PMP:136 Crucial Conversations for Reaching Targeted Destinations

I’ve been on the road a lot lately.

Photo by Darwin Vegher – Creative Commons No known copyright restrictions

And as I travel, I often think about how to reach my destination while also making the experience a positive one. For me, that means trying to learn while I drive by listening to helpful podcasts, audio-books, or news programs. Or sometimes it means connecting with friends or colleagues for phone chats.

As we wrap up another semester of the school year, my family is also planning a road trip. During the holidays, we normally travel back east for time in West Tennessee with my parents and family members there. It’s a long road from Oklahoma there, so we try to make the trip as enjoyable as possible: good snacks, and good books, music and movies downloaded on devices.

But long road trips can also be difficult when you grow tired of the road or sometimes grow tired of one another. And sometimes the journey through a school year can be a lot like a road trip. You pack up the car with lots of hope and anticipation, but hours into the drive, you grow tired of being on the road, and maybe the passengers grow tired of each other too.

How do you keep driving toward a positive destination on the long journey of a school year?

Recently, I was presenting at a workshop for Assistant Principals when we began discussing how to manage difficult moments or crucial conversations while also staying focused on the positive. I was reminded of two authors whose work has been helpful when thinking about working with school teams on the destination of completing a successful school year.

First, Dr. Todd Whitaker has some great takeaways in What Do Great Principals Do Differently. I’ve heard Todd present several times, and he often reminds principals that if you spend your time focused on the group of negative team members in your school instead of the positive ones, you will inevitably find yourself leading from a mindset of reaction instead of empowerment. Todd’s advice is to keep your eyes on the most positive members as a first priority. As you include them in decision-making and ask what is best for them, you inevitably raise the tide for the entire school culture.

I’ve also heard presentations by Dr. Anthony Muhammed, author of Transforming School Culture: How To Overcome Staff Division who explains that school leaders cannot ignore negative culture. When team members are pulling down others, you must be willing to have crucial conversations that threaten positive expectations and remind others of the non-negotiables of your school. When you are willing to confront these “resisters”, you place the focus back on the destination and goals of your school.

This is a difficult balance. A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a presentation with Dr. Muhammed when I asked him how to reconcile the need to focus on your positive members while also addressing negative ones with crucial conversations. He explained that it is irresponsible to avoid tough conversations, and the balance of strong leadership is the ability to focus on the positive but not allow the negative to infect your culture.

A Road Trip Analogy

I’ve been thinking about these lessons as I drive to visit schools and work with school leaders. Just like a long road trip, you manage so many dynamics while you “drive” your school through each day.

Several years ago, my wife and I loaded up our children for a long trip to Tennessee for Christmas. When it was time to return home, my kids asked if we could stay an extra day. I had set our return date so I could have some additional time to prepare for the return to school so I told them we needed to stick with the schedule. We loaded up the morning of our return, and started down the road. I noticed no one was talking, and as I looked in the rearview mirror, I could see all four of the kids were crying. No one was talking, but there were a lot of tears.

Two narratives were going through my head.

Narrative one: I want to get back home because I have a lot of work to do before school begins, and I don’t like to feel rushed.

Narrative two: We actually have time to spend an extra day and maybe I need to ask my kids why staying an extra day is so important to them.

I looked at my wife, and she looked back me with an expression that read: “This was your decision, now what are you going to do about it?”. Before long, I pulled over and we had a long conversation. I explained again why I wanted to get home soon. They explained how hard it was to be such a long distance from my parents and how much they’d like just one more day. After listening, we had a decision to make. In this case, we decided to give them one more day there. I turned around and headed back to my parents’ home. And guess what? We had one more joyful, fun-filled day. The drive home the next day was a lot easier.

Looking back now, I know that situation could have gone a lot of directions.

But the lesson I learned as a dad is that reaching destinations and goals is just as important as maintaining positive relationships along the way.

And as school leaders, we need to keep that idea in mind as well.

Let’s Wrap This Up

As you think about the journey you are on this school year, you will likely be looking at both sides of the coin when it comes to focusing on the positives while also addressing negatives. Yes, you must invest and rely on your strongest team members for creating positive outcomes. At the same time, you cannot ignore the crucial conversations necessary to maintain a healthy school culture. And as you do both, you are driving toward a destination that will require lots of patience, wisdom, and collaboration along the way.

Now It’s Your Turn

As you drive the road ahead, what ways can you stay focused on the positive outcomes you want to see for your students and teachers? How can you focus on the destination while also having crucial conversations along the way? And what is one step you can take today to add some joy to the journey for those around you?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker