Episode 5: Leaders With Heart Know That They Must Meet Their People Where They Are

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Leadership with Heart Podcast

HEATHER: Hi everyone. This is a Leadership with Heart Podcast, and this is Heather Younger, your host. Employee experience is powered by emotions. Managers and/or leaders within organizations get to choose which emotions they unleash from within the people they lead. Leaders, meaning supervisors or managers and above in an organization, drive much of the positive or negative emotions by their actions or inactions, their words, or what it is they fail to say. When a manager chooses their words and their actions carefully, they exhibit great emotional intelligence. These managers are often thought of as leaders who care or, as I like to call them, leaders with heart. This special brand of leader drives engagement and loyalty simply by being themselves. Are these leaders perfect? Absolutely not. It is in their awareness and sharing of some of their imperfections that we realize their brilliance. In this podcast, I ask you to see yourself in the stories my guests tell about times when they were not the best versions of themselves but how they used their heart to guide them to a place of deeper connection with their teams and heightened leadership prowess. Today, I’m very excited to have Andrew McDonald on the show. Enjoy.

Hello everybody, and thank you so much for joining the Leadership with Heart podcast. This is Heather Younger, your host, and I’m very excited today to be joined by Andrew McDonald. Andrew is actually a principal at a school in Colorado, and the reason why I decided to add him on here is I heard at a networking event, I heard from a couple of his team members about some of the things he did that really made their experience. So here’s what they said. They said that before he came, their experience was very choppy. The person before that did not look to develop the teachers that were there. The person that was there before did not listen to them and act upon what it is they heard. The person didn’t even really take the time to have one-on-ones and come to the classroom and find out what it was they could do to improve the experience for all the students and also for the teacher, and that was different when Andrew arrived. He was the exact opposite. He was someone who really did invest the time in the teachers. They felt like they were excited to get up in the morning to actually come to work, which was a unique thing for many of the ones that talked to me. So that’s the reason why he’s here today. When we look at Leadership at Heart, we’re looking at those who are emotionally intelligent and those who care about their team members. So, welcome to the podcast Andrew.

ANDREW: Thank you very much for having me. It’s an honor to be on the podcast with you today.

HEATHER: So, let me ask you. What is it that drives you as a person, as a leader? You know, you’ve heard the things that your team members say about you. What is it that drives you as a leader and where does that come from?

ANDREW: I’m new to the principal role. I’ve been in some leadership positions within schools over the last couple of years, and the main thing, I think, that really is at the heart of is trying to remove obstacles from the people that are doing the real work within a school, and that’s the teachers. They’re the ones that are interfacing with parents every single day. They’re the ones that are standing in front of the students, and they’re the ones that are really going to have the biggest impact for years and generations to come. So, for me, I think, having been a teacher and having worked in the classroom, I know what it takes to be successful there, and I know some of the challenges that you really face. You don’t get into education to sit in the principal’s office. You know, my goal was never to become an administrator, to become a principal, but over the years, it seemed to me that I had a knack for understanding what it took to become successful in certain roles and that I had a talent to hopefully smooth some things over for the people who are in that position. Knowing what it takes to do well there and then also having some of the skills, I think, to manage and to lead people, it helped me to get to the point where, you know, really at the end of the day, it’s about allowing them to be as impactful as they possibly can be. So I think every morning when I get up, when I come to work, it’s how can I ensure the students are really learning and the teachers are in a position where they can really teach?

HEATHER: I love that. If more managers had that mindset, the employee experience and actually the employee engaging statistics would be a lot higher than they are now, being super low. One of the things I thought about, it’s a rarity that you see folks that they promoted up through the ranks and they’ve become an administrator and then to become super effective. So I’m curious to know what you’ve done to develop yourself. Have you done a lot of training or do you read a lot to try and scale up those leadership skills to get you from the teacher in a classroom to this administrator person who’s very effective?

