Podcast: Being a New Leader - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Being a New Leader

Being a New Leader

Dr. Mark Wilson, a past national principal of the year and a current coach to school leaders, shares insights and strategies from his new book, “What They Didn’t Teach You in Fancy Leadership School.” Mark addresses team building, communication, and expectations. He highlights the many similarities among the roles of teachers, instructional coaches, and principals. Leaders work to find the right balance between establishing a positive workplace and raising expectations of performance.

Communicate with Mark and find his book and many resources at: https://principal-matters.com/

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:01.210] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.


[00:00:29.770] – Steve

Being new leader. I’m excited to welcome Dr. Mark Wilson back to our podcast audience. Mark has joined us previously and is returning to share some insights from his newest book, “What They Didn’t Teach You in Fancy Leadership School.” Love the title, Mark. Mark was named the National Principal of the Year when he was the principal at Morgan County High School in Georgia, and today he provides ongoing training, support and coaching to school leaders. He offers great podcasts and a great newsletter at principles-matter.com. Welcome Mark, and thanks so much for joining us.


[00:01:10.180] – Mark

Thanks, Steve. It’s always a pleasure to be with you. And I have said this before on your podcast, but I have learned so much from you and continue to pick up things of teaching adults that you’ve learned and you have helped me in my work more than you even know. So I greatly I’m honored to be on your show.


[00:01:33.330] – Steve

Well, I really appreciate that. I loved exploring the many topics, insights and strategies that you addressed in the book and I’ve highlighted some that I thought would apply to teacher leaders and instructional coaches as well as to principals. I’m hoping you can expand on that for us, seeing the audience for that broader leadership audience. So for starters, what are your thoughts on what leaders should do when they’re new to a position? Whether they’re new to the role that they’re in or whether they’re new to the school, but they’ve been in the role before.


[00:02:13.430] – Mark

So thank you for that question because that is what I work with leaders most frequently on, is assimilating into a new school or a new position. And just conversations I’ve had this week, Steve, with new assistant principals, I had 24 of them yesterday in a group and one of the most important things for them to learn is that their influence is greater than their authority, that people have to give you permission to lead them. And just because the Board of Education has hired you for that position, it doesn’t mean that anybody’s going to listen to you. You have to earn that. And when you think about who you listen to, it’s like, honestly, I listen to Steve Barkley because I trust him, and I trust him because he’s been doing this long enough to know things. A lot of times it’s hard for new leaders who get in a position because they haven’t been doing it for very long. People are naturally skeptical and they’re not sure if you know what you’re doing. And often we try things that really don’t work very well. We try to front and act like we know everything.


[00:03:29.850] – Mark

I think one of the most important things in any new position is following this pathway of connections that lead to relationships that over time produce trust, that give you that little window where you can influence the way someone does their work, what they do and how they do it, and then that leads to performance. The thing I see all the time, Steve, and I know you do too, is people want to jump all those steps and just go straight to performance and start tinkering on pieces. But all of these things are also true of a teacher with a new group of students. Before they are going to do the things that you would like for them to do consistently, they have to decide that you’re a trustworthy person, that you’re a reliable source. And spending time doing that, it isn’t fluff, it’s the job. And a lot of people, that notion evades them and they get further behind in their pursuit of performance.


[00:04:35.790] – Steve

It’s so interesting. I just recorded a podcast today for teachers on the issue that connectedness and making that connection is everything that that first month of school ought to be about big time. And then you can’t stop it, but you got to get that big start right at the beginning. So I’m hearing the same thing.


[00:05:04.710] – Mark

Well, with teachers and administrators, the same notion is true that connections matter and they begin with a name. I always really insist on our leaders to focus on names. That is the first step in the pathway to success and student performance is knowing names and knowing things about them. Like you said, Steve, the connectedness. And so I’ve got a principal that I’m working with in a coaching role, and every morning I text her right now, she’s wonderful. And the tier ratings for students or administrators or teachers, they’re not a rating, they’re what level of support do they need? So she is a tier three person on my list right now, and she needs a lot of support. So every morning I text her and remind her, ten connections by 10:00 A.M., and it is a challenge for her, and I’m offering accountability, by every morning, she knows she’s going to get that text and it’s going to be, “hey, I hope you have a lovely day. Ten by 10.” And about 9:59, she texts back Steve and says, “done.”


[00:06:20.770] – Steve

There’s one other word that I’m sensing is critical for new people, and I think I heard it as a component of what you said, but the word that was coming to my mind was humble.


