“Practice what you preach” is rhetoric used all too frequently in today’s day and age. But how often do you actually do what you advise someone else to do? How about your leaders? Most of us have had a boss who tells you to do one thing but then turns around and does another.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ leadership isn’t great—or even good—leadership. In today’s workplace norms, you need to develop, support and encourage your staff if you want them to be their best and do their best. Improving their satisfaction, intentionally building your skills as a team and creating a culture of candor and inclusion will not only benefit productivity and performance, it will improve your bottom line.

Northwestern Illinois Association (NIA) knows a little something about how exceptional leaders who ‘practice what they preach’ can transform an organization’s culture. Jon Malone has worked hard to create a culture of unmistakable value in his tenure as director of NIA. “He has done something that a lot of leaders do not do. Jon is a very ‘hands-on’ leader. He never says ‘do as I say and not as I do’. He is right there every single time, every step of the way,” says leader coach, KK Owen, Studer Education Leader Coach and NIA Partner.


NIA is a special education cooperative that partners with school districts to serve students with unique needs. As the director, Jon focuses heavily on employee engagement and customer service. His ability to create a service-oriented culture is partly rooted in his own experience. He began his career as a special education teacher. From there, he went on to become a consultant for the Illinois State Board of Education, a special education supervisor and assistant director for Rockford Public Schools, before moving into his current role as the director and CEO for NIA.

When Jon came to NIA, it didn’t take long to figure out that he was working with a group of high achievers with high standards. However, the clear silos among the leadership team were getting in the way of performance and impeding growth. “I saw a lot of variety in how different groups of people were being led. Leaders were doing their best but there wasn’t a lot of leadership nourishment,” says Malone. “We had been given  some advice with regard to leading, but we lacked strategies for increasing consistency in leader action and for building a culture around standards of behavior.”


Through a partnership with Studer Education, Jon began working with KK Owen. Together, they guided the NIA team through a leadership journey, building the skills to more effectively engage others and providing tools to put those skills into practice. “We introduced the strategies that Studer teaches and survey tools, which have helped us achieve much more consistency in leadership.

When it comes to process improvement, NIA realized that the isolation between departments was causing inefficiencies and a breakdown in customer service. By implementing new strategies and processes, Jon and KK were able to get everyone on to the same page. “Two of our first big steps were conducting employee engagement and customer satisfaction surveys. We tied those results directly to the leader scorecards, which became their evaluation. Using survey results to evaluate leaders motivated us to get on board pretty quickly,” said Jon. “The process made getting on board necessary, because you can’t score well If you’re not on board.

Teaching leaders how to engage staff and not just manage them was a huge feat. But, giving leaders a tool that measures how successfully they are engaging their staff, provides them with evidence to make decisions on how to do their job more effectively.

“I think teaching leaders to collect feedback, discuss the results, and create action plans for their own improvement had a major impact on our culture. This created an environment where the leaders are doing the teammates evaluation and the teammates are doing the leader evaluation. That requires the kind of trust needed to show that we’re all on the same team. We’re all being developed by these systems, which alert us when something isn’t right and provide opportunities to correct and improve. It’s just a different kind of feel for us.”


Creating Standards of Practice was the next challenge on Jon and KK’s radar for NIA. Organizational standards define what living your values looks like. Effective Standards of Practice are developed based on the core values of the organization. “Creating standards of behavior based on our values has given leaders tools to have conversations about expected behavior that were really difficult to have prior to defining our cultural expectations.”

When his team began meeting to develop these standards, Jon Malone was not standing on the sidelines. “He was there every step of the way. He leads by example and does everything right alongside other leaders with absolute transparency and honesty,” says KK Owen. For his leadership style, Jon says that he goes back to the training he learned as a special education teacher. He is hands-on and uses a ‘modeling’ teaching approach.

In the past, I  have been asked to attend lengthy trainings for which the leadership were absent or in the back of the room, not engaged with the training. That sent a poor message to me as an employee.  How is it that this training can be so valuable for me but be of no value to my leaders?  That kind of conflicting message had a negative impact on my engagement,” shared Jon. “When I am leading, I think the best way to model what is important is to physically be there and be mentally engaged in the activity. I think it’s engaging to [my employees] to know that their boss is traveling the same road and  that I do the same things I ask them to do and give up the same amount of time.”

Jon asks his employees to round with their teams. So, he rounds with his. Jon asks his teams to meet four times a year for leadership development. So, he’s there four times a year as well. “I think it’s very impactful to lead by modeling.”


NIA was great at customer service before Jon joined the team. So, when Jon implemented customer satisfaction surveys, the first survey was already marked significantly high. “Progress is tough,” Jon admits. “Our scores have been high and have remained high. We haven’t necessarily gone from A to B, but our customers have a sense that we are using strategies to increase employee engagement. NIA leaders understand that having more engaged employees in the field unleashes our potential to give 110 percent.

NIA is a group of hard-working and motivated people. Creating a culture where their leaders listen and respond to their feedback allows employees to feel heard and valued as a contributor to the conversation. “Talking about customer service, our behavior expectations and managing up the work we do creates a better effort globally. We have more people paying attention to customer service. We have less service errors. We have people being careful to treat each other kindly, inside and outside of our culture.

The impact carries forward. NIA’s employee engagement and customer service strategies are now sought after among their partners. “Our partners have witnessed NIA teammates using customer service strategies that they want to implement within their organizations. It’s similar to when you’re at a Studer conference and you see that the Studer team does not point and tell you to go somewhere. They take the time to personally guide you and then you think, ‘I want to implement that strategy in my building because it felt great and it’s a high level of service.'”


Jon has been able to develop the skills he learned as a teacher and an administrator and implement them into his leadership practices at NIA effectively. Through his work with a trusted advisor, he’s been able to intentionally build additional skills that further his leadership journey and transform his organization’s culture. From teaching kids to teaching adults, Jon has been able to find his passion and discover his love for humans. “I love kids, which was part of the reason that I got into teaching. I have the same love for adults, and I am much more mentally able to recognize adults as learners, as students and as people that need to be engaged,” says Jon.


Jon Malone | NIA Regional Director

I love kids, which was part of the reason that I got into teaching.” says Jon. “I use to say that I had all the patience in the world for children and none for adults. But what I’ve learned over time is that I really appreciate working with human beings in general. I don’t think that becoming older makes you less valued. That is why we have trouble sometimes in our culture engaging adults in the workforce. We’ve been talking about engaging kids for years, but in education, at least, we have not had the same level of commitment with regard to meeting the needs of adults. I really can say that I have grown to appreciate working with adults. I see them as learners. I see them as having the same basic needs as people of a younger age. Just like students, if they’re in an environment where they are feeling supported and things are going well, then they’re more apt to do their best work!”


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