ANDREW: Yeah, I think there is a lot of training that goes into it, but I think more than anything else, it’s learning on the job and learning through experience. One of the things I always say to my teachers is I encourage them to be risk takers, but in order to take risks, you also have to be reflective. When something works, you also have to think about “Why did that work? Why was that successful?” and when it doesn’t work, you really have to spend the time to say “What could I have done differently?” and “Where do I think the mistake was made” or “Where did we maybe go off track there?” You know, I think going through the ranks, as you put it–I’ve done every job in education from working in an aftercare program to being a classroom assistant to being athletic director and wiping tables in the lunchroom as an assistant principal up to being a principal today–and I think you learn through each of those things what you appreciate in a leader and in an administrator. It has allowed me to interface with a lot of different people, and I think, you know, as a lifelong learner, like I hope all of students are and all of my teachers are, you always use those to better yourself. You use those different leadership styles, you know, the different things that have motivated you or really impacted you. You think about those as you’re growing. So I can reflect back on, you know, working for several great leaders, and I’ve had some struggles with some leaders along the way too. So, thinking about what made someone a successful leader, you know, I think through those experiences, has really helped me kind of develop as an educational leader myself. You know, along with that, there’s a lot of really good literature out there, a lot of really good books and learning that you can do. I learned a lot in my educational programs as well. So, when you take the book learning and you take that education but then combine that with the actual experiences that you’ve had, I think that’s where it really motivates you to get to where you need to be. It’s really that reflective piece, I think, that’s a part that is key.

HEATHER: Well that’s interesting. I think you said three tremendous things in all of that. One of them is that you allow the space for your teachers to take risks. This is key when we think of employee engagement and loyalty. People stay at organizations where they feel like they’re able to innovate, they’re able to iterate, and they can do it with pretty much a safe space within reason and, like you said, with rationale and reflectiveness. Like you said, you’re continually improving as you go, so that was awesome. The other thing is it sounds to me that based on all the things that you’ve done from the assistant all the way up, is you can be more empathetic and compassionate about what teachers are coming to you about because you have lived it. It is not as if you were someone who came in at maybe that mid-level as an assistant administrator type of role and then became the administrator. You started at how we might say “the bottom” and then worked your way through many of the roles, and then you were able to have that really broad awareness of where they’re coming from. Empathy is a huge sign of social intelligence when we look at the emotional and social intelligence spectrum that Daniel Goldman put together. So I think this is tremendous. The other thing I heard from you’ve received just as much education from the bosses who were not great as you did from those who were.

ANDREW: Yeah, absolutely. I think you learn about what you don’t want to be when you have those experiences with negative bosses or negative leaders, and I think that you can learn just as much from them as you can from the people that you really admire and aspire to be like.

HEATHER: So how would you define your leadership style?

ANDREW: So I think it really is dependent–you know I would love to say that I’m a servant leader in the style of Sergiovanni, but I think there’s a lot more that goes into that. I think being a servant leader allows you to be empathetic like you’ve kind of talked about. It allows you to put others needs before your own, and I think you have to be able to do that to be a good leader. You know, like you’ve pointed out, experiencing all those different roles has enabled me to understand what it takes to do well in those and the challenges that folks will face there, so, I can remember, you know, where I was in that position, and I can put myself in their shoes and then really try and think about their needs and how we can push forward. I think on the other hand, the thing that you really need to remember as a leader is that different situations and different scenarios call for dramatically different types of leaders. So you have to be able to adjust. I like the idea of reframing problems like Bolman and Deal talk about, you know, but you can’t just look at something from a political frame. You also have to consider that visionary aspect or the human resources from. So you have to be able to switch these mentalities and these mindsets frequently based on the challenge that you face. So it’s really a matter of selecting a strategy or an approach that you feel like is going to work really well. I think the best thing you can do as a leader is really understand the people that you’re leading. Because as soon as you understand them, you know that there are different approaches that work best in different interactions or different scenarios. You know, if I’ve got a person who’s very motivated by the political aspect or is really intent on having a debate in that way, you know what the leverage points are. You know how to kind of prod them for change. Whereas if it’s someone who is very focused on the human race resources frame, you’ve got to approach it from that relationship aspect, that caring aspect, and really make sure that part is there. So, in all the problems that you face and the interactions that you have with different employees or different people, it really is trying to understand where they’re coming from and what they need in order for you to continue to move forward.

