Weast on The Why of Work

Editor’s Note: Jerry Weast, superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., recommended The School Administrator invite Dave Ulrich to contribute to our magazine after he finished reading The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win. Ulrich agreed, resulting in the accompanying piece, co-authored with a middle school principal with whom he worked.

Weast’s school district received a 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest presidential honor given to American organizations for performance excellence. Montgomery County is only the sixth public school system to earn this honor in the 12-year history of the Baldrige award in education.

Here’s what Weast, who is retiring this summer, shared with us about Ulrich’s book:

“I’ve been a superintendent of schools for nearly four decades. I like to think I’ve gotten better at the work over time. I’ve learned the importance of setting high expectations and agreeing on the milestones that tell you where you are on that trajectory, of implementing processes and systems to align all the moving parts of a school system to attain the goals we’ve agreed are important.

“Every so often I read a book or have a conversation that illuminates another element that is key to sustaining a culture in which expecting the best is the norm. Such was the case when I read David and Wendy Ulrich’s book, The Why of Work. The book presented a clear reminder that the work that proves the brilliance of a plan or a system or a process is done by people — and that for most people, the work they do is central to the level of satisfaction they feel in their day-to-day lives.

“The Ulrichs’ book speaks to the convergence of an individual’s work to create an organization’s culture of excellence with the impact of workplace culture on that individual’s sense of well-being. To a significant degree, we define ourselves by our work. A workplace that provides its members with a sense of purpose profits when employees find inherent value in their work. They become engaged; their creativity and resourcefulness are enhanced; the quality of the work is improved; the sense of community and collaboration that results reinforces a productive culture that becomes self-sustaining through internally generated monitoring and innovation.

“In The Why of Work, an organization that has achieved such a level of meaningful productivity is identified as an abundant organization. In the parlance I’ve been using lately, it parallels with the model of Deliberate Excellence. The Ulrichs reinforce my view that an important obligation of leadership is to provide context for the work, a sense of mission and urgency. What the Ulrichs have added to my understanding is a fuller appreciation of the people who, singly and collectively, provide the organization with its public face and identify with it even as they go about their day-to-day lives in the community.

“In hard economic times such as we now face, it’s the job of a leader — it’s my job — to provide tangible and intrinsic acknowledgment of the continuing value of our work, whether the employee is a school bus driver whose job it is to safely conduct children to school each day, or the cafeteria worker who starts a child’s day off with a smile and a bowl of cereal, the teacher who’s juggling a complicated schedule to find time to take a course to advance a skill set, the principal who is developing a master schedule that will provide the maximum opportunity for students to take courses that challenge and engage them. It is my responsibility to cultivate that desire to do excellent work, because the resilience and loyalty that an abundant organization has helped to build in its workforce will sustain its excellence even in difficult circumstances.”