[00:06:37.430] – Mark



[00:06:38.220] – Steve

That’s part of the vulnerability, isn’t it?


[00:06:41.190] – Mark

It is. And sometimes I think people misconstrue humility as a leader or as a teacher, that it’s not only being willing to be last in line, that’s part of it. And it’s not only being willing to serve and to do things, but even more so, I think when we’re working in education, humility is about not always insisting that you’re right, not always being the one talking, but providing a space for people to learn. And I guess the biggest part of humility in that sense is this isn’t about me. This is about you. And that simple truth, if you can get there, you’re going to do well at this work. If you can’t get there, you’re not.


[00:07:34.790] – Steve

Jump to another topic. You wrote about the importance of team building, and you mentioned how time is important, how shared purpose is important. And then you mentioned something that was new to me, which was the in between time. I’m wondering if you’d expand a little bit on the issues then related to team building.


[00:07:59.230] – Mark

So for the teachers that listen to your podcast, Steve, and for leaders as well, you always are outnumbered. There are more them than there are you. And so you have to be clever enough to leverage the good that you have. And one thing that we know about behavior is environment influences behavior greatly. And if you can build a classroom environment or as a leader, a school wide environment that promotes the behaviors that you’re seeking – hard work, curiosity, creativity, whatever they may be, when you build that among the people who are there, now you have partners in this mission. And so I think that as we begin school, it’s so critical, let’s build the team and then that’s going to have such a boost. It’s a power boost for the behaviors that you want. The in between time comes from – I had a student in one of my leadership classes a few years ago, and he had played college basketball in the US and he had played in Europe professionally. And so I posed the question to the whole group, but I went directly to him and said, “when did you become a team?” And he smiled because he knew the assignment.


[00:09:26.000] – Mark

He immediately is like, oh, I got this. He said, “we did not become a team during the game. We didn’t even become a team in practice. We became a team on the bus rides and in hotel lobbies. We became a team in the in between time.” And I offer that to teachers and to leaders that when people reach that point of trust and when they become comfortable and they are willing to both trust you and listen to what you say, which is influence, that requires more than just a surface familiarity. It requires, as my student said, that in between time. And I’ve found, don’t you love it, Steve, when you meet people and they get this big grin on their face – they’re like, oh, I know this person because we went through so and so training together, and we met every weekend for six months. And you know what? That phenomena, you and I both are dedicated to providing really good professional learning, but I don’t even know that it has to be really good professional learning. If you can get people together, give them that, if it’s embedded and it’s immersed, where you get people together, they eat meals together, they talk in this in between time.


[00:10:59.690] – Mark

Now, how do we translate that over to school? There’s a school in Georgia, an elementary school, and they don’t make a big deal about this because someone would not like it. But the first two weeks of school, school wide, is like summer camp. They are building an interest in school, they’re focused on joy, they are focused on building little small teams and building community in their classrooms. And look, their behavioral statistics support this. We all respond to the environment that we’re in and if you treat everybody like they’re bad, they’ll probably act bad. But if you treat people like they’re high paying customers at your summer camp, then they’re going to act good.


[00:11:46.410] – Steve

Years ago, my niece went to a newly opened middle school, and they showed up the first day packed for a three day camping trip.


[00:12:00.820] – Mark

I love it.


[00:12:02.730] – Steve

That was the first three days the kids and the teacher spent together. And then they came back to the school. And all that went through my mind is that’s how most people would end the year, celebrating that we got through it. Instead, let’s do this to build. It was exactly that building piece.


[00:12:22.770] – Mark

Well, and when you think about, I know you’re a student of motivation, and as am I, and you think about what McClellan said in the 70s, that people are motivated by their desire for power, achievement, or affiliation. And when we’re working with kids, and even when we’re working with grown ups who are in school world, affiliation matters. And I feel like we just don’t activate that really powerful leverage point to our advantage. So building team in a classroom or in a school, to me, is a superpower that’s just sitting there waiting for people to pick up.


[00:13:05.170] – Steve

Mark, in reading the book, I found a spot where you talked about leadership foundation, and you approached it through four questions, and I’m wondering if you’d walk us through those questions.


[00:13:17.670] – Mark

Absolutely. So I do lots of cohorts of leaders, mostly across Georgia now. And when I do, the very first thing that I start everyone on is, who am I? And we go through a process of examining four pieces there. Your experience, your exposure, your environment, and your values. I think it’s critical for teachers, for leaders to first examine who am I? Because our behavior, the things that we choose to do, they come from something. Hopefully, they come from following our school’s mission and our school and system improvement plans. Hopefully, that they are in conjunction with state and local laws and policies. But beyond that, the thousands and thousands of things you decide each day and how you behave, so where does that come from? I really insist that people that I work with they become very familiar and regular and friendly with reflection. You have to teach yourself these jobs – teaching administration, coaching teachers, all of these jobs require that you’ve got to learn it on your own, quite honestly, by doing it. And to do so, it really helps you to focus on where did that come from? What were my exposures? What were things that happened in my life, that I didn’t like them when they were happening, but if they didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I am now.


[00:14:54.770] – Mark

So you focus on who am I, and then you focus on what is my job? And often, where do you get that from? They give you a big job description that nobody can really read, and you sort of find out what your job is when you don’t do it. Because somebody’s like, “did you do this?” And you’re like, “I didn’t know I was supposed to, but I’m very happy to.” The thing that I really try to push with school admins are, previously, you really could work ethic your way to being successful, but now you have to influence your way to being successful because we’re going to measure your worth on what other people do. And I know to a degree we do that with classroom teachers, but it certainly is a deeper reliance on other people’s work when you become a leader. So who am I? What is my job? And I ask people to think about, what will you fight for? There’s a lot of things, I believe, but what will I get in an argument about?


[00:16:06.730] – Mark

Well, I got in way too many arguments, Steve, and that’s why I’m an independent consultant now. But no, you can’t fight all day long, but there have to be things that matter to you. And the more that you can really know what they are, you can focus on helping yourself be better equipped to fight those battles instead of just fighting everything. For example, I’m still today, but all of my life, I’m going to fight to make sure that kids are not obstructed from access to quality education and to challenging programs. And when your friend and mine, Jim Malinowski, when we started together building, he was our AP coordinator at Morgan County. And we didn’t need one when I first got there because out of 1000 kids, we only had 30 in AP classes. When Jim moved into that role, we needed him because we had 491 out of 1000 in AP classes. And part of that is just philosophical on the part of the leader of, it used to be very drawn out on how someone could get into advanced class. We made it simple, like, check this box. And to be very honest, sometimes it didn’t even require that.


[00:17:32.790] – Mark

I would just place kids in advanced classes. They’d catch me in the hall and they would go, doc, how’d I get in this AP class? And I would just shrug. I would go, I don’t know computers. What do you do? Because that’s something I was always willing to fight for. And the thing about fighting is you have to have allies. You have to have an argument that’s convincing and matters. But it is what I really encourage leaders – who am I? What is my job, and what do I value enough to really do? And then how do I go about doing that? What do I do to be strategic? It’s not enough to be passionate, and we certainly want people to be passionate and not emotional. Emotional causes problems because we’re not doing things in a logical fashion, but passionate wins the game for us. We need people who care, but we need people who care and reflect and strategize, and that’s a big part of what I’m trying to teach leaders, Steve, is there’s the specifics of your job, but where do you need to be spending your time? If it’s true, and I think we all think it is, that as a leader, the work of others, the work of your teachers is what matters, then what percentage of your time should you be spending doing that?


[00:18:57.650] – Mark

And why not? Why are you not doing that?


[00:19:00.550] – Steve

I’m hearing values affirmation and then alignment with those values.


[00:19:07.350] – Mark

Yes. I’ve said before, Steve, that people should really refer to their mission statements sometimes as wishing statements, because they wish that’s what they believed. But if Steve Barkley, Mark Wilson, anybody walks through your school, is that what they’re going to see? Is it going to be activated? And anybody can say they believe in anything, but what do people do at a school? I often ask teachers and students when I’m doing school visits, hey, based on the way you see things, what’s the most important thing here? And that’s such a window into what the school’s true priorities are.


[00:19:55.190] – Steve

Yeah. You stressed the importance of communication, and you labeled it as a four part harmony. I love that connection. It’s a four part harmony with the sender, the message, the method, and the receiver. Walk us through your picture there.


