Sunday, May 4, 2014

Culture Reigns Supreme (part 1 of 2)

I recently read a post titled, Does Culture Eat Strategy For Lunch?  I found this both enlightening and reflective.  Let me begin by saying, the culture I envision and believe is best is one that is caring, kind and continuously learning.  This culture will devour strategy!

I speak from experience.  I have been a part of both healthy and poor cultures.  Experience has taught me that, you learn a lot from a poor culture.  You see a side of a people that defines the inner character.

Years ago playing on the Tri-State University golf team I experienced a very unhealthy, bordering on poisonous culture.  We had a large squad and our coach had his top 5-7 players and then he had another 6-8 that were fighting for their chance.  The culture of our team bordered on poisonous because several players were very selfish.  It was all about me, in their eyes.  I witnessed it first hand at one of our Spring Invitationals.

Approximately ten days prior to the tournament our coach held a practice and playoff for the final positions.  Tri-State was going to have two teams in the Invitational, a blue team and a white team.  We were all smart enough to realize the blue team was the "A" team and the white was the "B" team.  For the next nine days the "B" team rallied together, ate dinner together, practiced more than ever and then on tournament day they beat the "A" team by a few strokes.  As I witnessed this I immediately grew angry.  These guys for the last nine days took on an attitude of teamwork, togetherness and improvement. They accomplished their goal, they beat us.  But I was angry, why were they not working hard for the BIG TEAM?  We were all Tri-State golfers, why couldn't they take this attitude and approach all year long?  I was ticked!  I felt as though they were only motivated to prove a point to our coach. Unfortunately I was right.  After that tremendous display some of those players got more chances, but none of them ever put in the time or effort that they did during that nine day stretch.  The culture on our team was interesting.  Several players belonged to a Fraternity and they were very close, others who did not, felt like outsiders.  To be candid, I always thought the core of the team got along great, but the team as a whole never truly meshed.  Some players were only out for themselves and others were focused on the team.  Looking back, we weren't healthy, and maybe that is why we rarely lived up to our expectations.

Because I've experienced both good and bad culture I feel very confident in saying that the culture at Warner Elementary is definitely on the rise!  This is a direct reflection on the staff.  We have all taken on a mentality that is student-centered.  I'm proud of the culture at Warner, I think I'm most proud because it hasn't always been healthy.  I remember contract negotiations, change and turmoil during my time.  I think that is why I appreciate the healthy culture now, more than ever before.  Each day I walk up and down hallways, into classrooms and meet with teachers.  Positive attitudes are contagious and what amazes me to no end is that we all pick each up.  I had a meeting and couldn't be at Minecraft Club...two teachers stepped right questions asked.  Our very own secretary Mrs. Powers was out sick...Mrs. Rouse stepped up and did a fantastic job in her stead.  A couple teachers experienced personal tragedy and the entire staff rallied around them.  This is a team mentality culture!

As I share the good and bad I now feel it vital to share why Culture Reigns Supreme.  Here are five reasons why it is critical to have a strong culture:

1)  People are loyal to culture...not to strategies and standards.  I can't put it any simpler, being student-centered and focusing on relationships is much more important than the overall standardized test results.

2)  A culture of continuous improvement is infectious throughout the community.  The ultimate goal is to spread the culture to students and community.  By modeling a life-long learning mentality we begin to shift mindsets.

3)  Strategies and standards come and go, but culture defines an organization.  My good friend told me last week, people always remember how you treated them, but they don't always remember the outcome.

4)  Culture motivates and encourages everyone to be at their best.  Scare tactics and discipline lead to an undercurrent and divisive feelings about the organization.  I much prefer positive peer pressure over the iron fist!

5)  Culture shapes the future.  Show me a student that looks back at their schooling and talks about standards learned.  Tough to find, isn't it?  The culture of an organization lifts everyone up.  Simply put, a Rising Tide Lifts All Ships.

I'm blessed to have a wonderful staff and strong culture, but like I mentioned early it hasn't always been that way.  This week is our Staff Appreciation week, I know who is in the trenches each day working with students and making lasting impacts.  I'm confident we all have memories of teachers that impacted our lives.  It's important to remember that healthy cultures depend on dedicated professionals, I'm lucky enough to work with so many!

