Pete (Meslin) and I are committed to passing on "tips" via this blog, even when those tips didn't originate from our own experience. I read an Aug. 10, 2013 New York Times interview by Adam Bryant with Hugh Martin, CEO of Sensity Systems (and previously with Apple and 3DO), that inspired this post. Here are some of the principles Martin relayed:
Communication is critical. – Martin has a weekly "no-holds-barred" meeting with his entire staff. "We talk about anything that's important and it's a great opportunity to model behavior to every single person in the company." How often do you meet with your entire staff? Do they get to generate at least some of the topics for discussion? How have you communicated that they can speak honestly without fear of repercussion?
If you can't meet with the entire staff, at least include representatives of all of your operation's sections. Insist on active participation from all present. And, while there's no substitute for person-to-person communications, business ethics surveys routinely tout the advisability of easily accessed suggestion boxes or other venues for soliciting employee opinion – as long as any input is taken seriously in a timely fashion.
Accountability – Martin notes the missed opportunity to strive for excellence that occurs when "people say they're going to do something and they don't do it, and there are no consequences." He stresses that he wants people to commit to accomplishments and objectives. Toward this end, "Everybody sits down at the beginning of the quarter and says, 'Here are the 10 things I want to get done in the quarter.' Then, at the end of the quarter, you review those and say, 'Here's how I did and here's 10 things I want to do next.'" If 10 is too daunting a number – and Pete wisely suggests that it is – why not have each person contemplate the 5 things they want to get done in the quarter?
While this might seem like an exercise for managers, what would be the result if you required everyone in your staff – each clerical person, each mechanic, each router, each assistant director, and so on – to do this. And you do it too. Would you make your own quarterly statements and conclusions a private exercise, or share your list and results with others? If you really want to show people you're serious about this and want to motivate them to participate, announce your 10 – or 5 – things in public. This kind of work reaches the heights of transparency, and could be the kind of activity that loosens up the workplace in a positive way. At a minimum, if you review individual lists one-on-one with each staff member – and that's what Martin seems to do – you, too, select a staff member (maybe not always the same one) to help keep you honest.
Confrontation avoidance – Martin states that "the best decisions are made when you really hash things out," and encourages getting people to engage. For him, this is easy if "you've got really good people." If your staff has a combination of "really good" folks and less than "really good" folks, engagement may take time. It's worth working on. Pete has contributed some really practical ideas:
- Set ground rules for communicating, so that "verbal bullies" don't dominate.
- "Positive Friction" (i.e., a conflict arising from arguing passionately about a work-related issue) shouldn't ever be discouraged.
Keep your pulse on operations. – Cultivate a "good nose" for problems by understanding the business at its very core – I believe this requires more than maintaining your own CDL and driving every so often. Instead, Martin makes sure he has his "finger on the pulse of all the important aspects of the business." Perhaps you should make your "default" position one in which you assume that each problem has a relationship to all parts of your business. In other words, seek to identify the routing, scheduling, driving, student support, educational, mechanical – you get the picture – element in every problem, no matter how remote it might seem from the particular problem you're seeking to solve.
Martin's ideas may need to look slightly different when you implement them in your department, but they are definitely worth considering and adapting to work for you. Try them on for size and let us know how they fit.
Peggy Burns is the former in-house counsel for Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, Colo., and currently owns and operates Education Compliance Group, Inc., a legal consultancy specializing in education and transportation issues. She is also a frequent speaker at national and state conferences and is the editor of the publication Legal Routes that covers pupil transportation law and compliance.