Sustaining Momentum

It’s been a month since my last post.  I lost momentum.  Gone was the initial excitement that came with finally launching a site that had been percolating in my head for years, and coming off that high was hard.  Much harder than I anticipated.  What had begun as a creative outlet was now a chore, and the prospect of producing high-quality writing each week was intimidating.  Even more frustrating?  I knew it was coming.  It’s part of my M.O.

My strength comes from inspiring big ideas (just look at my DISC profile), but following through — navigating the day-to-day challenges of putting an idea into practice — I’ve always struggled with that.  I allow myself to get too embroiled in the politics of change.  I’m too quick to abandon one idea when a newer, more novel opportunity presents itself.  And sometimes, just like my beloved Iowa State Cyclones, I fall victim to my own hype.

Train off the tracks...

Is this a common problem for novice leaders?  Fresh out of grad school and looking for that first administrative position, we certainly speak the right language.  We know we’re supposed to maintain a laser-like focus on student achievement, adopt a balanced leadership approach, and commit to change.  We can say these things, but when the rubber hits the road, how well do we follow through on our big ideas?  How do we sustain our momentum?

Image Credit: Brentingby Derailment by Frosted Peppercorn (with some artistic license).


The Forest of Complex Change

16035065065_ddcdae0270_bI doubt that anyone has ever described me using the phrase “he can’t see the forest for the trees”.  I think the opposite is probably true: I love the forest.  I can’t tell you a thing about the types of trees in it or what kind of animals live there, but I could still talk about the forest for hours.  I take pride in my ability to see the bigger picture when others get too mired in the details.  My wife probably feels a little different.

Take, for instance, the big idea that our home should be as organized as possible.  A place for everything, and everything in it’s place. Yet I’ll leave my dirty clothes on the floor.  I’ll forget to clear the table or unload the dishwasher.  I’ll ignore that mess in the basement because, well, we don’t use that space very much.  It’s the idea of order and efficiency that seems so appealing, but ideas absent action mean nothing…except more unnecessary work for my incredible wife.

Now extend that mindset to school leadership, specifically the task of managing complex systems change, and the areas in which I need to improve become glaringly obvious.  This graphic organizer, based on a presentation by T. Knoster (1991), hangs above the desk in my office:

ManagingChange (2)


Vision is not my problem.  It’s the magnificent redwood tree.  No matter the initiative or issue at hand, I can paint a clear picture of where we’re heading.  The bigger question is whether or not the system is ready to head in that direction.  Timing is key.

My skills are strong too, but admittedly, I’m a self-assured guy.  Skills are like bonsai trees that require deliberate care and maintenance, and tools like Cognitive Coaching will certainly help the trees thrive.  The coaching process is especially valuable in helping to reduce anxiety in others.

Both incentives and resources vary, depending on my ability to provide them.  Think of them as the trees that turn beautiful colors every fall only to go dormant for the winter.  It’s those long, cold winters that are always the most difficult, especially when I can’t control the weather.

Which leaves only an action plan, all those details that I am so eager to overlook.  These aren’t even trees in my metaphorical forest.  They are the acorns that litter the forest floor.  I may spot a couple that can mature into mighty oaks, but like the dirty clothes, I’ll probably ignore the rest.

Image Credit: Wald by David Schiersner via Flickr

A Leader’s Toolkit: Cognitive Coaching

I love the toolkit metaphor.  It goes something like this:  To be a leader you need a wide variety of tools and strategies at your disposal.  Sometimes the situation calls for a screwdriver.  Other times, a wrench.  In a pinch, even duct tape may suffice.   Leadership is the ability to know what tool to use, how it works, and when to use it.

But which piece of equipment in our metaphorical toolkit provides the best return on investment.  I love a good hammer.  I can do a lot [of damage] with a hammer.  Unfortunately, it’s not a very versatile tool.  It doesn’t necessarily convey a message of we’re in this together.  On the contrary, it says, I’m about to hit you over the head with my ideas.

