.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
Feature                                                       Pages 39-43


Building a Healthy Organization

The author applies his model for teamwork to
the meeting rooms of school leadership, promoting higher productivity and better morale

 Patrick Lencioni
Patrick Lencioni, author of 10 books on
organizational leadership, says greater cohesion
among school leadership team members can
contribute to a healthier school district.

Organizational health is a topic that’s been of interest since I was a child, though I certainly did not know it at the time. I’d hear my dad talk about the illogical and problematic things that management in his company did, and it bothered me. Later, when I started working in a strategic management consulting firm, I quickly came to the conclusion that dysfunction prevented clients from implementing our recommendations within their organizations.

As a result, I decided I would refocus my career to address those issues. Since then, I have been fascinated by how much an organization can grow and succeed and differentiate itself from competitors, if it becomes healthier.

For the last 15 years, my firm has been helping organizations become healthier and maximize their human potential by using the model outlined in my latest book, The Advantage, which is the culmination of my previous books and models. Schools and school districts have embraced the model and enjoyed the competitive advantage organizational health brings. In short, healthy organizations are free from politics and confusion and foster an environment where productivity and morale soar.

Four Disciplines
With the many changes and challenges facing our public education system today, never has there been a better time for school leaders to roll up their sleeves and begin building a healthy organization. To start such an undertaking, one should understand four key steps.

•  Build a cohesive leadership team. The first step is all about getting the leaders of the organization to behave in a functional, cohesive way. If the people responsible for running an organization — whether a corporation, department within the corporation, restaurant, church or school — are behaving in dysfunctional ways, then that dysfunction will prevail.

•  Create clarity. The second step is to ensure the members of the leadership team are intellectually aligned around six simple but critical questions. They must be clear on why the organization exists and what its most important priority is for the next few months. Leaders must eliminate any gaps that may exist between them, so that people one, two or three levels below have complete clarity about what they should do to make the organization successful. 

•  Overcommunicate clarity. Only after the first two disciplines are in process can an organization take the third step — overcommunicating the answers to the six questions. Leaders of healthy organizations constantly, and I mean constantly, repeat themselves and reinforce what is true and important. They always err on the side of saying too much, rather than too little. This quality alone sets leaders of healthy organizations apart from others.

•  Reinforce clarity. Finally, in addition to overcommunicating, leaders must ensure the answers to the six critical questions are reinforced repeatedly using simple human systems. This means any process involving people, from hiring and firing to performance management and decision making, is designed to intentionally support and emphasize the uniqueness of the organization.

It is worth noting that the forum where this model lives is in our meetings. Bad meetings are the birthplace of unhealthy organizations, and good meetings are the origin of cohesion, clarity and communication. A few simple changes to the frequency and style of meetings likely will be needed. That said, a school or district can leap forward quickly by addressing the first discipline, creating a cohesive executive team.

The Cohesive Team
The first and most vital step to building a healthy organization is creating a cohesive leadership team. Without an aligned team at the top, an organization will never come near to reaching its full potential.

The team must commit to themselves and each other to do the ongoing work required to develop and maintain a high-performing team. Once it is established that building a cohesive team is a priority, team members must master five behaviors (originally outlined in my business fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).

BEHAVIOR 1: BUILDING TRUST. Members of truly great teams must trust one another. The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call “vulnerability-based trust.” This happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent, honest and naked with one another, where they can say and mean things like “I messed up,” “I need help,” or “Your idea is better than mine.”

When everyone on a team knows that everyone else is vulnerable enough to say and mean those things and that no one is hiding his or her mistakes, they develop a common trust. They speak more freely and fearlessly with one another and don’t waste time and energy putting on airs.

One reader, the founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools, Tom Torkelson, used many of the tenets of organizational health to make an enormous impact in the low-income community of Rio Grande City, Texas. In 2000, the first IDEA charter school opened, and from the onset Torkelson wanted to build a high-performing culture to bring opportunity to children in the community.

Torkelson’s team tackled the issue of trust early on. “At that first off-site, I told everyone that they were going to tell each team member the behavior that most harms our team and organization,” he said. “There was a chilly silence with people glancing at each other. I was the first to receive feedback and thanked everyone for their comments and committed to some next steps.”

Then the rest of his team followed. At the next off-site, the team members reviewed the commitments. “After a discussion, the team told me I was not fulfilling mine. I joked that I never should have made that commitment in the first place,” Torkelson said. “We laughed about it and continued on, setting the stage for folks to be more vulnerable.”

The level of trust and candor the team developed ultimately helped transform their team and propel their organization.

The results of Torkelson’s work have been amazing. He states, “The work we did around organizational health has literally given kids the opportunity to go to college.” What started out as a single charter school has grown to 28 schools serving 13,000 students. Torkelson said the schools have sent 100 percent of their graduates to four-year colleges over the last six years.

BEHAVIOR 2: MASTERING CONFLICT. Great teams do not shy away from conflict. I am not talking about the conflict that centers around people or personality. I advocate for productive ideological conflict, or the willingness to disagree, even passionately if necessary, around important issues and decisions. But this can only happen when trust exists. When team members trust one another and can be vulnerable, the fear of unhealthy conflict diminishes. When there is trust, conflict simply becomes the pursuit of truth.

Oliver Sicat, chief portfolio officer for the Chicago Public Schools, has been using the tenets of organizational health in his career in education since 2006. Before joining the Chicago district, he built a high-performing culture using the team and organizational health models for UIC College Prep, the charter school he founded at University of Illinois at Chicago. Sicat has a unique perspective on using conflict in both settings, first in a school with 70 employees and 800 students and now in a district with 40,000 employees and 400,000 students.

