When I think of synergy I think of fireworks. I think it's because when there is synergy between people working together, there is a building up of energy, forward momentum, and the people working together begin to spark off of each other. Ideas are offered, analyzed, built upon, tweaked, morphed into other ideas. Synergy sounds like energy. Synergy is the best possible result of working together. Synergy gets things done. I love thinking of synergizing as a habit. I've experienced synergy before, but I always thought it happened by chance - by having the right people in the right place at the right time. Thinking about it as a habit is interesting. I guess the way you create synergy - the way you practice it- is to harness all of the positive effects of practicing the other habits we have learned in order to set up the best possible conditions in which synergy can happen. If I am proactive, I begin with the end in mind, I think win-win, I seek to understand before seeking to be understood . . . then hopefully I will find myself in rooms with people who understand what needs to be accomplished and who bring energy into wanting to work together toward that common goal. Achieving synergy won't always be easy or natural, but definitely possible, and ultimately desirable. I don't really see how synergy can consistently happen when working with people unless those other habits are in place as well. It is a powerful habit to cultivate though.
I have experienced synergy, and it is very palpable. People in the room know when synergy is present and building. I have a colleague, Vicki, who is actually my partner as an online and blended learning resource teacher, and we have developed a consistent synergistic relationship. Our best synergy comes forth when we are passionate about something. That is usually when we are working on curriculum ideas that involve integrating the study of literature and history. We have had some planning sessions where we were both on fire with cool ideas, and that is an amazingly energizing feeling. In our other role we have to work together even more closely. Some days when we are both on our game we find easy synergy, and other times we have to work harder to "get" each other. The very things that create amazing synergy (our different perspectives, strengths, and personal styles) can also trip us up as we try to see the way the other person sees something. Sometimes it requires more work and energy. But the bottom line is that we have committed to working together, and that makes it a done deal, as either way, easy work or hard work, the work is going to get done. So the commitment to work together is also what cultivates the conditions for synergy. At our school site we are embarking on our WASC self-study process, and it will be "all hands on deck" as we work, as an entire staff, to study our school's practice and culture and write that report together. We will rely on synergy. We better make sure those other habits are in place too!
I'm excited to share the habit of synergy with my boys. There are so many applications for this in their lives. They will see opportunities to synergize within our family, in their relationships and projects at school, in our neighborhood and community... and I think they see pretty constant synergy in the various ways the adults in their lives work together to orchestrate this thing we call Life. It takes a village... and one look at the carpool schedule for our neighborhood will reveal synergy that benefits many in our village!
Listening. What an incredible skill! It is not one that many people are consistently good at, including myself. When done well, listening is an art. Good listening calls for full attention, absolute mindfulness, a leaning-in without leaning too close. It asks for a warm embracing of the space and the moment, with room created for breathing and expressing. Good listening asks for empathy and connection- a putting of oneself in another person's shoes or skin. Good listening asks for the listener to set aside his or her personal agendas and lists, opinions and ideas, in order to simply be able to truly hear what the other person has to say. It sounds simple enough, but the act of real listening is extremely difficult for many people, because we are all so busy and there is so much stimulus around us all of the time. Our brains are wired to make connections, and it seems we are always thinking. Our thoughts are the main obstructions to our being able to listen. When we try to listen, our listening may be overrun by many things: random thoughts, lists of things that need to be done, daydreams, ego-induced responses to what is being said, non-ego-induced responses to what is being said, exciting new ideas that arise in response to what is being said... and many more types of thoughts. Our minds are crafty and mysterious, and sometimes they are churning and working, interrupting our ability to listen, without our even being aware of it! Have you ever caught yourself completely lost in another world while someone is talking to you? That sudden awareness snaps you back to attention, and you try to play mental catch-up, silently grasping at the words before they fall to the floor, so that you can try to appear as if you are listening? I think most of us have experienced that before, and I don't think it makes us bad people. But I do think that learning to be a good listener is worth the effort it will take to become one. Listening is a valuable skill.
Listening, when done well, lets the other person know that he or she was heard. We all want to be heard, mostly to be understood. There is something validating and comforting about being understood. So as a communicator, I need to seek to understand, at least as often as I seek to be understood, or else it isn't true communication- it's just me talking. Everyone can benefit from becoming a better communicator, but anyone who is going to be successful as a leader will have made it a priority skill to learn. A leader can only lead if he or she understands the causes, issues, and people he or she is leading. A leader must take it all in, must ask questions and listen to the answers, for those answers contain opinions, emotions, concerns, and stories that, when taken together, can help a leader to fully understand the issue at hand, and lead the leader to the decision or solution that will best benefit the people, situation and organization.