[00:20:14.090] – Mark

Absolutely. So when we think about communication and Steve, you know this, any school you and I go to, anywhere, if we ask teachers, hey, what do you need to get better at here? One of the things they’re going to say discipline. Just because. So you can try to affect that piece about communication, but if you do it by doing more communication, and I know people do like, I’m not going to let them say we don’t communicate here. I’m going to do more. Well, you know what? I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of those water parks, Steve, where they have those great big huge buckets underneath them and fills up and just douses everybody with water. I tried that before. You are not going to get me on communication. You know what happened? None of it hit because that’s not the answer. The answer isn’t more, it’s more effective. And that is by breaking it down into for you as the sender of this information, to whom is it intended? And you need to put it in the language of the learner.


[00:21:27.310] – Mark

It needs to be not impressive to yourself or to others, but communication should activate the work and it needs to be done. I mean, look, this is differentiation. This is where you learn what that is. Because when you’re communicating to a faculty, they’re not always going to hear it all the same way. And it’s important to work on your message, but also the means. That’s the fourth piece of this. I think a lot of leaders, because time, it all boils down to time. And they’re like, well, I can communicate this via email, but what if that’s not the right medium to reach the people that you’re hoping to get to? And that’s one thing that I really insist with the leaders that I work with is, use email minimally. Spend as much time with people so that you can communicate and what is it you’re communicating? So much of it should be values – you’re never finished. It’s like having shrubs in your front yard. Like, you get them trimmed and you’re like done, feeling great. I’m going to go get some lemonade. You come back the next week, they’re grown out again. This is what leadership is.


[00:22:50.910] – Mark

It’s a constant manicuring of how people are responding to what you want them to do. And the place that is the most successful is where people truly understand the vision and the values of the organization and they’re committed to that. And that’s always preceded by somebody who’s a smart, strategic communicator who knows these bigger things. I can’t just rule from my office with email. If I could do that, I could stay at home and be in my pajamas all day. But I have to go and provide clarity through being with my people. I think that’s the bigger part of that four piece thing. And some things you can send out via email, but the finer points, the things, the adjustments that really make a difference, they’ve got to be done on the ground, in the classroom with your people.


[00:23:49.310] – Steve

It’s that connectedness piece coming back one more time.


[00:23:52.030] – Mark

Can’t get away from it. I mean, we could be having the same conversation and never mention leader and just talk about students and teachers, right? It’s all the same. Which is why I think that being a classroom teacher really does prepare you to be a principal. It doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be an assistant principal because that’s just a weird job.


[00:24:20.410] – Steve

And that assistant principal job doesn’t prepare you to be the principal.


[00:24:24.270] – Mark

Exactly. It’s like the waiting room.


[00:24:33.630] – Steve

One of the last chapters in your book deals with expectations and that’s a word that I frequently bring back both to instructional coaches and leaders as well as to teachers. What are some of the issues that you see leaders should be thinking about related to expectations and communicating expectations?


[00:24:58.870] – Mark

So one thing I offer to leaders when I’m working with them is, you have this unenviable task of simultaneously raising morale and expectations. And I started describing know, this is a shimmy, like you’re working on a door, you’re trying to hang a door frame. And I was throwing that out as my example, Steve, and somebody said, you mean like putting on jeans you haven’t worn in a long? I’m like I’m like, yeah, because you can’t pull up too hard on one side or the other. [laughter]


[00:25:39.190] – Steve



[00:25:40.560] – Mark

You got to be doing both. And I’ve been places where you have to determine what your school needs most at that red hot moment. I have had principals that I’ve worked with, and they’ve gone into a school where the faculty has been through it with their most recent leader, and it’s been hard, and morale is low. The problem is, if you only do morale, you’re like that hollow Easter Bunny. There’s nothing inside. And that is the hard part. Same thing for classroom teachers. How do we build the morale while we raise the expectations? And to me, I always direct people back to purpose. If people feel like they’re doing something that matters, then they’re interested. If people feel like they’re doing something that doesn’t matter, they’re not. And one thing that I’ve seen across all the schools and systems that I know is, and people don’t want to talk about it, they want the pandemic to be a memory, and they want to be normal. And it’s going to take years for all of that to iron out, in my opinion, because we lowered expectations. In the spring of 2020, I don’t know what else we would have done, but were we going to tell those kids, none of you graduate from high school, you have to come back?