For this reason, I’m better off as a leader if I can always fall back on some type of multi-tool.  I may have found it in the art of coaching, specifically Cognitive Coaching as originally developed by Costa and Garmston.  My district has embraced this approach for both our instructional coaches and many of our administrators.  I’m starting to think of it as the Swiss Army knife in my toolkit, so to launch what I hope becomes a series of many posts, let’s take a closer look.

The Tool: Cognitive Coaching

What is it?  “The mission of Cognitive Coaching is to produce self-directed persons with the cognitive capacity for excellence both independently and as members of a community.”  Sounds like the perfect school staff, right?  In a nutshell, it’s a way of supporting others that allows them to reach their full potential while also contributing to the holonomy of the entire system.  I still struggle with some of the pie-in-the-sky idealism conveyed by the developers, but given the right circumstances, I think it may actually be possible to achieve their mission.  When the strategy fails, it’s typically because some of the underlying factors — namely, trust — are absent from the system.

How does it work?  The ultimate goal of a Cognitive Coach is to adopt an identity as a mediator of thinking.  It’s based on the premise that I can use observable data, rapport, and skillful questioning to improve your thinking processes.  The developers call these the Five States of Mind: consciousness, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility, and interdependence.  If I am successful in helping you think through these five states, you can move from your current state to your desired state, but it will also benefit the system as a whole. In many respects, it reminds me of a Socrative dialogue or Descartes’ theory of innate ideas: the coachee is assumed to already know the solution, they just need some help in getting there.

It’s worth noting that the individual leading our training was quick to distinguish Cognitive Coaching from manipulation (even though she can coach so incredibly well that I call her a “mind ninja”.)  Manipulation is about getting you to my desired states because I know what’s best.  Advertisers and campaign managers are phenomenal manipulators, but you wouldn’t want them to mediate your thinking because they have their own agenda.

When to use it? Costa and Garmston would argue that coaching should be a leader’s default role any time they’re supporting staff.  However, they also recognize three other support functions: collaborating (when two people interact in a more balanced way), consulting (when the coachee needs the specific expertise of the Cognitive Coach), and evaluating (when the coach also serves as the evaluator).  I think coaching for building administrators is probably the most difficult.  Evaluation brings a power dynamic into play in which it may be necessary to “pull rank” in order for the system to function at peak capacity.  I still tend to default to the consultant role because many of the requests that cross my desk seek my specific expertise as a technology integrationist.  Think of these other support functions as different tools in the leader’s toolkit.  We may be able to fix a problem with our Swiss Army knife, but sometimes it’s just easier to pull out that hammer.

Image Credit: Swiss Army by Jim Pennuci via Flickr

From the Inbox: What are your thoughts on…

Untitled drawingFrom an Associate Principal:

  • What are your thoughts on Product X?  I’m familiar with the free version, but I’m guessing there is a paid platform as well.  Do you know anything about the costs involved?  Perhaps we could talk with Ms. J to get an idea on how she is using it.


Dear Mr. Associate Principal,

I’m not terribly familiar with Product X.  It falls into a category of video formative assessment that could be used to facilitate flipped learning.  (Their marketing team has done a phenomenal job of using some of the latest education buzz words.)  Other contenders in the field are sites like and  Regardless of the product, my advice would be to consider three questions:

  1. What would “full adoption” look like in your building (or what level of adoption would you be satisfied with)?
  2. What kind of professional development would need to happen in order to achieve that level of adoption?
  3. Cost?

I am certainly available to meet with your leadership team to hash out answers to questions #1 and #2.  Truth is, if we can’t answer those, #3 is a moot point. We should also encourage Ms. J to share what she’s doing with her PLC in order to gauge their interest.  If it exists, we can definitely arrange an online demonstration.

A few final thoughts.  Tech purchases in our district do not require my approval or endorsement, so the fact that you even asked for my opinion means a lot.  Please encourage your colleagues to do the same.  I’m certainly not an “expert” in all areas, but I have a clear vision for technology integration and am always willing to share.  We are better positioned to move forward systemically when I’m invited into these types of conversations as early as possible in the decision-making process.  Thank you for the email.