Building a Culture of Excellence

When I submitted my candidacy to become Schechter’s head of school, I was what some refer to as a “non-traditional” candidate. I had never worked in an educational setting, and while I am a parent of three kids, I did not have professional experience with elementary-age children. My prior experience was in the field of talent management, most recently at Staples, Inc. As I found my footing in the world of education, I surrounded myself with experts in the field, and I was also eager to find transferable concepts or themes from my for-profit experience.

I had spent over a decade thinking about how organizations work and the impact that culture and talent have on results, and was ready to apply theories about culture to the Jewish day school world. What I’ve learned so far is that culture and talent may have an even greater impact in schools than in for-profit companies. Great schools rely on great teachers, and a teacher is great when they are proficient in their craft and a positive cultural fit for your school. The key ingredient is to clearly articulate the kind of culture you strive for at your school—one that energizes and inspires current faculty and staff, and can act as a hiring standard to ensure that new employees embody your school’s cultural beliefs.

What is culture, and how do you set your school’s cultural beliefs?

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said, “Too many leaders think a company’s values can be relegated to a five-minute conversation between HR and a new employee.” In most organizations, cultural values include generic phrases like “be a team player.” To discover your school’s unique and differentiating cultural beliefs, take stock in what you and your team love and value most about your school. Push yourselves to embrace the nuance, avoiding any generic terms or ideas. Culture is not putting ping-pong tables in the lounge to make work more fun. Culture is about defining the core beliefs and attitudes of your organization that guide daily decision-making and actions. If you can surround yourself with people who truly embody your cultural beliefs and are proficient in their craft, then I believe that a school is able to function at a high level.

At Schechter Boston, three of our core cultural beliefs are:

  • Relationships are everything.
  • There is no limit to better.
  • Everyone is a teacher.

As I walk through our classrooms, I observe our cultural beliefs in day-to-day actions and interactions. For example, when a teacher sends a note home to parents that demonstrates how she really knows and understands their child, it demonstrates that relationships are everything. When after each and every Ruach Minyan (spirited, monthly prayer Friday morning service) the staff leaders huddle to debrief, process and list elements to “stop, start or continue” for next time, they model that there is no limit to better. And in our leadership meeting, when our development director is encouraged to offer insight into teaching and learning, it demonstrates that everyone is a teacher.

As you establish your school’s cultural beliefs, test them with others to ensure that they really hold true. For example, two of Disney’s core cultural beliefs are “no cynicism” and “fanatical attention to consistency and detail.” Everyone who walks through Disney World will attest to the fact that these core cultural beliefs inform every aspect of the experience.

How do you “live” your school’s cultural beliefs?

After you name and communicate your core beliefs, living them on a daily basis is far more important. The most critical way to live your school’s cultural beliefs is for the leadership of your school to model them in their daily lives. One of my first decisions as head of school was to relocate the head’s office from the second floor, where it was tucked away in the corner, to the first floor, right near the school’s entrance. If “relationships are everything” is a core belief, I needed to be visible and present.

To model “there is no limit to better,” we aren’t just open to feedback, we proactively solicit it and act on it. When we have a really tough problem to solve, we assemble a group of people with diverse perspectives and experiences to form a think tank because we value the collective genius, demonstrating that “everyone is a teacher.” How we spend our time, and what we spend it on, communicates to our faculty what we care about, and every moment is an opportunity to reinforce our cultural beliefs.

How can your school’s cultural beliefs inform talent management?

Whom you hire, what you recognize, how you approach professional development and even who you decide isn’t a good fit for your school should stem from your school’s cultural beliefs. When we assess people for openings, we consider them on two primary dimensions: performance (expertise in their field, proficiency at their craft) and cultural fit. Hiring people may be the most important aspect of any school leader’s role, because the people you bring into your school communicates what you value as a school. For example, people who are not receptive to feedback or continuous improvement would not be the right fit for our culture.

Show appreciation, either publicly or privately, for current faculty and staff who embody your school’s cultural beliefs. Add your school’s cultural beliefs to your supervision and evaluation process so that they remain an ongoing discussion. Give feedback on culture just as you would on job performance. This may mean making tough calls if you think someone is counter-culture, working against the things you are trying so hard to create.

Jim Collins’ concept of getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat is commonly referenced in both for- and not-for-profit organizations. What does it take to accomplish this? Begin by identifying your school’s culture, living it daily and using it to develop and deepen talent at your school.

Rebecca Lurie
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership