Featured in this episode of the Accelerate Your Performance podcast is Superintendent Dr. Matt Hillmann of the Northfield Public School System in Northfield, Minnesota as he discusses leadership development. Dr. Janet Pilcher also highlights him in Chapter 4 of her book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education, as an example of a high-performing executive. In this interview, Dr. Hillmann explains how he clearly defines performance expectations for employees, giving a clear picture of what right looks like. Listen now to hear how he implements the principle of developing leaders to develop people within his district.
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Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into our show today. This podcast is all about leadership. I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership and action, so that we can all be leaders in our organizations.
And the focus of leadership connects to the Nine Principles Framework highlighted in my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.
Before we get started, I’d love to tell you about our new book study designed for leaders of all levels who want to grow and lead at the next level. Twice a month we meet to dig into each chapter of my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. And on one podcast episode prior to the book study, I highlight one of the leaders I highlighted in the book.
The next book study is on Principle for Develop Leaders to Develop People. That’s chapter four. Our guest today is Dr. Matt Hillmann, and he’s highlighted in chapter four. In this episode, we’ll talk about the story behind the story as we connect with Dr. Hillmann.
Today I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Matt Hillmann back onto our show. Matt is the superintendent of Northfield Public Schools in Northfield, Minnesota. He served in this position for the past seven years.
Prior to this role, he served in the district as Director of Administrative Services and prior to that he was the director of human resources and technology. But so, for serving in the Northfield Public Schools district Matt worked for six years for Belle Plaine public schools. His roles there included elementary principal Dean of Students and technology coordinator.
Matt’s had a world of experiences and education and it shows in the work that he does, and he’s worked in education for almost 28 years.
This year, Matt was named 2023, State Superintendent of the Year for his extraordinary leadership in his district. Last year, Matt was awarded the 2022 Human Rights Award from the Northfield Human Rights Commission. This was in recognition of his work to improve support for immigrant families and for the dedication he demonstrated to listen to the Hispanic community in Northfield.
Matt was also recently selected as the president of the Minnesota Superintendents Association. His district has partnered with Studer education since 2018. Matt is a high performing leader in order to move the performance curve in an organization to where people perform at their highest levels.
The executive leader must be a high performer. And today we’ll discuss how Matt has produced high performing organizational results.
Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Dr. Matt Hillmann to our show today. So Matt, welcome to- to our show. Again, I’m so glad you agreed to be with us again.
Matt Hillmann: It’s always great to be with you, Janet. Just, I always appreciate our time together. I always learn something from you. And our conversations are always so professionally fulfilling.
Janet Pilcher: Thank you so much. So, just as a reminder to our listeners, if you would just a little bit about yourself and where you’ve been and how long have you been the superintendent at Northfield Public Schools just to get our listener started this morning?
Matt Hillmann: Yeah, you got it. So, this is my- gonna be my 29th year in public education coming up this fall. And I grew up in upstate New York in the Finger Lakes region and I have an undergraduate degree in history from St. John’s University in New York City Campuses in Queens.
Student taught in the New York City public schools.
My mom is the oldest of eight and she’s the only one who had ever left Minnesota of her family. So, when I graduated, I moved to Minnesota, and I’ve worked in three school districts. And my first year in Minnesota I substitute taught for an entire year which was such a great experience for me that I worked in a very small town in southwestern Minnesota, 600 students.
K12 taught everything from fourth grade keyboarding to Senior High computer programming. I made a mistake of fixing a printer which then made me the technology director. We were there for eight years. That’s where I met my wife.
We were both first year teachers when we met great, great place little Medallia Minnesota, six years and Belle Plaine, Minnesota, just outside of the Twin Cities metro area, served there as a technology director and as a principal curriculum director, assessment, you know, whatever was- was needed and both at the junior high level as a principal and at the pre-K two level.
I’ve been in Northfield now for 14 years all in District Office positions things like Director of Human Resources. When I arrived, they learned I had been a technology director, so they added that to my job description then to unearth. I’ve served in as a Director of Administrative Services and then superintendent here in Northfield for the last, this is my eighth year as superintendent.