[00:27:04.900] – Mark

Well, no. And then something similar in 2021. And over time, we have changed that expectation. It’s really hard to ramp that up on a global macro level, and I think that’s what we’re doing at schools now. I’m delighted to say that everywhere I go, because we start school at a ridiculously early time in the southeast of the US, and in doing so, we’ve got a few weeks under our belts, and things feel better at our schools, but we still have a ways to go. Because to me, it’s always been not only do we want to love kids, but we need to love them enough to think that they can do quality work, that they can be serious students doing quality work in a joyful manner. To me, like that’s school. And it’s exhausting when you’re the adult because you got to put a lot of love, a lot of energy into both ends of that. But I do think the way to leverage, if we get a lot of people who support each other, kid people, teacher people, it’s easier. It’s hard when you’re the only one doing this. You can’t hear how badly I sing when I’m in a chorus, Steve.


[00:28:28.370] – Mark

If you’re singing solo and you miss a note, everybody’s going to hear that one. But if you’re in a chorus, I might hit flat a couple of times, but nobody knows. It all comes together and sounds good and it makes it easier to sing.


[00:28:51.170] – Steve

I’m hearing it lowers the risk.


[00:28:54.290] – Mark



[00:28:55.270] – Steve

So with the risk lowered, you’re more likely to put more energy forth. Knowing my back is covered, I’ll take on that higher expectation. A student knowing I got the teacher’s support, I’ll set that higher goal for myself. As a teacher, I have administrative support, I’ll set that higher goal.


[00:29:21.450] – Mark

Absolutely. What’s required for learning? I know these two things are required to learn, and it’s vulnerability and curiosity. And school has a bad way of promoting only right answers and not wrong answers. And the more – look, if everybody’s getting it wrong around me, I’m going to be more willing to experiment. And I just think schools need to be labs and not museums. And that’s what I try to sink my time into is, just little by little, one by one, the administrators I work with trying to infiltrate their brains from what they may have seen previously in their career and get them to have the courage of build a place that values the struggle just as much as the triumph.


[00:30:17.290] – Steve

Well, I thank you so much for your time. And as we look to close out, I’m wondering if you’ve got some final words of encouragement that you might offer up to new leaders. Both encouragement for the challenges they’re experiencing as well as the rewards they’re experiencing in their new positions.


[00:30:41.490] – Mark

So I had a really excellent group, like I said, the last couple of days, and I’ve got this AP Chris in my group – shout out to Chris from Bryan County. Super smart, curious. It’s fun to teach when people are teachable, and it’s great to coach when they’re coachable. Chris is very coachable. So he among, like, all leaders. He’s like, I just don’t like not knowing what I’m doing. And I asked him, “how long did you teach?” Because this is his first month of being an AP. I said, how long you teach? And he said, “22 years.” I pulled up my handy, dandy calculator, and I said, “190 days a year, right?” And he said, “yeah.” I said, “why are you comparing day 4180 as a teacher with day 20 as an AP?” I said, “go back and compare Day 20 as an AP to day 20 as a teacher.” I said, “how were you in your first year?” He said, “I was awful.” And I’m like, “exactly. You got better, right?” And that would be my final word of encouragement, is look, everybody around you when you’re in a leadership role, don’t try to pretend that you know things you don’t.


[00:32:00.990] – Mark

They know you don’t know because you haven’t done this. But what I think school people appreciate – humility and honesty and people who are genuine. And I think that’ll carry you a long way until you get to day 4000 as an administrator and then you’ll know so much more.


[00:32:22.530] – Steve

So is it fair to say you can’t learn to lead without leading?


[00:32:26.870] – Mark

Yes, absolutely.


[00:32:29.510] – Steve

You got to jump in. That’s why there really isn’t, I guess, similar – I don’t know that you can learn to teach without teaching.


[00:32:38.890] – Mark

And Steve, I think so much of this is even though there are people like me and you and people write books and people do evaluations and we have instructional coaches, but ultimately, you have to have the wherewithal to teach you how to teach yourself how to do this work.


[00:32:56.930] – Steve

Which is just one more reflection back to the classroom with kids. Because that’s the ultimate role of the teacher, to prepare the kids to know how to learn.


[00:33:07.890] – Mark



[00:33:09.250] – Steve

Well, I love the idea of learning the things that you didn’t learn in the fancy leadership school. Terrific. Tell folks the best way that they can connect and follow you, Mark.


[00:33:23.270] – Mark

Absolutely. So the website is principle-matters.com and we’ve got loads of free stuff there for you – articles, videos, our podcast and you can find me and all of our material there.


[00:33:40.490] – Steve

We’ll be sure to post that in the lead-in to the podcast for you. Thanks again, Mark. I really appreciate it.


[00:33:45.800] – Mark

Thanks, Steve.


[00:33:49.210] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.


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