In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Gay Burden and Stu Silberman to discuss their recently released book, “Asking the Right Questions — A Guide to Continuous Improvement with Stakeholder Input”.
Get in touch with Gay: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get in touch with Stu: email@example.com
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTAnnouncer : 00:00 Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud is sponsored by the AAIE Institute for International School Leadership. Preparing educators for the unique challenge of international school leadership through online courses led by international school leaders. Learn more at aaieinstitute.org.
Steve [Intro]: 00:18 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve : 00:46 Asking the right questions with Stu Silberman and Gay Burden. I had the privilege several months back of getting a request to read the draft copy of a book that Stu and Gay published. The whole title of the book is “Asking the Right Questions, A Guide to Continuous Improvement With Stakeholder Input.” And I was delighted that I got a chance to read the draft and to do the forward and excited to have both the authors on the podcast with us here today. So welcome to both of you.
Stu: 01:32 Oh, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Gay : 01:33 Thank you.
Steve: 01:34 I’m wondering if you could start by giving us a quick little individual background and then the story of how you ended up coming together to to write the book.
Gay : 01:51 Well, I’ve been an educator for over 30 years and my background has been mainly in career and technical education and I have done some work with turnaround schools in a large urban district and have done a lot of educational consulting as well with the schools that we’re working to improve and restructure across the country. So I recently took an early retirement to do some of the projects I really felt passionate about. And I think, you know, I reached out to Stu and just felt like the work that we had done together before was worth capturing and to try to build a database for other leaders that they could garner some enlightenment on how turnaround might work and how they can capture that stakeholder input toward a common vision and continuous improvement.
Stu: 02:52 Well Steve, I’m also an educator, was a teacher – chemistry and physics teacher and then kind of went through all the positions, I guess, in the ranks from teacher up to superintendent. Served as a principal [inaudible] to a few different schools and area superintendent – deputy superintendent and then superintendent in two different districts. One in Davis County, Kentucky. And that’s where I met Gay and realized immediately what a great leader she was. and stayed in Davis County for nine years and we were blessed to have some really, really good success there. And then went on to a much larger district in Fayette County, Kentucky, which is in Lexington, Kentucky. And stayed in Lexington for seven years as superintendent before I retired there. And then, I guess it was within days of retirement. I was contacted by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which is an advocacy group for education in Kentucky and across the country actually. They were looking for somebody to re-stabilize the organization because again, it was two years since Bob Sexton had had passed.
Stu: 04:16 And at any rate, I stayed with the Prichard committee for four years until we were financially stable and kind of restored our work both in Kentucky and across the country. So overall, I served in education for 41 years and I’m retired now. I’m a snowbird between Lexington and Fort Myers, Florida. But Gay did reach out to me and talk with me about, you know, writing a book about some of the things that we did that we could pass on to some others. And she pretty much convinced me that we could do this. And so I would definitely say that Gay was both, the brains and the brawn behind his book. So it was great working with her on this.
Steve: 05:10 Well, it’s obvious from listening to your introductions that you both have lived what you’ve written about. Here’s a phrase that I wrote in the forward after having read their draft. I said, “My attention was raised as I saw these words engage, build relationships, collective vision and collective efficacy. Their focus on questions and the process that built those terms into a leaders practice led me to do a deeper read of their book.” So I guess the two things that jump out at me here are the questions and the role of the stakeholders. And I’m wondering if it makes sense for you first, to talk a little bit about the role of the stakeholders and then we could perhaps go through the four key questions that you’re recommending people deal with.
Stu: 06:15 I’m just a firm believer, Steve, in that when stakeholders are part of the creation of a vision in the school district, then they are much more apt to support that vision and to work hard to attain what you’re trying to do. And in our case, it was high achievement for our kids. So by having a process in place that directly involved stakeholders where they can provide input into the direction of the school district and be able to give them feedback on their input and then for them to actually see their input put into action is extremely powerful. And what I found during my time, beginning as a principal, I used this particular process and I’ve shared with a lot of people that any successes that I may have had over the years, I attributed back to this process. Because number one, the stakeholders have a whole lot more and better ideas than any individual could. So when you bring your stakeholders together and allow them to give you feedback and input on a direction of an organization and chances of having great results increase dramatically.
Steve: 07:49 Gay, am I correct that you were in a teacher leadership position when you first worked with Stu in the district?
Gay : 07:59 That’s correct. And I would say that Stu along with some other really influential people in my career have taught me what I know about leadership. And I know in working with schools that want to improve, I think I draw from my classroom experience and realizing that it’s all about expectations and beliefs and if you really believe that your school or district can improve and you have those clear expectations, then you lay the groundwork for collective efficacy. And we talk a lot in the book about determining or deciphering the school’s DNA. And there’s research about, you know, a district’s DNA, a school’s DNA, and working with turnaround schools. That really struck a chord with me because the district would often try to buy programs that we could use with all of the turnaround schools or the priority schools. And it was really about going into each individual school, determining the DNA, and then began to work with those stakeholders to build collective efficacy.