It is superintendency I think sometimes, especially right now on our climate can get a bad rap. It is by far the best job I’ve ever had. And it’s not even close. It’s just the opportunity, we have to make change every day. Janet it’s pretty awesome.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, um, so you know, I love that you just said what you did, because, you know, sometimes we get caught in conversations on the external environment factors that are influencing us of which we can’t really control, right? I mean, there, we, if we live by that, then we’re going to be miserable, probably.
But, you know, that’s not what you do. You really focus on what you can control and the changes that you can make. And I appreciate you saying how fulfilling that is, because that’s how you stick your head down and just keep going and doing the right things.
You know, Matt, one of the things that as we’ve talked all throughout the years, you know, when I highlighted you in the book on developing leaders to develop people, and highlighted you as a level five leader, because you are.
And so, I want to talk about that today on the on the podcast. And I know that that one of the things that you did very specifically was took the performance curve to the next level in your school district. So, you looked at the performance curve, and you really applied it. Can you share how you actually built the execution process that defined expectations using that curve? Because I think we can all learn from that.
Matt Hillmann: Yeah, I think that clarity is one of the most important things that executive leaders can provide for the organization, you know, being clear about your vision, being clear about your goals. And then, as we had worked through a number of tools over the years, including leader rounding and our employee experience surveys, we really learned that we might assume that people know what performance looks like, right, but they really don’t.
And making sure that we are explicit and clear about what does high performance look like in our district, regardless of whether you’re the superintendent or principal, a teacher, the night custodian at our middle school, the administrative assistant who is scheduling our buildings, everyone has a responsibility to make us a high performing organization.
So, we- what we determined we would do is bring some staff together to talk about what is high performance, you know, what is low performance. And we started with our administrative team, sorry, administrative team, which includes central office directors and principals. It’s about 20, strong assistant principals, activities director, community education for around a year, we worked on identifying really, what were the elements of performance that we wanted to describe.
And we started to create some of the definitions, more bulleted lists of what are the kinds of attributes that we’re looking for, in both high performance and low performance? And then it was my responsibility to take that and create really kind of a draft, a beta version, if you will.
We then brought in a team of staff members from across the district, we use a work team approach in our district that also came from rounding and from employee experience about how do we provide our staff members with more input into the decisions that affect them every day. And so, this work team approach, I think we had like nine or 10 work teams this summer. Last summer, we had 13, or 14, and one of them was something that ended up being called our core performance expectations team.
But we brought a beginning product, we talked through them about how to really make sure that we were using the right words, in the right cadence at the right time, we also determined to give examples that was something was really important to the team of staff members who were reviewing this initial product, getting it ready for primetime. Because many, like many performance rubrics, they’re offering a theory.
All right, you can interpret this a little bit and, and so giving some examples, and we’ve got it on a grid where there are seven different elements, we describe what is high performance, and we give examples for high performance. And then we give the inverse, we give the descriptors of what is low performance, we do not define the solid, in the middle of the high solid or the lowest, we have columns for those in the rubric.
But we focused on saying at the top end of the spectrum and at the bottom end of the spectrum, and I knew we had gotten it mostly right when a school board member at our we launched this at our opening convocation in 2022 for the 2022 23 school year.
And we have a school board member here in Northfield, who right now is on medical leave, but he has been on our school board since 1983. Oh my gosh, yeah. He’s it’s an amazing public servant. And he came up to me after the presentation and he said, you know, Matt, it’s so important that we show both, you know, the high performance and the low performance because people need to know it, and they need to be able to understand what are the examples of it.
And that conversation with this veteran scoreboard member helped develop the next part of how we implement it. We did a monthly one webinar. First of all, we did a monthly focus on an element with our administrative team. We did a monthly webinar with all of our staff describing and explaining what the element was what high-performance look like, what high performance didn’t look like, give it a little bit of shape and substance worked with it at the building levels as well.
And continue to move that forward. What I really learned is that the first thing that happened, Janet, was people, the high performers kind of freaked out a little bit in some ways, because actually, if I’m concrete sequential, I really don’t do this every minute of every day. No, you don’t. And that was a really good learning experience. Because I think sometimes, we think a high performer has to perform perfectly all the time.
