The Simplest, Hardest Lessons Make the Biggest Difference

This is my last blog for The Cornerstone, as I will be leaving for a new job July 1.  I’ve learned a great deal during the last six years, some of it from more experienced colleagues in the AEA system, some of it from GPAEA team members who have so graciously shared with me the intricacies of their day-to-day work, and a lot of it from the many educators throughout SE Iowa whom we continue to serve.  I’ve seen some resounding successes and some disappointing failures and I want to take a moment to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned.  While I have learned a lot of lessons (many the hard way), these three are the most important ones I want to share upon my departure.  They are simple lessons to remember, but often hard to follow and I have found they often make the difference between success and failure.

The most important thing I’ve learned about service agency work (and educational work in general) during my tenure here is that everything we do has to be driven first by the building of a relationship.  In the absence of a quality relationship, successful collaboration is an uphill battle, if not impossible.  Our successes and our failures are the direct result of the quality of the relationship that exists between the parties involved.  I have encountered some very smart people in recent years who believe that their knowledge or technical expertise is the most important thing they have to offer, but it isn’t.  Solutions must be adaptive to each unique situation and I’ll take a team united more by caring, commitment, and empathy over one heavy on expertise every time.

The second thing I’ve discovered in recent years relates to culture and it is that some people are positive and some are negative, but the vast majority are neutral and simply in the middle of responding to their most recent interpersonal experience, be it positive or negative.  This is why habitually positive people are worth their weight in gold.  If you think about it, most of us are pretty prone to treating people the way they deserve to be treated and yet who among us really doesn’t want to be treated better than we deserve at the end of the day?  Reciprocation is a natural behavior pattern for most people, but in a high-stress environment, it can lead to bad culture in a hurry.  When we work in the change business, we have to remember that people get frustrated and we need to give them permission to do so.  We can’t afford to meet frustration with judgment and negativity or things degenerate rapidly and we don’t meet our goals.  It’s easy to treat people the way you perceive them to be treating you.  When more people respond to negativity with grace and empathy and fewer respond out of ego and competition, we not only get more done, we build a contagious and virtuous culture.  It’s really hard, but I’m going to work on that and I encourage you to do the same.

Finally, I’ve learned that good communication takes effort and has to be intentionally practiced in all walks and at all levels of the organization.  We’ve all heard the old saying, “No news is good news”.  I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this is absolutely incorrect.  To assume that things are going well because one hasn’t heard otherwise is one of the most common and damaging practices in which any of us can engage.  This is true when it comes to both formal organizational communication and informal interpersonal communication as well.  “How’s it going?” should never be a rhetorical question.   Ask people how they are doing and listen to the answer whether your conversation is a professional one or a personal one.  It’s called caring, it’s the opposite of gossip, and it’s good for both building relationships and increasing productivity.

So there you have it…..Three pretty simple lessons, far from profound, easy to learn but easier to forget, and having nothing to do with reading, writing or arithmetic.  I believe that we already know most of what we need to know to do our work.  We have more expertise in education today than at any time in history. Too often we look for the next big fix or the next great program when programs are never the answer.  People are the answer and the greatest thing about organizations (and also their biggest liability) is that they are made up of people like you and me.  So, as you go about your very important work, remember to treat one another well.  Build caring relationships.  Be positive and treat people better than they deserve to be treated.  (Grace and forgiveness aren’t just markers of professional and personal maturity, they are vital building blocks for a nurturing and productive culture.)  Finally, remember to communicate frequently and intentionally, not just for accountability purposes but out of caring as well.  Let’s just remember to recommit ourselves to the simpler, harder lessons, the ones that really make the difference.  Enjoy the rest of your year and have a great Summer!  I hope to see you all again soon.




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