Sisodia, Wolfe, and Sheth’s excellent book Firms of Endearment provides educational leaders with a great deal of food for thought. I’ll review a few of their most important findings and add my comments about how those findings might relate to schools and other educational institutions.
In their book, the authors report on their analysis of a group of companies they refer to as “firms of endearment”—a list of companies that includes: Whole Foods, Timberland, CostCo, Southwest Airlines, LL Bean, New Balance, the Container Store, Patagonia, and Toyota. Not only are these organizations nice places to work, they significantly out perform the companies identified by Jim Collins in his study of Great companies.
Firms of Endearment, the authors state, share a distinctive set of core values, policies, and operating attributes:
· They actively align the interests of all stakeholder groups, not just balance them. Instead of trading off the interests of one group versus those of another (for example, higher wages for employees versus higher profits for investors or lower prices for customers), they have carefully devised business models in which the objectives of each stakeholder can be met simultaneously and are in fact strengthened by other stakeholders.
· Their executives’ salaries are relatively modest.
They operate at the executive level with an open-door policy.
· Their employee compensation and benefits are significantly greater than the standard for the company’s category.
· They devote considerably more time than their competitors to employee training.
· Their employee turnover is far lower than industry average.
· They empower employees to make sure customers leave a transaction experience fully satisfied.
· They make a conscious effort to hire people who are passionate about the company and its products.
· They consciously humanize the company experience for customers and employees, as well as the working environment.
· They project a genuine passion for customers, and emotionally connect with customers at a deep level. By earning a larger share of customers’ hearts, they earn a larger share of customers’ wallets.
· Their marketing costs are much lower than those of their industry peers, while customer satisfaction and retention are much higher.
· They view suppliers as true partners and encourage suppliers to collaborate with them in moving both their companies forward. They help suppliers reach higher levels of productivity, quality, and profitability. Suppliers, in turn, behave as partners, not as beleaguered and indentured servants.
· They honor the spirit of laws rather than merely following the letter of the law. They apply uniformly high operating standards across the world, regardless of local requirements that may be considerably less stringent.
· They consider their corporate culture to be their greatest asset and primary source of competitive advantage.
· Their cultures are resistant to short-term, incidental pressures, but also prove able to quickly adapt when needed. As a result, they are typically the innovators and breakers of conventional rules within their industries. (pp. 8-11).
Sisodia, Wolfe, and Sheth identify several characteristics of Firms of Endearment. Below, I’ll summarize some of the ones that I think are most relevant to educators, and then add some thoughts about how those ideas apply to schools.
Dialogical relationships with all stakeholders:
Firms of Endearment, the authors tell us, recognize the importance of dialogical relationships with all stakeholders. Dialogue, they suggest, is based on four principles:
· One: Establishing a positive relationship (or reinforcing an existing one) before getting down to business
· Two: Showing willingness to be vulnerable
· Three: Fostering reciprocal empathy, whereby stakeholders reciprocate the company’s empathy ( P. 60)
· Four: Conducting conversations with genuine reciprocity
Dialogue in Schools:
There are at least two important ideas here. Schools which are FoEs would place a high premium on dialogue—which can be understood as respectful interaction between two individuals, where each side listens and each side expects to learn. Thus, leaders in FoEs, should spend more time listening than talking, and all stakeholders should feel that their voice matters.
This surfaces the second ideas—all stakeholders are important. In schools that would include educational leaders, teachers, other school staff, state and national agencies, parents, students, and others. Do students in your school feel like their voice counts? Do they feel like they are listened to more than told what to do? Do teachers, principals, parents and all other stakeholders feel their voice counts? In an FoE school, they would.
The rewards of a more dialogical approach might reap benefits. As the authors note, “Projecting empathy to customers, employees, and other stakeholders is like spraying Miracle-Gro on a tomato plant. The relationship between stakeholders and the company will grow, blossom, and bear fruit” (p. 61). Is empathy the Miracle-Gro for student achievement?
FOE leaders realize how important it is to build trust with all stakeholders. The authors suggest that trust is build upon four foundational ideas:
· Respect for individuals. “FoEs view each individual employee as a “whole person” rather than an impersonal “factor of production.” Management demonstrates respect for individuals by encouraging employees to participate in company decisionmaking, regardless of their rank” (p.74).
· Transparency. “FoEs are free of the paranoia many companies have about sharing information with all employees as well as with other stakeholders. The FoE way is the sunshine way … companies open up their books to employees” (p. 75).
· Team building. “FoEs cultivate an uncommonly strong sense of team participation, doubtless a major factor in their low job-turnover rates” (p.75)
· Empowerment. “FoE employees generally have the authority (and the obligation) to spend company resources necessary to make a customer happy or fix a production problem” (p. 76)
Trust in Schools
In thinking about this, I’m reminded of Marshall Goldsmith’s comments about how to be a nice person. The easiest way to be a nice person isn’t to try to listen more carefully, to be more caring, to praise people more effectively, and so forth. The easiest way to be a nicer person is to stop being a jerk! Actually, Goldsmith says it more colorfully, but you get the idea.
