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A superintendent’s tale of communication and cooperation

New book takes a unique approach to effective leadership practices
Chris Bart and Margot Trevelyan's new book looks at how leaders communicate and inspire cooperation.
Chris Bart and Margot Trevelyan's new book looks at how leaders communicate and inspire cooperation.

A Tale of Two School Principals: And the Superintendent Who Wanted to Lead Them is not your conventional leadership book. Told in a narrative form, the book is a journey of discovery as the characters learn to get to the deeper meaning and intent of a new district policy.

Co-authors Chris Bart and Margot Trevelyan bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the mix, helping readers who not only want to learn more about leadership, but also those who want to progress in their life and career with a fresh perspective on communication and cooperation.

Bart is a world-renowned authority on organization mission statements and how companies can use them more effectively to become “mission driven.” Trevelyan formerly served as director of labor relations and governance for Ontario’s Ministry of Education where she steered governance and labor relations policy for school boards.

Your book has echoes of The Teachings of Don Juan, where the seeker keeps returning to the master for knowledge.

Trevelyan: Yes, it’s a practical book set up like a classic quest.

Bart: We thought that storyline would capture a certain realism. You’ve got this problem employee not doing what it is you want them to do in the most generic sense. So, where do you start?

The plot has a superintendent named Rachel trying to get two of her principals to embrace the objectives of districtwide parent engagement policy. They’ve read it, but they don’t see the bigger picture.

Bart: Francis Bacon said, “It’s not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned.” From a leadership perspective, the question is “How do I make sure that the really important messages stick?”

One way, of course, is that the leader keeps repeating the messages over and over and finding ways to link it to other things.

There is more than memorization involved. The book is built on a series of questions that leaders must answer, which becomes part of the discovery process for Rachel and the reader.

Bart: It’s a simple book, but we believe knowing those questions in advance lulls people into a false sense of understanding, when the book has been written to take them on a voyage. It’s a process that brings a deeper understanding of what the questions mean.

What inspired this approach?

Bart: The most widely used management tools in the world are mission, vision and value statements. But if I ask you what management tools are the most despised, the least respected—the most frequently mocked in the Dilbert comic strip—the answer again is mission, vision and value statements. It’s virtually impossible to find an organization that doesn’t have something like those things.

But too often the leader proclaims, “Here’s our mission,” and then expects it all to just happen.

So it’s really only a checklist in some respects, because once they have it, they think, “OK, that’s done. Now we’ll go off and do the really important stuff.” And all this other stuff has little connection to that foundational document that is supposed to be setting direction and driving behavior in the organization.

So I set out to find what the problems were with implementation and execution. Why don’t these statements do what we want and expect them to do?

Trevelyan: Let me give you an example. My grandson was living with me for a little while. I said, “I’ll give you $5 a week for taking out the garbage.” After a few weeks I said to my daughter, “I’ll have to fine him because he’s taking the bins out, but he’s leaving them out there and I have to bring them in at the end of the day because the neighbors aren’t going to like it.”

And my daughter—who had read the book—said, “Well, mom, does he know what to do? Does he know that he’s supposed to bring the bins back in at the end of the day?” I said, “Well, he should know!”

Bart: And that’s the key—he should know. Look at that phrase that we use all the time. That’s why the order of the questions is so important. Order is extraordinarily important.

Trevelyan: So I asked him, “What do you think you are getting paid for?” He said, “Taking out the garbage.” I said, “Well, yeah. But that also means at the end of the day, after they’ve collected the garbage, you have to get the bins back in and put them in the garage.” He said, “Oh, OK.” And that was that.

What’s clear is how little training there is for the leadership roles of superintendents and principals. They know how to teach, but not how to do the other things the job requires.

Trevelyan: It has always surprised me that you would have superintendents and principals be held responsible for some pretty sophisticated management issues and have received very little training. There’s little guidance on how to deal with a grievance process and how to maintain joint committees and the school level and the district level and how to engage staff in decision-making.

You just can’t assume that superintendents and principals, because they are highly educated, know how to do certain things. However, you can assume they are good learners.

One character notes that with all his other responsibilities, parent engagement isn’t at the top of his list.

Trevelyan: Right, he doesn’t feel the consequences now but he will, because his job will be made more difficult because the parent engagement is not there. Even though he may not feel the consequences in the short term, he and every other principal will definitely feel the consequences in the long term.

The book is about more than getting people on board with a goal, but to help them understand how it affects everything they do professionally.

Bart: My research shows that about 65 out of 100 people will immediately start doing what you have very clearly, precisely and unambiguously helped define for them in their mind. It’s a Vulcan Mind Meld where there is no disconnect between what I want you to do as I understand it and what you agree to do, now understanding it in my terms. And that’s a wonderful thing to get that level of acceptance.

Trevelyan: Educators are very independent people. They aren’t people who walk into a building and say, “OK. Tell me what to do.” They are professionals. They take pride in their professionalism. They believe and are right to believe that they have good ideas of their own on how things should be done. It’s not like the private sector where a manager can give a directive and everybody is going to do it, or else they’re going to get fired. The education sector, as we all know, doesn’t work like that. In the end, if you haven’t done all you can to explain what you need people to do, then how does the individual bear the consequences of implementing that policy?

Bart: In many ways, the outcome of the book is the person who doesn’t get it self-selects herself out. She can’t stand it. She just can’t stand this transformation process which is unrelenting. The key here is the leader doesn’t give up. The leader does not give up.

But won’t there always be one or more people who don’t get it?

Bart: That’s right, there will. But the key here is they are a very small percentage in relation to all the others you have rehabilitated.

Trevelyan: In the end, the ones who don’t get on board eventually get pushed out, not by management but through peer pressure.

Bart: Right. And sometimes they will stay on, but just think—after you’ve done all you could, you get 99 people out of 100 on board. And you sometimes say, I can’t get rid of this person, but I’ve got 99 out of 100 people doing what it is that I need them to do, so we can work around that one person.

Trevelyan: And to see the value of having genuine, strong relations with your staff allows you to live with that one out of 100 who isn’t quite getting it.

That’s why we don’t say, “Well, if you don’t do X, Y and Z, you’re fired.” That creates other problems with your staff as a whole. That’s not the kind of management we’re talking about.

Bart: The payoff is that your perception as a leader skyrockets. Everyone has watched you work so hard trying to get a few difficult people on board, rather than trying to take the easy route out.

We need to focus more on having quality results, rather than quick fixes that just treat the symptoms but not the causes.

Tim Goral is senior editor.