How to Get a Great Start: “Back to School”

The art of the good, strong start is something that many of us should master, but few of us seldom do.

Why? Probably because it’s a little like that set of occasions (weddings, funerals, baptisms and bar/bas mitzvahs etc.) that happen enough to notice but seldom enough to avoid generating a best practice mindset.

Many schools – like my son’s grade school Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera – have the practice down to a fine art, in part because the start happens on a regular basis, they believe it’s important to do it right, and if you’re smart enough to do it well it can form a foundation for a host of activities and programs to follow.

Here’s how:

  • Two basic elements should be center of mind for any group (or class, or team) making a start; people getting to know each other in a way that “sticks,” and figuring out where the group is headed.
  • Know where you want to go – not just the first day, but for the length of the time the group is together. In the Road Trip work I lead with new groups and leadership teams, the first order of business – once we actually get down to business – is identifying or clarifying destination(s).
  • Most groups start with the task (“T”) at hand, rather than the person (“P”), and usually forget the interpersonal (“I”). It’s a formula for failure. People that have things on their mind (e.g. house burned last night) need to flush that work that stuff out of their mind first, otherwise it hangs in their mind – like a certain fog bank outside the Golden Gate – and prevents them from focusing on the interaction with others and task at hand. Design any session to warm up with anything that’s personal (and appropriate), before you move to the interpersonal (how are we doing with each other) before you head to the task. Practice PIT rather than TIP for interactions.
  • Groups (including grade school communities and classroom students) conform to Bruce Tuckman’s work on team behavior. The personal piece is important for effective formation (hey! how are you?) and we know from research on how people connect with each of is that part of the magic is in surfacing similarities and encouraging proximity.
  • Pace yourself. A mantra from the quality movement is “To go fast you must go slow.” Focus on building foundations in the early work you do knowing that good foundations lead to sold structures.
  • Have fun. Nothing cements a fresh positive feeling like a little levity. As Dale Carnegie noted, “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.” Even if you’re doing serious work, it’s OK to enjoy it.

So back to the example of my son’s grade school. What do they do?

  • Like a big boat doing a shakedown cruise, the first day for kids is for making sure things are in the right place and there’s a semblance of order. Teachers have already prepped lesson plans for most of the year, students among the three classes in the grade have been carefully selected to fit as a class, including fit with the teacher, and a bunch of upfront work has already been done. Things topically look (and run) easily but it hides the thoughtful prep. There are bumps – there are just few of them.
  • Parents are welcomed in an informal setting (a large multipurpose room) that has formal expectations (“Volunteer!” “Enjoy the year.” “Get to know people.”) by the Chair of the Parent’s Board, Head of the Board of Trustees, and the Head of the School. Why multiple short welcomes? Gives you multiple points of contact go to; makes it easier for you to air out thoughts and concerns.
  • Parents are invited to linger by having parent volunteers bring breakfast type chow and having food together. As noted above in TIP and PIT, there’s real work in having a great school year. But first parents – like all humans – need a chance to catch up (personal) and interact (interpersonal) before moving on to the task as hand. Having a session for such an exchange helps you get more effective when you get to the task side.

So that’s pretty much it; some forethought, lots of work beforehand, and then letting things move in the predictable way groups and teams operate.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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