I was lucky enough to send my children to a nurturing, inspiring preschool for five consecutive years. The preschool leadership team created an extraordinary environment, and I couldn't help but notice the same leadership excellence and challenges that I observe with my corporate leadership clients. In fact, I believe the site-director could go toe-to-toe with any leader here in Silicon Valley. With my coaching clients, I often use an instrument called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), and I was curious about how it would apply in this context. The instrument establishes a set of best practices based on volumes of research about CEOs and other leaders across the world. Most leaders I work with excel at two or three of these best practices and work with me to use their strengths to develop the ones where they are less proficient. From my vantage point, this preschool site-director easily conquered three out of the five best practices, perhaps more. I am not sure if the she has read all the leadership books, but she could certainly write one. Could you or your best leader inspire the loyalty and respect of not only your staff but also your customers? Would your team cry if you left?
Leadership Lesson 1: Treat Customers Like Family
Preschool parents are essentially the customers. It was a private school (as most preschools are) and we were paying to be there. We wanted to be there. We couldn’t do enough to help out whenever we could. We got involved, we brought bagels in for the teachers, we read to the class, we planned parties and fundraisers. All my friends became my “preschool friends” (well, who else would hang out with someone hauling around two kids under two!) But mostly, the generosity, strength and guidance the teachers and the staff modeled was contagious. Encourage the Heart is one of five LPI best practices that leaders can practice in creating great teams. This practice involves genuinely recognizing contributions and showing appreciation for individual excellence. The staff of our school genuinely cared for our babies and were encouraged to celebrate success. They molded our pre-kindergarteners into functioning humans who could carry a back-back and pick out their own clothes because the teacher challenged them to do so. The families, teachers, staff and children were appreciated and celebrated. We became loyal. And loyal customers donate money, refer their friends and keep coming back!
Leadership Lesson 2: Surround Yourself with Exceptional Staff Who Are Committed to the Product
Great leaders do not set themselves apart from the rest of the team, they have a team that supports them. Enabling Others to Act is another LPI best practice of exemplary leadership. Preschool teachers are a special breed by nature. They are not in it for the money and often describe their work as a calling. But, without leaders who appreciate their exceptional gifts and without development tools and opportunities to act, they can easily be left isolated and discouraged. If the parents are the customers then the children are the product and this team felt empowered and enabled to continuously improve the product. I spoke to one of the lead teachers who spent much of her time training new staff members. Her message was always: it is a privilege to be working here with these children and no matter what is happening around you, it should be your honor to nurture the children and keep them safe. Do your product managers, marketers and engineers feel that deep commitment?
Leadership Lesson 3: Inspire a Shared Vision
On my last day at the school, the site-director was retiring after 30+ years with the school. Perhaps her greatest legacy was to Inspire a Shared Vision, another of the LPI best practices. She inspired a vision of what the school was and could be and the team was so much more together than each contributor was alone. Every staff member, every teacher, every contractor understood, believed and shared in the vision of the school. It was a communal process that accounted for each contributor's aspirations. The teachers who were remaining after her retirement couldn’t imagine a world where their leader was gone because they feared that with her went the vision. The teachers cried because their boss was leaving. They would have followed her into the sea. They believed in her and in the vision she shared with them.
Leadership Lesson 4: Have a Succession Plan
From a leadership perspective, here is where things seem to have fallen short. In addition to the director leaving, her exceptional second in command was also leaving. She was the face of the everyday. She had an exceptional gift for managing disparate sources of information about each family and attending to every last detail for the teachers, staff, corporate office, children and parents. She was fearless and put everyone at ease! But because she was not recognized and appreciated by the corporate office, she was not promoted the way that she deserved. Upper management didn’t understand her importance and failed to ask the customers or the site-staff about her value. I don't have enough inside information to know what opportunity may have existed to Challenge the Process, another LPI best practice, but the outcome was an aspiring leader decided to go work someplace else. The second in command is vital to the success of an exemplary organization. How would your organization run without the COO? Would your organization’s upper leadership recognize this missed opportunity for seamless succession? The heaviness in the air on this last day was just as much about the fear of the unknown as it was nostalgia of the past. The captain and the first mate were both gone with no new captain in sight. Where could the ship be headed?
Leadership Lesson 5: Following the Leader
The next step for this exemplary organization is to begin the search for a new leader. The key for navigating a transition where a great leader has departed is to engage closely with the staff and Model the Way, the last of the five LPI best practices. The teachers and staff have already established a shared vision and their fear is having that vision taken away by the change in leadership. The opportunity to do amazing work over the next chapter for this great school is enormous. The thing about a preschool is you only lose about 1/4 to 1/3 of your customers each year. The optimism should be bounding. I am confident that they can find a leader who can bring in new ideas while aligning their actions to the already established values.
The Five Best Practices and Ten Commitments that follow:
Encourage the Heart
Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.
Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community.
Enable Others to Act
Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships.
Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence.
Inspire a Shared Vision
Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities.
Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.
Challenge the Process
Search for opportunities by looking outward for innovative ways to improve.
Experiment and take risks by generating small wins and learning from experience.
Model the Way
Clarify values by finding your voice and affirming shared values.
Set the example by aligning actions with shared values.