What, then, should schools stop doing to generate more trust? I have a few ideas:
· Stop communicating to teachers in ways that are unprofessional or demeaning
· Stop monitoring teachers’ actions in ways that seem a lot like spying, and start providing more meaningful, supportive professional development, like coaching
· Stop using assessments as punishments (where you round up all the teachers, tell them the achievement scores stink, and tell them they need to figure out how to do better) and start using assessments developmentally, that is tying assessment to effective professional learning
· Stop creating or reinforcing a culture of fear and start creating a culture of support
· Stop doing all the thinking for teachers (through pacing guides, scripts, and so forth) and start respecting the professionalism of teachers
· Stop telling teachers what to do and start listening to what they have to say
Energizing Positive Culture
The authors point out that there are three primary elements to organizational culture:
· Organizational vision. “This is about creating and implementing a winning game plan. It is like a road map, intended to answer the question, “Where are we going and how do we intend to get there?” … a common element found in every FoE is dedication to maximizing the creation of value for all stakeholders.
· Organizational values. “This is the aligning force that keeps an organization centered and balanced. Managing an organization’s values is like steering a car, essential to staying on the path and reaching the desired goal. Values are the answer to the questions ‘Who are we and what makes us tick?’”
· Organizational energy. “Like the engine of a car, this is the force that propels the organizations forward at a steady speed. 5 All FoEs are high-energy organizations. They reflect the passion, joy, commitment, and perseverance of their employees and other stakeholders” (p. 201).
Schools that have energizing positive cultures
In which school would you prefer to work or prefer to send your children? School A: where teachers are alive with the love of learning and the love of their students, or School B: where teachers spend a great deal of time blaming parents, children, and administration for their students’ poor achievement and where students hear much more criticism than encouragement? The answer is obvious.
To create more schools like our first example, leaders (and I see just about everyone working in schools as a leader) should recognize that leadership is about shaping culture as much as it is about anything. So how do we do that?
I suspect that schools can create a tremendous amount of “passion, joy, commitment, and perseverance” if they do a few things. First, spend less time discussing abstract test scores and more time discussing the human dimensions of education. There are few jobs that contribute more and that have the potential to do more good than educating children, and yet schools often seem to go out of their way to avoid talking about the good that is being done. Assessments scores are important—they are a way of monitoring progress and driving improvement—but the real story to tell in schools is not the numbers but the stories of a boy who couldn’t read learning to read, a girl bursting with enthusiasm for a science project, two children treating each other with profound and innocent respect and young adults leaving schools to go on to be the first people in their families to attend and graduate from college.
Second, tie student assessment data and teacher evaluations directly to effective teaching practices. I don’t believe it does much good to identify a problem if you can’t also help identify a solution. In fact, I think unhealthy school rituals such as walk-throughs that are not tied to teaching practices can do more damage than good. So, if an administrator conducts a walk-through, every teaching practice observed on the evaluation tool should be connected to a teaching practice. This is the idea at the heart of the Big Four that I describe in Instructional Coaching and that I will be discussing in greater detail on the instructional coaching website. We can and should observe for particular high-leverage teaching practices. But we also need to provide sufficient support so that teachers can implement them. Which leads to my final point:
Third, provide respectful, empowering, positive, effective professional learning so that teachers can have the kind of support they need to implement those new practices. This kind of professional learning likely includes instructional coaching, partnership learning, professional learning communities and other forms of professional learning that will help teachers take abstract research and translate it into the way the practices they habitually use in their classrooms.
Not surprisingly, a foundational characteristic of FoEs is that they encourage the life-long learning of employees. The authors note that “people continue to develop and grow throughout their lifetime, and employees are no exception. Even the most experienced and best –qualified employees need and benefit from continuous education” (p. 83).
If a school district fails to provide effective professional learning, it will struggle to create the positive culture of an FoE. Teachers cannot commit to the compelling and positive goals of schools if they are not making a difference in children’s lives. Without professional learning, teachers may struggle to make a difference, lose enthusiasm, and make excuses. But, if teacher receive effective professional learning, if they see themselves making a difference, they will be find it very easy to recognize the important contribution they are making, and positive energy should grow and spread through out the school.
This is one of the longer pieces I’ve written, and yet I don’t feel I’ve come close to summarizing the ideas and strategies suggested by the authors. Just a few others include:
· Taking the long view rather using than quick fixes.
· Emphasizing collaboration
· Creating organizations that are self-actualized, “which in part means “letting go of ego”
· Emphasizing love rather than fear: “When asked about his leadership philosophy, Herb Kelleher answered, ‘A company is much stronger if it is bound by love rather then by fear’ ”(p. 156).
And there are other ideas. Just to say the book is worth careful consideration. While not a book about schools, it is a book that has much to say about what schools can and should not be. I highly recommend it.