Every education leader wants to implement reforms that improve student outcomes. And all of us, as professionals, understand that we need to have conversations about performance with other professionals in order to do this successfully. It seems almost too obvious to state!
So why is it that so often when somebody mentions the words “performance management” people start to look worried? In the classroom, we expect our educators to have tough conversations every day, to give and receive feedback every day, and to look at data every day. Yet when we take these conversations up to the building or district level, somehow it feels harder.
In my recent book Deliverology in Practice: How Education Leaders Are Improving Student Outcomes, my co-authors and I drew on our experience of working with over 100 education systems and institutions in over 40 states to address this problem. The challenges that leaders face in holding high-quality performance management conversations aren’t unique to schools and districts; in fact, they aren’t even unique to education. For this reason, we’ve identified a number of challenges that most leaders seem to share: in particular, we often see a false choice between accountability-focused “gotcha” sessions where participants are made to feel de-professionalized (on the one hand) and bland, unchallenging update meetings, where nobody takes responsibility for the progress of the work (on the other).
Luckily, using a set of tools and techniques which we call the “delivery” approach, a small number of education leaders across the country are having a different kind of conversation. They’re using what we call “delivery routines” as a means of coming together to assess progress, solve problems and sustain the momentum behind their work. These conversations have four key features:
- They happen with regularity – bringing the right people together frequently enough (but not too often) to create a rhythm of meetings that drives progress.
- They are well executed – which is to say that they have all the features of a really strong meeting; everybody comes prepared with the necessary information and an understanding of what they need to achieve in the meeting.
- They focus on performance – not just a tedious round of updates, but an honest, lively discussion in which everyone makes sense of the data and comes to a shared view of progress.
- The result in action on performance – rather than assigning blame or admiring the problem, participants leave with clearly identified of what action is needed, when and by who, to keep the work on track (or get it back on track).
By striking a healthy balance between supporting each other and holding each other accountable, leaders and their staff use delivery routines to actually reinforce each other’s professionalism and engender a culture of mutual respect. That balance isn’t always easy to strike, but the tools of the delivery approach make it easier to structure, prepare for and facilitate meetings with the best chance of success.
If we all truly believe that our work can help students go on to live happy and successful lives, we should be prepared to have the conversations needed to make that happen – and we should invest the necessary time and effort in making those conversations as productive as possible. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the professional thing to do.