Personally I struggle with being a good listener, unless I mindfully do so. By that, I mean that I need to purposefully recognize that this is a moment to listen, and then set aside everything else very purposefully in order to create the space and conditions to be able to listen. If I do that, I truly listen. Many times I think I can listen while doing other things, but there is only partial attention being paid to what is being said, and usually that person knows it. My children are the best at identifying when I'm not listening 100%- and they will always call me on it. They keep me honest :) The other thing I have noticed with myself in regard to listening well is that there are times when I will pick up on cues from the other person that tell me it is urgent that I listen to this person, NOW! Maybe it's an emergency situation or maybe there is an emotional urgency coming from the other person. Whatever it is, I find it to be amazing how sometimes I just know, and it takes absolutely no effort to snap to attention and be fully present with the person, listening effortlessly with all of my available senses. Whereas other times that are less urgent or of interest, sometimes true listening isn't a skill available to me. It is definitely something to work on.
This week as I continue my teaching of habits to my boys, we'll talk about listening, what makes a good listener, why it's important to listen, and what we can do to become better listeners. I am also very interested in what they will have to say about leaders and listening. What perceptions do they already have about that? I'll ask some questions of them... and then I'll listen to what they have to say :) I have a feeling they'll feel pretty confident sharing on this topic.
For a majority of my career so far I have worked in departments with teachers who were quietly competitive with each other. It was quiet, but it produced a fierce and unwelcoming environment within the department. When I was a new teacher it was very intimidating and creatively limiting for me personally. Over the years, with my experience and age, I have (thankfully) come into my own in terms of not allowing the competitive spirit of others limit me as I try new things and work with students. It has lead me to ponder why people become competitive in the workplace, and the only answer I can come up with is: FEAR. People are afraid that they won't get the credit for the great idea, or that someone else will use that idea and then THEY will be doing something wonderful! When I identified that, it made sense to me, and I can remember times when I, too, had that competitive/protective tendency. Working within a department that hasn't created a cooperative environment just breeds more and more competition. As a newer teacher, when I finally had a great idea I wanted to protect it long enough to actually put that idea into action, so people could catch me doing something great, before I felt willing to share the idea. I guess it's a natural response to the conditions, but it isn't helpful by any means.
I am fortunate enough to have had the experience of being a member of the founding faculty at my current school, Vista Visions Academy, and the experience of working closely together with other teachers to create and establish the initial culture and vision of an organization requires much collaboration. It isn't always easy, as sometimes the perspective and opinions of people can be so far away from one's own. But if we keep the end in mind, we will always see that our goal is to create and establish what is good for students, so cooperation is a must. I have slowly been de-conditioned- meaning that when I feel the need to protect an idea, I notice that, examine it, and have come to trust that sharing the idea will usually lead to an even better idea when it circulates through the minds of the various talented people I work with. And I am certainly finding that to be true. I have had some planning sessions with some of the people I work with, where the energy and creativity in the room is palpable as the ideas flow. We spark off of each other and really take it to a level we couldn't even imagine on our own. That's an incredible feeling.
As a leader with a strong vision, it will most likely take a lot of self-control and mindfulness to enter into conversations with an open mind- to be able to step back and allow other people to offer great ideas and allow them to meld with my ideas to transform them. It will also be challenging, I imagine, to listen to ideas that don't meld well with my own, and try to find some common ground and solutions that work well for all stakeholders. But to do so will create strong relationships and a collaborative environment that will be wonderful for a school. This is such an important philosophy and habit to embrace.
My boys have really enjoyed my teaching them the first three habits, and they have put them into play nicely. We are still having great conversations about them. I imagine, though, that this habit will be a bit more challenging to sell. They are athletic boys who play on sports teams, and there is always a natural competitive spirit within them. I won't use sports as examples with them, that is for sure. I will think of some other areas of their lives, especially with family, friends, and classmates. I will let them help me brainstorm some situations that can yield a win-win situation for them. It should be interesting, to say the least, but I am looking forward to the challenge.