So, we’ve come up with this colloquialism here that we are all going to visit low performance from time to time, but we can’t move there. We can’t live there. So, the Google of describing it is to say, okay, I’m recognizing I’m in a lower performance mindset right now, be aware of it and shift back to high performance.
And so actually, next week, a week from this past Wednesday, we have our team coming back in our work team coming back in to review our progress, and to say, what’s next, you know, what’s the- what’s the next step and trying to make sure that this is a really part of just that the flywheel is turning, Janet.
So yeah, institutionalize that. And it’s just, it’s just part of what we do. And I could give you dozens, I could go down the road of talking about how I have leaders who are using it in interviews, how we have people who are talking about it amongst themselves, in terms of what does this mean? What doesn’t it mean, it’s really taking root?
And- and of course, low performers also react a little bit, right, because they see themselves and we’ve had to work through some discomfort. You know, with that, and both, as Minnesotans we- we like to nurture people, right. And so, it’s trying to help people understand that that’s okay, that’s where you’re at today, how do we move ahead.
So, I could- I could talk for hours about it. And I think we’ve made a good start, we are not nearly where we want to be at, but it is a good example of going slow to go fast.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s it’s I mean, such a such a great way to execute on the performance curve, and then how you really engage people providing input.
You know, Matt, I was having a conversation yesterday, and someone was asking, when we look at the Nine Principles Framework, what makes yours different, or what differentiates you all from what you do, and what you just described as the example.
And what I mean by that is we have- we have tools and tactics and, and pieces and parts. But we’re not prescriptive in saying you do it exactly like this, right? You apply it exactly like this. But here are tools and tactics that will give you kind of the foundational components but figure out what’s right for you. And, and not only figure out what’s right for you, but it’s that thread of gaining input and getting people involved in the conversation about defining what’s right for the organization.
And that to me, you know, when I was having to really reflect on, you know, what do we- what are we really trying to do, when we work with partners, it’s that and that, that is a great example, when you have leaders like you, you’re really able to take those concepts to the next level, take those tools to the next level, and really engage your team in order to move forward.
And then the last thing I’d say with that people would ask, well, what motivates people? Or how do you create buy in that what you just described, that’s what does it it’s not a ma- it’s not magic, it’s not a talk, you know, it’s, it’s what you’re doing, if that makes sense?
Matt Hillmann: Well, and I think it’s also about really developing those always behaviors and what- what your culture really stands for. And another example, I’m going to give a couple of other examples of has really accelerated our organization, I’ve had for the people who have talked to me the most about the performance, the core performance expectations have been our operations team.
So operational leaders will say I cannot tell you how awesome it has been to have this document, because I had a staff member who was really starting to move, you know, more toward low performance. And when I visited, I just pulled out we printed this beautiful, you know, fold out document, and I laid it right down. And we talked through the examples of what had been happening lately.
We identified the elements within the core performance expectations of color that was showing low performance and- and talked about what do we do to get back to high performance and I think in educational organizations, we often only think of our instructional staff, as, you know, having this real part of culture, but of course, everybody in the organization has half of our nearly half of our staff are operational, maybe third to a half our operational folks.
They’re the people who live in the community, right? They’re the people who are, you know, talking to folks at the grocery store. And so that was a really powerful component and then I do think that your culture has arrived, when people are willing to tell the executive the same thing, the executive has been telling other people.
And yeah, we had a difficult discussion where I made some errors and moving too fast and not getting some feedback on a policy that was going to impact a lot of our staff. It was a complicated piece, it was a pledge that had come out of a staff group from our budget reduction process, we moved ahead, brought the policy forward publicly, and then realized very quickly, that we had not gotten enough input for people to feel like that they could be part of helping implement the policy.
And I was a little down about that for a little bit. And one of my leaders, real courageous said, you can lament about this, but you can live here we right. And I thought that when you when you have people who are willing, you know, to tell the person who in the hierarchical scheme of the district, which I think is something that’s there for obvious reasons, but we seek a flat structure, you know, where certainly I have responsibility for decision and culture and things like that. But when people feel empowered, that they can tell the superintendent, hey, remember that performance thing we talked about? You’re not low performing right now. But you can live in the space where you’re at.