Gay : 09:12 And there is one piece of research that we cite in the book about collective efficacy. And that’s John Hattie’s work in 2016 the “visible learning” research. And he said that collective teacher efficacy is greater than three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status. It’s more than double the effect of prior achievement and more than triple the effect of home environment and parental involvement. It’s also greater than three times more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence and engagement. So I think for awhile, you know, the term collective efficacy has really driven a lot of my work. And I think that’s probably earlier on when I was working with Stu in Kentucky that I didn’t really know what it was called, but we had collective efficacy. That belief and the expectations that yeah, we may have been a good school, but we were going to be better.
Steve: 10:23 It’s amazing, as I listened to you read that that piece from Hattie and I’ve talked and written about it frequently enough myself, I still find way too many systems where leadership isn’t developing a purposeful plan for collective efficacy. They’ll talk and recognize the need for it. They’ll say that it’s not existing in the building or in the system, but stop short of digging in and developing a plan to make it happen.
Gay : 10:56 I think district leaders, I think every district district leader that you would talk to will say they want a shared plan, but they often lack the process of how to reach that goal. And so that was one of the reasons that Stu I wanted to share this book is because we think it’s something that, you know, a novice leader or a veteran leader can pick up and apply the model and began to build that shared plan that they all want.
Stu: 11:27 Exactly. And you know, we’ve talked about that [inaudible] in an individual school, a department, a school district or you know, a business organization. I’ve often used the analogy of a toy factory where, I mean, if you take this process out into the business world, it’ll work there also. And I was sharing with Steve earlier that I kind of stumbled onto the process years ago when I went into my first principalship and it was a very, very low performing school and I was hired about a month – month and a half before school started. So I had a lot of time to find out what we needed to do to try to improve the overall school and particularly student achievement. And I was working on that. But prior to my being hired, the superintendent had hired a group from the local university, which is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to come in and do an assessment of where the school was and what needed to be done.
Stu: 12:33 And they came in and spent two days in the building talking to our teachers and after that, they did an exit report with me as the principal and I was blown away by what they learned in two days that I wasn’t there yet in a month and a half. So I asked them about how they did that and and it was about the types of questions they were asking. And ever since that time and every position that I’ve held, I’ve gone into that position and use this process. And then like, as a superintendent and also as a principal even after entering started to have what we call spring input meetings where we took this process back out every spring to revisit our progress where we were, what changes did we need to make to achieve our goals.
Steve: 13:28 Well, let me share with the listeners the four questions that you base the process on. And then you guys jump in to any elements that you want to add to show how they tie together. So the the first question is what’s working – things you do not want to change? The second question, what needs to be changed to make this a better place for kids? And the third one, what needs to be changed to make this a better place for adults? And then lastly, what can I do as your leader to do a better job? And I take it that’s the gist of the processes, getting the stakeholder input in those four areas. Am I correct on that?
Stu: 14:20 Absolutely, Steve. You’re absolutely correct. And then who you meet with, I think is also critical. In our book we share – it’s about between 30 and 35 different groups who we would meet with to ask those questions. And just as a preface to talking about the questions, whenever we met with these groups, and it’s fairly labor intensive, but the rewards of that labor are pretty significant. But in meeting with the different groups of people, number one, we made sure they understood that everything that they talked about was anonymous. And so we weren’t gonna go out and repeat anything about what was going on to their supervisor or their boss, their principal, whoever. Everything was anonymous. And then after we discussed the questions, they also wrote down their answers to those same questions. So we were able to take those all and compile those into a full list, basically to try to find where were the consensus items across the whole spectrum of the organization.
Stu: 15:33 You know, what were the kinds of things that we need to be doing that there was consensus about and began before getting into the questions. When you think about that and you come in as a leader and you start dealing with items, particularly items that have a very strong consensus, a couple of things happened with that. Number one, your people start to realize immediately that you’re a listener. Number two, that you care about what they’ve said that you value it. And number three, that you’ve actually implemented the ideas that they brought to the table. And I believe you have to go back to your folks and tell them why you can. But to be able to go in and take the the consensus items and build them into a shared vision for your organization is extremely powerful. Because your stakeholders are all of a sudden saying, I created this. I helped create this vision. And a person would belive that when people create something, they’re more apt to work hard to support it. And that’s kind of what comes out of it. And that’s just kind of an aside before we actually get in to the questions and what some of the benefits are. Gay, you may want to add to that.
Gay : 17:01 Well, one thing I would add is that as we wrote the introduction together, Stu and I reached out to educators from across the country and we asked them one question. What questions would you expect with a book from a book with this title? And the one striking thing in their responses was that they said it was a difficult question to answer. So I think sometimes, leaders are inundated with so many questions that they don’t know where to begin. So I think this book lays out a simple format that they can follow. And also I think the questions give the leader an opportunity to practice an inquiry based approach to learning and devolping a plan together. And I think it’s that inquiry approach that helps prompt that collective reflection and moves toward that collective vision that we talked about in the earlier.