Next week will be part two of Culture Reigns Supreme.  Part two will discuss suggestions to strengthen your organizations culture.  This week think about your organization, is the culture healthy?  If it is, be grateful for the people that help make it that way.  If the culture is not, it will be important to analyze why.  Are you willing to be part of the solution?

This Week's Big Question:  Do you believe culture is more important than standards and strategies?


Happy Staff Appreciation Week!

Monday, May 5th:  Cinco de Mayo
Monday, May 5th:  Incoming IEP's 12 noon
Monday, May 5th:  1pm 1:1 Leadership Tech Meeting
Monday, May 5th:  4pm Lego/Minecraft Club
Tuesday, May 6th:  8am TAT
Tuesday, May 6th:  AM Firedrill
Tuesday, May 6th:  4pm Lego/Minecraft Club
Tuesday, May 6th:  Incoming IEP's
Tuesday, May 6th:  Afterschool Art Club
Wednesday, May 7th:  Grades 3-5 assembly with SAU track team
Wednesday, May 7th:  3pm Minecraft Club
Thursday, May 8th:  5th grade Band Fitting in the AM
Thursday, May 8th:  SIP Meeting 4pm
Thursday, May 8th:  Kids Hope Graduation at SAFM
Friday, May 9th:  5th grade Chicago Trip

Articles Worth Reading:

21 Quote Salute to Teachers +Daisy Dyer Duerr @daisydyerduerr

It's that time of the year again... +Justin Tarte @justintarte

They are someone's child +Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp

Imagine IEP's and IEG's everywhere +Tom Whitby @tomwhitby

#428 @jonharper70bd

What are you selling? @PrincipalHowell

18 Reasons to Give Up Trying to Live Up to Everyone's Expectations +Marc Chernoff @marcandangel

Things You Take For Granted @ShutUpRun

Videos Worth Watching:

Teacher Appreciation Play List  -


  1. Ben you always seem to pick the right topic at the right time. I too have experienced positive and negative cultures and work daily to build the culture at my school. There is one thing that I know for certain; we in education will never agree on strategy but we all can agree on culture because they are core values that we all hold dear. I look forward to your suggestions next week. I have to have two difficult conversations tomorrow and I plan on going back to your piece from last week. Have a great week and I look forward to meeting you one day.

    1. Jon,

      Your positive support is felt from half a country away. Thank you my friend.

      As for the right topic...I don't know about that, I simply try to stay current in my readings and thoughts. With it being Teacher Appreciation Week I thought it best to discuss Culture...because Teachers are a critical part of a School's Culture.

      Thanks again for sharing and providing feedback, it is noticed and appreciated.

  2. Interesting and well-written piece, Ben. Aside from education, "culture" is a huge buzzword in the healthcare industry these days, too. (I suspect it's buzzworthy is almost every industry, really.) Looking forward to reading your companion piece next week, and I'm curious about your approach to tackling problems associated with a negative/unhealthy culture...

    1. Thanks Nick! I must say you caught me off guard, I didn't know you looked at these posts. You bring up a compelling point though, this isn't simply a school or educational issue, this is an organizational issue. I hope you can relate the post(s) to things you are doing.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

  3. Great post, Ben! I think you really hit on something by stressing the importance of culture. Your question at the end, regarding whether culture is more important than standards and strategies is a loaded question. A school's culture is more important because it can dictate the attitude that the staff has towards their work. The best standards and strategies will not be successful long-term in a poisonous culture, there is no way. There may be a slight uptick in the short-term, but over the long haul the culture will in fact eat at the standards and strategies.
    Conversely, when there is a positive school culture, the work needed to construct/implement strong standards and strategies will be achieved because of the collective power of a staff working in a positive environment. While it may take some time to achieve these gains, the culture behind the growth will maintain this growth for the long-term- provided the culture remains in place.

    1. Love it Scott! Very well put and I completely agree. Strategies and Standards can survive in the short term, but for sustained growth and a healthy environment you must have a positive school culture.

      Thank you again for chiming in with your insights. I appreciate the support and your willingness to lead.