And I think that that’s, we have a long way to go with it. I think those are just a couple of examples, Janet, of how it impacted our organization.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And that it’s so important, because you’re not going to live in that high performance area the whole time. I mean, you’re gonna- you’re gonna fall back a little bit, but it’s your- it is the ability of how you get yourself out of that and not stay in there. Love, love that piece, and how people can hold each other accountable.
You know, I mean, it’s obvious as we’re talking, you know, why I highlighted you in the book as a level five, leader. And as we’re talking about, you know, that’s- that’s performing at the top of the curve, but like you said, we’re going to, we’re not going to stay there all the time, we’re going to shift back and forth. But how do we reflect on our behavior or take feedback and continue to move and stay in that high performance for?
So, I’m going to kind of personalize this to you, Matt, just and you know, what drives you, you know, as a person and who you are to be that high performing leader.
Matt Hillmann: So, you know, I earliest- earlier I said that my wife and I met as first year teachers, and we met in a town of 2000 people, 600 students. We loved it there. It’s the kind of place my wife taught math, before she stayed home with our kids. And it’s the kind of place where people would call our house at night and ask her for help on problem number 27.
And find a place where you were involved in almost every activity, she would always joke that if she was the line judge for volleyball, we knew we had multiple events that night. And you know, you have a choice early in your career of what is your attitude toward your vocation going to be and we chose that. Our mantra is we’re going to do good things for kids.
So, every day when I wake up, and I do my morning routine, I think alright, what- what good things can we do for kids today? And how can we make our little corner of the world better. And I also I will say, I’m also probably a little bit foolish in that I still wholeheartedly believe that public education is so essential to the success and the future of our nation, that this is what I want to do for my contribution to American democracy. And I know that that sounds dramatic, or maybe it’s but I truly wholeheartedly and maybe some people would say foolishly believe that that public service, you know, is the engine of this nation that allows all of the other things to work well, when public service is functioning well. Other things function well. And if public service does not function, well, it drags the rest of society down.
And so, in this time, we’re clearly you know, we are once again a political hotbed. And anyone who gets upset about politics, being part of education doesn’t know the history of public education in this country. We are a microcosm of our communities. And what people are talking about, or what is controversial in the town square at the dinner table is going to end up in public education. And you can either lament it, or you can say, Let’s lean in and help society figure this out. So yes, we have challenges.
Yes, we have some real challenging and difficult discussions that are happening in the country. But what drives me is number one, you know, I want to make a difference in the lives of kids regardless of what position I’m in. I want to make a difference for my community. And I want to make a difference for our state and nation. And I think this is a way that the gifts that I have been blessed with our seem to be a way it’s seems so far that it’s meaningful, and it helps move our community forward.
So, I think that you have to have that heart for this work. And if you don’t have the heart for the work, nothing else matters. And so, I guess that that’s where I start at, Janet.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, of course. No, I mean, I, you know, if we could all kind of keep our minds focused on what you just said that we would all be better, right, we would we would be contributing, and those of us who have high regard for public education and really want to make a difference in our world, you know, and from it, if we just keep that focused attention, like you just said, and I love it. It’s like, not make excuses for what’s occurring right now. But how do we manage the work?
Because I love what you said that, I mean, we are- we are a part of society and the community that’s going to be reflective of whatever’s going on around us, that’s a great position to look at. And- and your ability to- to lead the way is, I think, extremely important.
You know, as we said, then as we think about you bring that to work every day. And what we all know is that the executive leaders are really key. We, if we don’t have good leader, executive leader, and an executive team, it’s really difficult to be an excellent school district, you know, how do you how do you have those same level five expectations of your leaders in the districts that people who you rely on each and every day.
Matt Hillmann: I always think it starts this kind of thing starts with me. And so, the first thing that I have to do, to have the same expectations of other people, is to model them right to- to really show through your actions, the what you would like to see, I think that that’s the first thing people, people will emulate what the leader in their most, their most immediate leader will do.
Right. And so, I think that from the executive leadership position, modeling, what you expect is- is the first step. And I think the second part of it is, there’s this right mix that you have to have between having consistency and giving people agency, right. It’s this constant tug, this constant ocean, all of its, its quality pressured.