HEATHER: It’s interesting that you say that. Number one, it already shows your emotional intelligence by the fact that you already know that everybody’s not cookie-cutter and that you don’t relate to every person the exact same way. That’s number one and that’s probably why you are inspirational and people are happy to get to work every day. But I think the other thing that you really bring up–I’m DiSC certified and work on the emotional and social intelligence space, and DiSC is that whole communication style of looking at things, and we were always figuring out how we do that, but sometimes, people will say, “Well, these assessments, these tools, are really just ways to manipulate people. You know, if we know what they are, then we just press their buttons and we get what we want.” And I differ. I don’t agree with that to the extent that I think that the more that I know about you–what you need, what you want, what’s your priority–I can more effectively cater to what your needs are instead of trying to solve for something that’s not there or solve for something that’s for the person next to you. I can solve for what it is that you specifically need, and that’s what I love about what it is you just said.

ANDREW: Yeah, you know, I think it’s how you use the leadership position too. When I first started talking about leadership and the power of a leadership position, what is the end goal, right? If the end goal is really just to move your agenda forward, well, in some respects, when you do know what way to speak to people and what their needs are, maybe you are using it in a negative way, right? If it’s only about what you need and what you’re taking away from it, but in a collaborative environment, which I think a school really needs to be–everybody has to be bought into the mission and the vision of what you’re trying to do here, and there have to be some commonalities, some shared beliefs, that underlie the work that you’re doing. So if you can all agree to that set of assumptions, then it’s not just about where I want to go, it’s about where we’re taking this, and in order for us to all get there, well then it’s important that we all know what each other need in order to be successful. As a leader, I am responsible for kind of setting that tone. We’re not all the same. We are all different. We all have different things that motivate us and drive us to be successful, but there are some basic underlying assumptions that we share, one of which is this is not about me, this is about us.

HEATHER: Yeah, okay. I love it. I love that. When it’s about team, so much more can get done and egos can be set aside. That’s amazing stuff. I love it. Okay, so describe for me a time, be as specific as you can, think back to a time when you were not that best leader, you were not in your strongest place, you would not put an A+ on your scorecard, and then what did you do to come out of that and kind of be refreshed I guess?

ANDREW: Yeah, so I think I’m gonna maybe alter the scenario a little bit. When I really think about this question, I think back to when I was first put into the position of assistant principal. You know, I was a lot younger than some of the other staff members at the school, and so I kind of had that working against me. It was working for and in a situation where I think there were already some challenges and some frustrations in the environment, and it appeared, when I was given this position, that there was maybe some favoritism. So I kind of stepped in the door already on the back foot, and people were looking at me a) as a younger person in education, maybe with less experience than they had; and then also as, you know, you got this job just because you know how to talk your way into something, not because you’re actually good at what you do. So it was a challenge right off the bat, and it caused some self-doubt in me. How do I do this job when I am sitting down across from somebody who’s got twenty more years of experience in education than I do, how am I supposed to sit there and say, you know, “Here’s an area where I think you could really push yourself; here’s where I think you could grow”? So it became immediately clear that the first thing that I needed to do was to just establish positive relationships with the people that were there. The people that were brought in and the people that were in my corner were fully there, but that was not everybody, and there were some really strong personalities and some big personalities within the school. You know, every organization has those people, where you know you have to win that person over and then the dominoes start to fall. So I just really had to sit back and kind of identify, you know, why am I this position? What do I believe about this role and about me being here, and then how can I really take the time to get to know these people, to understand their concerns, to understand their hesitation to sit down across the table from me? Then if I can understand those things, maybe that’s the place where I start. Maybe that’s where we begin our conversation. So it really took a lot of reflection on my part, but then it also took the courage to sit down and say, “You know, I’m here to learn just like you, and we’re on this journey together.” I can remember sitting down across the table from a very experienced teacher, one who I had a pretty good relationship with prior to being put in this position, and it kind of switched right then. There was a lot of, you know, “Why are you in this role and what are you gonna tell me to do?” and so there was a lot of hesitancy to even have a conversation with me. So it started with just smiling and saying “Hi” every single time that I saw her in the hallways, and it was stopping by the classroom and just saying, you know, “How’s the day going, you doing all right?” and then noticing the little things, right? Like, “Man, your kids were really quiet in the hallway today” or “I really liked how they lined up today, that was really awesome. Can you tell me how you do that?” and really trying to acknowledge the expertise that they had and then learn from them, and glean all those little pieces of information, those little tips and tricks that come from being in education for that long, or in any position for that long, because those experiences, like I said at the beginning, you know, those experiences shape and mold you. You can take a lot from those. So if I can then empower that individual to believe in themselves and believe “Yes, I am really good and I still have a lot to teach this person too and we can go on this journey together,” it made it more of a collaborative approach, and it did not take a month. It did not take two months. I was at that for a solid year and a half before I had a good breakthrough, but it was being really intentional about that. When you get discouraged, every day you have a new opportunity to learn, to grow, and to hopefully inspire somebody else to keep doing those things as well. So, it took a lot of patience and a lot of energy, but we got there, and it was one of the most rewarding endeavors that I’ve really had as a leader.

HEATHER: Thank you so much for sharing that. That was great. When you were saying that, I was thinking of one relationship I had at a particular place where I had to lead via influence. I didn’t manage this person. I mean, I was there four and a half years, and it must’ve taken three years before I finally gained his trust, and it was not by anything that I did do or did not do, it was just the way it was, and I did kind of what you did, and I do think it’s that patience, consistency, it’s that sincerity, all of those things. And for the listeners, I’m sure you heard as he was talking through this story, all the true sincerity in his voice and the desire to really get to know what the other person needed first and his strategy of wanting to know that sincerely in order to kind of come out with win-win, it is a key part of leading with heart and being an emotionally intelligent leader. So, I just wanted to highlight that for those maybe listening as well. I think that’s key.

Andrew what do you do to connect with people? You know, sometimes we get off track. We’re like really focused on tactics, we’re doing projects, they are too, we’re just all over the place. What do you do to kind of slow it down and connect with your people and kind of reestablish that connection and trust?

ANDREW: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. It’s a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately just because I think, in any kind of leadership role, there are those day-to-day things that you get caught up doing. All too often I find myself getting stuck in the front office or getting stuck behind my computer with emails, and I think it’s just really important to stop and to go out and walk around. For me, it’s walking the halls, it’s popping into classrooms. I was able to walk into our gym the other day as a class was in there and talk to the teacher briefly because we had a couple questions for her and then just jump into the game that the kids were playing. You know, it took me three minutes, but I was in there, and then you give some high-fives to the kids, and I felt better. It’s important to take that time to connect with, in a school environment especially, some of the kids that are there. But then with the staff that’s here, it’s asking what they did over the weekend. It’s being out and getting into the classrooms and talking to them about what you see in the work that they’re doing. It’s acknowledging that they’re doing the real work here. So, yes, it’s important for me to stay caught up on the administrative aspects of the job and the, you know, the emails and the other things that we get bogged down with, but the most important thing is really taking the time to get out there and validate the day-to-day and the effort that the other people in this place are putting in. You know, asking about family, asking about what they have planned for a break that we have coming up, and just chatting with them, validating them as individuals, as people, and as employees, as teachers, for the incredible work they do every day. So, I think that’s a primary way that I get out there and try to connect with folks but I think it’s also then asking for their input and their opinions. It’s important, like I talked about this is not about me; this is about us. So if I’m gonna say that, then I need to live that. So when there is a big decision, it’s going and talking to them and saying, “Here are a couple of the things that we’re looking at. Here are some challenges that we may face. What do you think? How do we navigate some of those?” and really getting their input on some of those big decisions, those big changes that may be coming down the way.

HEATHER: I love that. You know, I usually ask each of the guests, you know, the one thing, if there’s a leader that’s listening, and some things they’d want to leave with them as strategies they can use for their people. I have to say, I think you’ve just done it. You talked about, you know, empowering them. You talked about including their voice in any decisions that might be happening. You talked about validating them consistently for the work they do, recognizing and appreciating them. You know, this is beautiful stuff, Andrew, and it’s not something you can script. So, I’m glad it came from you and from the heart, and I really appreciate your time today on this call.

ANDREW: Absolutely.

HEATHER: Thanks so much for joining us.

ANDREW: Yeah, like I said, thank you so much for having me. It’s been an honor.

HEATHER: So for anybody who might want to get a hold of you to ask any followup questions, how might they be able to get a hold of you?

ANDREW: So I think the best way is probably just via email. So my email is andrew.mcdonaldgs@gmail.com.

HEATHER: Awesome. And what I’ll do too for the listeners is, in the show notes, which will be a transcript of this call, I will include a little bio about Andrew and then, of course, his contact information, so you’ll be able to get a hold of him.

You know what; this is a great wrap of Leadership with Heart. I appreciate you joining, and hopefully you took away some great things from Andrew’s call today. Have a great one.

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