Unconventional Strategies to Create Time and Space for School Leaders
March 2, 2018
Leadership is an exercise in strategic assertiveness. Management guru John Kotter in Leading Change claims that creating a strong sense of urgency for change usually demands bold or even risky actions that we normally associate with good leadership. A school leader learns over time that a lot is out of her control (most of it, in fact); one area in which she can assert herself, however, is where she spends her time, and with whom, and in what she is doing.
It is imperative, morally one might say, for a leader to spend her time and energy where she will have the greatest effect on student learning—for example, fostering empathy in the classrooms, hallways, playing fields, and other community spaces—but also making time to read, write, think, and plan. It is just as essential to avoid low-yield activities such as emailing, spending excessive time with low-performers, or playing boss by passing papers between offices.
I’ve hacked my own behaviors by employing deliberate and somewhat unconventional strategies to create the time and space to give the school the leadership in which it invested. Here’s what’s worked best for me.
Hack Your Space
An object at rest stays at rest, according to Newton’s First Law of Motion. Create an “unoffice,” using strategies to keep you away from your desk, and even away from the office altogether. Get rid of the tables, the desk, and any furniture that encourages one to sit. If you insist on a desk, build a standing desk; when you are vertical, you are much more likely to move around and avoid being stationary. Turn the space into a place of books and comfy chairs: a thinking place rather than a meeting room.
Hack Your Time
Prioritize and protect the classroom visits and hallway time in your personal calendar—my goal is 90 minutes a day. Create a daily writing and thinking block in the morning, for that is when we are at our most creative—I book the 90 minutes after the opening bell. Later in the day, schedule 20 minutes of “non-doing” (a disconnection from the outside world, including avoiding your phone, speaking, reading, or writing). Be disciplined with the time you devote to meetings. I don’t allow them to run past 30 minutes, unless it is a planning meeting. Fifteen-minute consults work in most cases. Even consider speedy standing meetings, with the door open. It seems paradoxical, but I have found I get much more interpersonal communication done by being away from my office (out and about the school) than by making time for sit-down meetings (which I utilize only when privacy is paramount).
Hack Your Communication
Email clients offer a convenient medium for communication, yet it is far too easy for things to go wrong. Tone is often lost. Problem-solving is nearly impossible. Emotions complicate the matter. One can get caught in seemingly endless email threads. “Cc” and “Bcc” disempower the receiver, and “FYI” passes the responsibility of the issue onward. At a more benign level, email burdens one’s day with an hour or two of low-impact work, and many messages often go unread or ignored. The problem with email is not the vehicle itself, but rather its over inflated use in the workplace. For the school leader, it can dramatically erode one’s performance (not to mention one’s health).
The strategic abandonment of email represented the greatest disruption to my approach to communication. In recent years, I have had my personal assistant manage and triage my email inbox. Despite this mitigation, it still left me with 15-25 emails each day. In moving to a new school this year, it seemed the right time to abandon the practice altogether (or at least attempt to). I am thrilled to report that I have gained hours back into my day. Imagine a scenario where you are able to handle all your communication commitments between the time you arrive and the time you leave your office. Imagine not thinking about email when you wake up, or fretting over the issues you addressed over email before you went to bed, or doing any emails over the weekend. That’s my new professional life, and it is possible for you, too.
As I started to abandon email, my personal assistant created a Google Doc that organized what came into my inbox (I use a generic superintendent address). There are “Email,” “Google Drive,” and “To Do” sections of the document, with each bullet point linking to a PDF version of the email, a link to a Drive file, or a description of a task that needs attention. I might check the organizing document a few times a day, adding notes to my personal assistant, including what I want done with an item, or even how she should respond to an email (often on my behalf). There are never more than a dozen or so items needing attention in any given day (this is partly helped by a public campaign asking people not to use email with me). The document also has links to blogs and other publications that come out of the divisional or departmental offices (saving me the task of reading them over email).
Results of Not Using Email
It is impossible to truly eradicate email use when the rest of the community and world still uses the medium. My emails today are almost entirely externally driven: from other heads of school, for recruitment purposes, or from general inquiries. Occasionally, I send an email to all staff at the school (though we are still searching for a better platform for this). The two anomalies came from a 2-day period when my personal assistant was out of the office, and from a particularly busy weekend when we were up against some deadlines. Other than those brief periods, the daily feed remained remarkably steady, and represented about five to 10 minutes of my attention.
Below is a graph representing the daily school business emailing activity I did over the first four months of school. Notice the range on the Y axis. Except for two anomalies, emails never exceeded five daily. There were 22 days of zero emails. Zero emails! (Keep in mind that the abandonment of email will only work if you find other ways to be available to those needing contact.)
It may appear selfish to some who see the abandonment of email as a boon for the school leader but a burden on those around him or her. The benefits I’ve reaped from this renouncement have indeed been tangible and cathartic: additional visibility, more time to think and plan, a greater ability to foster authentic relationships, and substantially less stress and guilt. In short, I am in a considerably better position to support individuals, build the leadership team, and make effective decisions to improve the experience of our students. Isn’t this what any school community would want from its leader?
The burden on those around me has not been extreme. My personal assistant has adjusted to the different approach but reports her overall workload as unchanged. WhatsApp has proven especially effective for our leadership team as a substitution for email. Some team members miss the convenience of emailing the superintendent, while others have reported that I have been even more available than my predecessor (because of the visibility and efficiency of meetings). I have found ways to stay in touch with people: through note-writing by hand (remarkably effective and popular, in fact), and by being out of my office and randomly running into students, teachers, and parents. The sky did not fall in, and I did not disappear from contact. Win-win.
You may not see a need to hack your leadership to increase your effectiveness in your role. It is likely, however, that you are like the countless colleagues I have spoken with over the years who have deep concerns about the sustainability of their practice and the effects of the work-life imbalance on their health and families—or the unrelenting soul-sucking experience of emailing. As the leader of your school, division, or department, you have both the control to change how you spend your time and also the imperative to give your attention to the areas where the school most needs your leadership. Consider a hack.