing the health and sanity of staff. Maybe some yoga for staff? Or resiliency training? High ropes course? Or maybe it’s just occasional donuts in the office.

Now let’s be clear. I am NOT against donuts. I think they’re a potentially important piece of a good work environment. But here’s the deal: no amount of yoga or donuts will ever be enough to overcome the burden of working in an inattentive or chaotic workplace.

You know the old saying about lipstick on a pig. Trust me. Teaching breathing techniques and relaxation to a staff working in an environment where the organization isn’t tending to their professional needs smells a lot like “Pork by Maybelline.”

A very cynical reading of this mantra results in something that sounds like this: “Here. We’re going to teach you how to cope with all this stress that we’re not going to actually address.” That’s just not sustainable.

So to address your workplace culture seriously, we need to commit to some key principles. (Note: you could also print these out and add them to the wall where you’ve already printed the first mantra. You could.)

Principle 1:

Stop assuming adults are mature.

When you’re young people come into your program, you actively teach them proper behavior and procedure. You instill in them your values and expectations. You do this based on the (accurate) perception that if you didn’t teach them your expectations, they’d probably fall short of reaching your goals for them.

But what about staff? How much of your organizational and workplace culture management is based on the very dangerous presumption that “we’re all adults here” and “we’re all professionals” and hence we will all act maturely? How’s that working for you?

A thoughtful organization is as articulate about the expectations for adult behavior and attitudes as it is with young people. If you have not been clear about teaching, coaching, and delineating what your organizational cultural goals are, then don’t be shocked when those goals aren’t met. You sleep in the bed you make.

Principle 2:

If you manage it every day, workplace culture will improve. If you don’t, it won’t.

Workplace culture can’t be accidental. Culture can’t be boiled down to occasional team-building exercises. Culture manifests itself in the daily behaviors of your staff. That means if you’re a leader, you’re not running a program. You’re leading people. If the people aren’t led, the program won’t succeed. It’s simple math. If you aren’t spending daily, constructive attention to the work conditions of your staff, you’re playing with fire.

Principle 3:

“Student success at all costs” is not an effective management strategy.

We all desperately want our young people to thrive. If we didn’t, we would have chosen a different line of work. And our commitment to young people runs deep. We will toil and sacrifice to ensure our young people are rocking it. But when those commitments also become the predominant organizational management direction, things can really go haywire.

When “student success at all costs” takes over an organization, those “costs” can mean the health, happiness, sanity, and life balance of staff and leaders. We can find ourselves working in such a way to say, “Look how miserable I am! See how much I love kids?!”

This just doesn’t work. So DO hang onto the calling of success for all kids. But do NOT manage yourself into a situation where the idea of “all costs” is actually how you work. It’s not sustainable.

Certainly there are more principles we could explore. But if you start with these, how would it change the way you ran your program? How would next week begin to feel different than this week? How would your people know that something was changing for the better? The immediacy of this kind of organizational growth is thrilling. With some good, honest thinking, you could ensure that you and your people reclaim that which you maybe haven’t even noticed you lost.

It’s not “good luck.” It’s good “skill.”

For breakfast I had 2 cups of coffee, one fried egg, avocado, turkey bacon and toast.

Author:  Nathan Eklund

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