When he built the team at UIC College Prep, addressing conflict was a new concept, but team members quickly adopted it because the school’s new leadership team had a shared interest in building a healthy culture. With the help of a Table Group consultant, Sicat explained the benefits of productive conflict to his team and outlined how to implement the concept.

The leadership team learned how to have difficult conversations and then used the behavior in role playing. The new skill helped team members to have productive conflict, enabling them to get their best ideas out on the table. UIC Prep’s success was highly visible early on, with 100 percent of its students, nearly 90 percent of them from low-income households, going to college. The school’s ACT scores were the highest in Chicago in its first year.

When he took this approach into his district-wide role, Sicat definitely found it more challenging. As chief portfolio officer, he oversees the leadership of both public and charter schools. “In the larger settings, many people seemed to think there is no reason to push out ideas because the more you are on the margin, the more likely you are to draw negative attention to yourself. So, yes, this group was very resistant to the concept of conflict,” he said.

His team spent considerable time revisiting the topic of trust and addressed many misconceptions about conflict to make the case for why non-political conflict is both healthy and necessary. Team members also used role playing in their learning. They were shown how to identify and unearth conflict. At the end of their initial training, their role play involved discussing two unspoken sources of conflict currently on the team.

“Even the process of naming it and being able to work on issues openly helped us to work more productively with one another to achieve our mission,” Sicat said. “Learning these skills helped us to restructure a few teams, collaborate more and generally improved the dynamics of our communication.”

His work has been publically recognized for making swift strategic decisions in the areas of school openings and closures, and his collaborative approach to working with district and charter schools has been noted and supported by the Gates Foundation.

BEHAVIOR 3: ACHIEVING COMMITMENT. The reason conflict is so important is because teams cannot achieve commitment without it. People will not actively commit to a decision if they have not had the opportunity to provide input, ask questions and understand the rationale behind it. I like to tell clients, “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”

Once a leadership team is able to put issues on the table, the leader must feel comfortable being the person to break ties when a natural consensus doesn’t result. When doing so, leaders need to tell their team how they arrived at the decision and how their team members’ input influenced them.

Sicat also employed various strategies to make firm commitments with the teams he leads. Getting commitment from the larger group, he concedes, is more challenging but definitely doable. He has found that having the necessary conflict and idea sharing is essential in this process.

“If team members are all able to get their ideas out and fairly acknowledged, commitments are more readily accepted and promoted,” he said.

Over the years, Sicat also found that closing meetings with firm commitments is essential. To do this, commitments need to be written down and reviewed before the end of the meeting.

BEHAVIOR 4: EMBRACING ACCOUNTABILITY. Even well-intentioned members of a team must be held accountable if the team is going to stick to its decisions and accomplish its goals. In order for accountability to take root, team members need to buy into the decision and commit to the plan of action in the first place.

Once the decision is made, peer-to-peer accountability is essential. This occurs when team members are able to confront one another about not fulfilling their commitment versus not saying anything or talking it out with the leader. It is an adult form of peer pressure. People don’t want to let down their peers.

Bruce Hibbard, superintendent of the 11,280-student New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation in New Albany, Ind., has done extensive work around organizational health, and both his leadership team and district are enjoying the benefits. By developing trust, having productive conflict and making commitments, the leadership team meetings in the district became livelier, and quality decisions resulted.

“Our meetings provide an open forum for all of us to keep each other in check and ask direct questions,” Hibbard said.

One way this behavior became more natural for his team was doing something I call the “team effectiveness exercise.” In this activity, team members share one skill or benefit each of their colleagues brings to the team along with one aspect of the teammate’s work or behavior that needs improvement. “As simple as this sounds,” Hibbard says, “my team was amazed by the quality of the direct, honest and helpful feedback that was shared.”

BEHAVIOR 5: FOCUSING ON RESULTS. The ultimate point of building greater trust, conflict, commitment and accountability is one thing — the achievement of results. As obvious as this sounds, many distractions take leadership teams off course. Team members develop a stronger loyalty to the team they lead, instead of the leadership team.

For a school district, this is a tough one. Putting the goals of the district above and beyond the goals of a particular school or initiative may prove challenging. Making goals public and actionable helps team members stay focused.
Hibbard, who has been superintendent since 2010, had a relentless focus on results, especially student learning.

When he took over the district, state test scores were dismal. After working on the team and understanding where the district was headed, it became clear that student learning, test results and future opportunity needed to improve.

The leadership team in New Albany Floyd County established public goals and a process for achieving them. The district rallied support from administrators, teachers and even students. They established a series of mini-assessments every four weeks to track progress and encourage learning. All students had binders where they graphed and proudly shared their progress.

The results also were shared at grade-level, school and district events where key learnings were discussed. Between 2009 and 2012, the district’s percentage of students proficient in math rose from 68 percent to 89 percent, and in English the scores jumped from 69 percent to 82 percent proficiency.

“We are now aligned, focused and providing kids the opportunities they need for a bright future,” Hibbard said.

This kind of public goal and collective focus can yield results in the toughest of circumstances.

Forward Leaps
With minimal resources and a focused leadership team, many schools and districts leap forward using The Advantage model as their road map. Addressing teamwork yields initial positive results and prompts the organization to continue with its work around the other three disciplines.

To begin an initiative, the only real requirement needed is a dedicated and focused leadership team, one that is willing to go through the necessary steps to create and sustain a healthy organization. Typically, a team begins by going off site for two days to freely tackle the exercises and difficult conversations required for change and growth.

From there, the tenets of organizational health should be integrated into the fabric of the organization. Once the four disciplines are established and ingrained into the culture, there’s no limit to achievement.

Patrick Lencioni is founder and president of the Table Group in Lafayette, Calif. He is the author of The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. E-mail: patricklencioni@tablegroup.com

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