As I watched the video of Stephen Covey doing the Big Rocks demonstration it took me back to when I had a 2-year-old and a newborn, and I was so overwhelmed I thought I was losing my mind. I was beyond sleep deprived, and I was teaching full time. I was in an endless cycle of mom and teacher guilt because it seemed that the things that really mattered to me (my Big Rocks), weren't .getting enough of my attention because all of the Little Rocks piled up and called out to me. I needed help prioritizing and planning. Intuitively I knew that in order to be the best mom and teacher I could be, I had to take care of myself, physically and mentally, first. I bought a Franklin Planner from the Franklin Covey company. Right away I knew this was something that was going to help me with my mindset, because it addressed my well being as well as my productivity.So each morning I would rise early and sit with my coffee and my planner to plan my day and my week. The planner reminded me to put my Big Rocks onto my calendar first. Built into the planner were many tools to help me keep that in mind as I prioritized. The best part was creating that habit of looking at each day before it began and got away from me, and setting my mindset and intentions for that day. It really helped me, and I carried that big brown leather planner everywhere! I don't use that paper version of a calendar anymore, as my life has been digitized, but those notions of how to put my Big Rocks first has stuck with me. My life is even busier now than it was then, in just a different way. The diaper bags and nap schedules have been traded in for football gear and practice schedules- in short, my three Biggest Rocks (my boys), are even bigger rocks now :)
As I look at this habit from a leadership point of view of course I can see how this habit will help me as a leader. If I am in a leadership position I am likely to have even more on my plate professionally, and I will have to have a clear picture of my Big Rocks, because I KNOW there will be a million Little Rocks that will try to usurp my time and energy. An effective leader definitely has a sense of what is most important and how to Put First Things First.
I'd say the toughest part about this habit is that as I have learned to prioritize, I have learned how to let the little things go, and while that has helped in my day-to-day handling of priorities and made me a much happier and less frazzled woman, those little things do pile up, and eventually I have to get to them. The piling up of those little things slowly eats away at a bit of my energy until it bugs me so much I become very proactive, find a pocket of time, and tackle those little things. Collectively the little things are still important, as many times they are things that can just be done later, but eventually they have to be done.
This week, as always, I will commit to teaching the habit of putting first things first with my boys. My two oldest actually surprise me often with how they prioritize their time for school projects, etc. Or if they know I have expectations of them to do some chores on the weekends, they come to me with a plan for how they will get their chores done AND have fun with their friends. Hopefully they've seen me model this habit for their whole lives and they are internalizing it. I was thinking that I would love to do the Big Rocks demonstration with them, and also with our high school students during an upcoming advisory class. Our students work independently, and sometimes time management is an issue. I think the Big Rocks demonstration would hit home with them.
This little plaque was given to me as a gift by my wonderful friend Amy when I was going through a period of tough transition in my life. It is one of my favorite display items in my entryway at home, and a reminder, every time I look at it, to be proactive and think about where I am headed. Beginning with the end in mind is a habit most teachers are familiar with, as we create units of study for our students. For myself, I know I begin with my learning outcomes. The end is what I want my students to know and be able to do upon completion of the unit. It is from that point that I work backwards and plan my approach and our various learning experiences. This is a habit I embrace in my personal life as well. When I cook, I have an end in mind so that I can shop effectively and make sure I have all of the ingredients I need on hand. When I lace up my shoes and leave the house to go for a run, I usually have planned out my route and distance so that I can mentally prepare for enduring the run. As I head into a weekend with my children I usually have the same type of mental activity happening so that I can help to create an enjoyable and productive experience for our family, with everyone's desires and needs in mind.
As I think about this habit in terms of leadership and leading, I can clearly see why it is important. Beginning with the end in mind translates to Vision. The vision of a leader is the leader's guiding light. Vision is what guides decisions, actions, and behavior. As a leader I want to express my vision well. To do that I have to have thought about it and fleshed it out- become intimately acquainted with it myself, before I, and people within my sphere of influence begin the journey toward that ultimate vision. To do that I must dwell in the end for awhile before I begin. Then I can begin with the end in mind.
One thing I will say about this, though, is that while I already do live this habit, I also leave room in my action plan for growth and transformation of ideas. That is to say, along the way toward that ultimate vision many times the path will change a bit because new and better ideas evolve through collaboration and learning. I always leave room for inspiration and spontaneity. I think it comes with having a creative personality. I don't usually stray far from my ultimate vision, but I'm not afraid to allow wiggle room for growth.
My commitment this week in terms of teaching this habit is to stick with my favorite students: my children. Since we've begun our conversations around being proactive, we have had some awesome conversations! I'll save that for another post, but they are really interested in this idea of personal growth being something we can influence through our own habits. To summarize last night's dinner conversation over our weekly "Taco Tuesday"- they feel empowered that they can change some things about themselves. Kai mentioned liking that his bad habits "aren't genetic." Gotta love that! So this week we will talk about the habit of beginning with the end in mind. I don't have to remind them about it either. At breakfast and dinner they'll say, "Mom- don't forget we need to talk about that proactive stuff." At the end of last week I challenged them to teach the habit of being proactive to some of their friends ;-)