Guest Column

Your Actions Speak Volumes About You

by Sarah J. Noonan

Would you be willing to put on scuba gear and dive into a giant aquarium holding over a million gallons of water to encourage innovation in your school district?

That’s just what Greg Ohl, the recently retired superintendent in Farmington, Minn., did to show his appreciation for the innovative efforts of teachers at Farmington Middle School. The teachers were touring the Underwater Adventures Exhibit at the Mall of America when they spotted a familiar face inside the giant fish tank—that of their superintendent.

Swimming inside the cold underwater tank and fighting off biting sturgeons, Ohl waved to the surprised staff members. The exhibit features a 300-foot-long curved glass tunnel that takes visitors 14 feet below the water’s surface to view exotic sea creatures and native fish. Ohl swam inside the tank holding a sign welcoming teachers to the exhibit.

The purpose of the stunt, Ohl says, was to show he was “willing to go beyond the normal range of emotions and actions that people might see” to encourage teachers to be innovative. “Teachers every day are called upon to show courage and leadership and be willing to step out of that comfort level and try something new,” says Ohl, who wanted to demonstrate his own willingness to apply his talents to try something new.

First Impressions

People form an idea about what kind of a leader you are from your early actions in a new leadership role. This is a time when mistakes are likely to be high because you don’t know enough about the school district and the school culture and you are under a great deal of scrutiny. A colleague told me a story about a new superintendent and his actions during the first few months. The new superintendent’s obvious preference for “schmoozing” with only the most important people in the community soon became a source of amusement to employees.

 

My colleague said, “As soon as the superintendent entered a room full of people, it was like he was wearing a magnet. Someone important would be there and it was like his feet left the ground and he lost control of his body. He was immediately drawn to the most important person in the room like the gravitational pull of a powerful magnet. He couldn’t help himself. He felt the pull of all that money and influence.”

These actions told employees who was really important to him, causing him to lose the support of the staff and eventually the school board. He simply lost credibility. Leaders are judged on their credibility—the degree to which their actions are consistent with their words. Credibility is believability and trust. If there is a credibility gap, the support for your leadership can rapidly evaporate.

Differentiated Treatment

What you pay attention to and what you choose to ignore also sends a strong message about you. During the first few months of my tenure as superintendent in Teton County, Wyo., I learned there were two different paydays each month based on whether employees were licensed or non-licensed staff members. Licensed (certified) employees were paid on the 25th of each month while non-licensed or classified employees (hourly and salaried) were paid at the end of the month. It was considered an advantage to be paid early and many non-licensed staff were angry that this privilege was extended to only licensed personnel. They viewed this as a form of second-class treatment.

 

The obvious solution was to eliminate the two-class system of paydays. I worked with the board of education to develop a different payroll plan that actually improved some options for classified employees and moved everyone to a common payday. This action conveyed my belief that all employees are important to the success of students and the school district and that unnecessary distinctions should not be made among employees.

While serving as superintendent in Minneapolis, Carol Johnson was well known for her tireless work on behalf of students. Recognizing her effort (and a competitive job offer from another school district in late 2001), the school board approved a $30,000 raise. Johnson declined the raise and any increases in personal compensation for the 2002-2003 school year. Citing budget concerns and the lack of employee raises, Johnson asked the board to redirect the salary savings to a school district program. With this sacrifice, Johnson communicated her commitment to students by her actions.

Auditing Actions

It is worth thinking about the message you communicate with your actions. You can conduct a self-audit by thinking about whether your actions are consistent with what’s important to you. How would you respond to these questions:

  • What beliefs or values are important to you in your role as superintendent?
  • What actions show your commitment to these values during the last week or month? How consistent are you?
  • What actions, if any, detracted from your commitment to these values?
  • How can you authentically show others what is important to you?

Actions reveal our true selves to others in ways that can be directly assessed. Your actions should be authentic and represent the real you. If your actions consistently show what’s important, you will earn the respect and participation of others in your leadership. Your actions are your window. They speak volumes about you.

Sarah Noonan, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of educational leadership, University of St. Thomas, 1000 LaSalle Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403. E-mail: sjnoonan@stthomas.edu