So, you gotta have just enough good pressure for people to know that they are supported and valued, and that they have the ability to lead. And yet they’re doing so within a framework and that we’re doing so as a as a team. And you happen to be a district administrator, assigned to be a principal at a building or a district administrator who’s assigned to run our technology department.
So, I think when we think of it in that way, where we are all district leaders, contributing to our community, and we’re doing it in a in this particular role, I think that’s another step, right? That, how are we doing this together, yet have enough agency to find purpose in my work, and to be able to have some of that the art of leadership that we know is so motivating to people.
And then I think the other part is being willing to provide feedback, we know the research about annual performance reviews is that they’re not all that effective. And so, I think one of the important pieces is you cannot coach or develop leaders without being with them.
And so, I start every day at a school, during the school year, I- It’s a change we made last year, I just have a visit with the building administrator, you know, every week, but I have a formal meeting with them every other week. It’s a modified rounding tactic. And, you know, we talk through what’s coming up, it’s their meeting, they bring things it’s a- it’s both coaching and reflection.
I, at the end of every meeting, I use these words, I say my specific feedback for you today is And almost always, it’s positive something and I try to give a specific example of something that they’ve done to live out our vision, our strategic commitments, accelerate our progress toward our, our benchmarks, which a lot of people call a scorecard or something, you know, with the core performance expectations.
And then thankfully, not all that often, but from time to time, you do have to have those courageous conversations with people and do it from a place of care, right in terms of that, you want the person to be aware, you want the person to know what they need to do, and that you are there to support them. It is not a dictatorial piece it is, here’s what the expectation is, here’s how we’re going to move toward that expectation. Here’s your role and do it and here’s my role as your leader to help you with it.
And I think that I will be the first to say that I fail at this. I fail at this too, right? There are times where I don’t, I haven’t given enough specific praise, though. That’s pretty rare. And there are times where I’m very thoughtful about when someone might need some assistance.
What’s the right way to go about that and to be thoughtful? You know, bad news doesn’t get better with age, so you have to get after it.
At the same time. If you’re really- if you really do care about the person and their ability to- to lead, being thoughtful about the approach clear as kind as Bren- Brown On tells us also doing so in a way that really suggests that you matter to us. And we want to help you improve your performance.
And so thankfully, in my role, the vast majority of it is being able to talk about specific positive things. But I think we also need to be willing to lean into those difficult conversations.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So good. You know, one thing I just wrote down from what you said, when you were talking about consistency and agency, and I, you know, just learned something from that in making sure we hardwired in our heads, that consistency does not necessarily mean rigidity, right.
I mean, there’s, there’s fluidness in consistency. Just so important. It’s such an important concept. And I’m like, I don’t think we say that enough. Like, I don’t think we- we talked about that enough. And what that looks like, Matt, that’s really good.
Matt Hillmann: It’s not about being at the exact same longitude and latitude. Jan, in my opinion, it’s about being within a few city blocks of each other.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. Yeah. So good, you know, and yes, we close today, one of the, as I’m closer to the end of my career, I mean, I’m leadership is everything to me. I mean, that’s, I just believe in it so much. I’ve been fortunate to be in leadership positions most of my life. And it’s more important than ever. And, you know, maybe it’s because I am where I am, in looking back. And maybe it’s always been that important.
But I also, you know, when we sometimes when we’re working, we’re talking to leaders, superintendents, executive leaders or other leaders and in K12. You know, I’m not sure not that they don’t want to or not that they’re not, you know, not capable, but I’m not sure that they’re really looking at- at leadership as something that’s core to moving the organization forward, might we might talk about instructional leadership, which is really important, but we’re talking about just being a good leader and a good leader of the organization and applying great leadership skills.
And that’s not necessarily part of a natural conversation. Right? If that makes sense. It is it is with people we work with that, you know, but I mean, when you look at the broader scope of things, it’s just not been part of our natural conversation in K12, to me in a way that it probably needs to be an even more important to be in the future.
So, as I as we kind of close, you know, what can you what advice or what recommendations could you advise to your colleagues, Superintendent, executive colleagues of how important leadership is in order to really build great K12 systems?