Steve: 18:05 Gay, I’m sensing that there’s a live listening component to this that accomplishes something that that a survey wouldn’t. Am I on track with that?
Gay : 18:20 Yes. There are two pieces. So the first would be a survey but then you would also meet together with focus groups. And we have – in the book, in the appendix there is a process for conducting that focus group meeting. But it is actually at the focus group meeting where you would also, you’re collecting data throughout the process. And like Stu said, it is a time consuming process but the end results are well worth it. So there is the written survey but there’s also the focus group meeting where you’re capturing data as well on a collective level and having groups come to those to a consensus on what they believe are the priorities.
Steve: 19:06 I’m thinking to myself that effective communication without spending time doesn’t go together. I mean, it is a commitment. If you’re going to communicate, you’re going to invest time.
Stu: 19:19 Absolutely. And the other thing, I think Steve, and Gay mentioned it just a second ago about keeping this simple because leaders they don’t need to – this is my opinion, I don’t believe they need to jump into a very complicated process. And this process is extremely simple that any leader can take it and go in and utilize it immediately and get great results that they can use for the development of their organization.
Steve: 19:57 Well, a lot of my work is in the area of coaching and as I’m listening, critical in my work in developing coaches is the ability to question and to and to listen. And as I looked at your process and the questions, I am envisioning a leader stepping into a coaching the system role. In other words, I’m uncovering, when I look at your last question what can you do as a leader to do a better job? You’re really uncovering the leadership actions from the group. So you’re coaching the system and the stakeholders are in effect coaching you. That’s a pretty success oriented model.
Stu: 20:49 That’s really what it’s all about Steve. And I think you’ve nailed it right there. And the feedback from the process that I received and again, I did it for years and years and years has always been extremely positive about, not necessarily in the questions as in the answers to the questions haven’t always been extremely positive, but the feedback on the process has been extremely positive in terms of, hey, you know, this, this guy really listens. He really cares about what we’re doing. And in a lot of cases that never happened before. And so from that, – their perspective and then from the leader’s perspective, the ideas that come out of this process are phenomenal. And there are a couple of projects that we ended up doing that on one of them, we ended up on the today show based on on the project that we did that came out of these input meetings. And yeah, it’s, you know, I wish I could say, yeah, I thought of all that stuff. It just doesn’t work that way. I mean the collective input from a group like this is so far beyond what an individual can come up with.
Steve: 22:14 Gay labeled it as an inquiry based model similar to the classroom.
Stu: 22:20 Yeah.
Steve: 22:21 Well folks, I really appreciate your time with us on the podcast here. Anything that that you want to mention as some things people can look for in the book that perhaps I didn’t get to through my questions.
Gay : 22:39 Well, let me just make a few closing comments. I think, you know, everybody wants to be a good leader. But to be a good leader, you have to build trust. And I think these questions show the vulnerability of a leader and that vulnerability builds the trust level. And I know from personal experience and working with Stu through this process that that certainly happened for me in and watching him be open to the answers to these questions. And then, also, as we wrote each chapter, one of the things that we wanted the readers to be able to do is to actually practice with a, whether it’s a professional learning community or a book study. So we developed five or six questions at the end of every chapter that they could use, that team leaders could use with their team and to begin to think it through the process through as they read these chapter.
Stu: 23:46 Steve, I would just close out by saying that, you know, I would encourage any new leader or any leader who is working in a in a situation that they’re wanting to make some significant changes to get better, which I would hope every leader would be trying to do. But yeah.
Steve: 24:11 That was the thought I was having Stu as I listened to you. So I’m glad you added it.
Stu: 24:14 Oh, good. Good. But I’ve shared earlier that I started doing this in my first year as a principal and any success that I had along the way, I do attribute to this process. And Gay is right. It does open you and you become vulnerable but your people really appreciate it. And the relationships that come out of this process and the buzz that goes through your organization after these meetings is – it’s just amazing. I mean, you know, as a leader it comes back to you. And so you start hearing the feedback outside of what they see and how to answer the questions about the process. There are so many side benefits to this. I encourage my students in my classes to go through [inaudible] because it will pay huge dividends.
Gay : 25:18 I think that just like in life, the quality of our relationships is key to the quality of our lives. The quality of our relationships at work are also key to the quality of our work life. And I think this process will help you improve the quality of the relationships in the workplace.
Steve: 25:39 Oh, I’m really glad you added that. That’s powerful. So to the listeners, again, the title of the book is “Asking the Right Questions, A Guide to Continuous Improvement With Stakeholder Input.” Thanks again for joining me.
Stu : 25:54 Steve, thank you for having us. Really appreciate it.
Gay : 25:58 Thanks Steve.
Steve: 25:58 Have a good, have a good day, folks.
Gay: 25:59 Bye.
Stu : 25:59 Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 26:02 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean, and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.