Matt Hillmann: Well, we all know that leadership matters, leadership matters in every way, every day, it is essential to having any kind of cohesive progress toward making your organization better. And leadership can’t be it is not passive, right, it is not a spectator sport, I think that we can sometimes fall into the trap of leading through email or documents or things like that.
And so, I think the couple of things that we could talk hours on this, right, but if I were to boil it down to a couple of things that I think that are important is that leadership, as a leader, you need to be able to have people who are willing to go along with you for the journey. And that starts and ends with trust.
And trust is very complicated to unpack right? As my grandmother used to say it can take years to build trust, and only seconds to lose it. And I think it’s a- it’s a complicated thing that we are always trying to see. Because if we have trust, you will, it’s rocket fuel for culture, right, you will launch for people are going to be willing to do things that they might not have been willing to do before because they trust the leader.
And they believe in the vision, right? They trust you. So, they believe in- in the things that you’re bringing forward. So, I think trust is the most important thing. I think that you can develop trust only in a handful of ways. One is by being immersed in the culture, you cannot lead from your office, you have to lead. You have to be where the people are, right?
And so yes, there’s work that you have to get done as the executive viewer of the organization. But if you are not in- if you’re not in your school, seeing what’s going on firsthand. That is- it’s going to diminish the ability for you to have trust. I think trust also comes from acting in a trustworthy way.
So doing what you’re saying you’re going to do, acting decisively when necessary, having the humility to say I was wrong. And we need to fix this. And I had to do that a couple times this year. And it’s always difficult because you think people are going to think less of you and some people do, but most people are like, okay, yeah, everybody makes mistakes.
We named it, we corrected it, and we move forward. I think trust is all of those things and more.
I think the other part is do not undervalue the immense power of communication. The leader has to be the primary Communicator of the district and you making sure that you are and that communication at all levels is happening regularly.
I think if I were to talk about those two things today, those would be the two things I would say that come back to that executive. Of course, there’s so many more than that, Janet. But yeah, I think if you start with those two, I consider them to be domino elements that then you get a number of other things for free.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So good. You know what I, what I hear you say too is we with trust and communication, they probably go hand in hand in many ways. But what you’ve done is very intentional, right. It’s intentional. It’s not we when we build trust, we’re doing intentional acts. We’re being intentional about the work that we do and. Um, that’s the That’s the leadership when we’re developing and coaching and supporting leaders. That’s the that’s the significance of of putting time to that.
Because it doesn’t just happen without dedicating some time to developing ourselves in ways that build the trust and help us communicate in ways that continue to build the part of the organization which you talked about, which is building consistency and practice, but with a lot of fluidity that allows people. Supervised input and influence in a way that makes sense.
You do it. You are one of the best, Matt. I so enjoy having these conversations and always learn from you on these- these talks. So just appreciate you so much. I- I hope that people are our leaders. Take what you say and really reflect and think through that. And figure out what does that mean to me and how do we move forward?
Thank you so much for being with us today.
Matt Hillmann: It’s my pleasure, Janet. And the feeling is- is totally mutual. I just, I so appreciate the work that you are doing to help make us all better leaders in creating the space and challenging us and supporting us in ways that help us grow and- and do better things for kids every day.
So, thanks for your leading into the work and helping us get better.
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Janet Pilcher: I think you can see from this interview why Matt is a level 5 leader. He is such a model for all of us to follow, and I was taking notes during the time that we were talking today because I always learned so much from Matt.
Matt, again, I’m so appreciative to you and what you do and your contributions to the education profession. You are truly a remarkable leader.
Back to our book study. Please join our virtual book study that I told you about at the beginning of the show. So, if you want to do that, please head to studereducation.com/hardwiringexcellence. We’ll dive into each chapter of the newly released book and if you want to grow as a leader, this book club is for you, and I wait for you to connect to your colleagues around the country.
The next book club meeting is next Monday. We’ll meet twice monthly through November 13th. I hope you join us. Also, we’ve got our special event this fall, What’s Right in Education? Coming up. Please feel free to join us there. You’ll hear from your colleagues. You’ll get to meet your colleagues. You’ll hear a number of the stories behind the stories and great results that are being accomplished in our educational institutions across the country. Please join us.
As always, I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work.
Have a great week everyone.