If there is only one lesson we could all learn from a year like 2020, Casey Blochowiak, Director of Curriculum and Learning at the School District of Menomonee Falls, identified it precisely during podcast interview #76 Make Decisions that Build People and Sustain Relationships:

Success for us looks different, but it’s really still based upon people, relationships and support; and sustaining all of that in really difficult times.

As we have navigated through the many challenges this year has brought our schools and organizations, employees, students and families experienced a rapid transition to the ways they work and learn. For many people, this has been an emotionally exhausting year leading to increased stress, and for some, additional responsibilities to support students and families.

Our capacity to withstand the negative emotions resulting to increased changes in our environments is decreasing. Leaders who facilitate trust building and team cohesion help employees to avoid suffering the burnout feeling from extended periods of change. Increased stress affects individuals differently. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we attend to emotions in our workplaces.

In education organizations, we know our ultimate goal is to support student learning success; however, during times of high emotion, the wellbeing of our students, teachers, employees and families also becomes our first priority. School District of Menomonee Falls (SDMF) Superintendent Corey Golla and Casey Blochowaik led their district by responding rapidly to uncertainty. To thrive through the uncertainty, SDMF doubled down on their commitment to a strong culture of service and student learning.

Establishing a mission and vision for the moment was critical for us as we just had to recognize that we serve a different purpose now than we did two weeks ago. Student learning is a primary focus but it’s not the only focus, and temporarily it’s not necessarily the most important. — Corey Golla explained during podcast #70 Cultivate a Can-Do Culture.


Leaders who have been able to shift their teams from responding to a crisis to thriving through a crisis often attributed their success to the foundational pieces of their culture developed prior to the disruption. Teams that are able to accomplish this feel a sense of psychological safety with their leaders and colleagues, understand the organization’s values and have clarity about the most important outcomes. At SDMF, the culture their employees had worked to create enabled their team to work together to find solutions.

The culture building that we’ve done over the last eight years of just really focusing on leadership as a behavior rather than title, because there’s no way we could have done what we’ve done if we were reliant on just our leadership team. The trust that we’ve built was very evident. On our executive team in particular there’s so much honesty and directness that when we were under that intensity and the time schedule we were on, people just spoke their truth. And that was remarkable. People weren’t holding back, they knew this was too big to fail. — Corey Golla

Without trust, teams are unable to perform well. Although the definition of trust can vary depending on the individual, the concept of trust is directly related to a sense of psychological safety. The feeling of safety in our teams allows us to do our best work, innovate and increase productivity as individuals and as a team. In fact, when Google studied what makes their teams successful, they found that the number one factor was psychological safety.

3 Tips to Focus on People and Outcomes

Focus on People

One of the best things we can do as leaders and colleagues is to let the people around us know we care about them. Multiple studies have revealed that when employees work in a caring culture they are more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization and accountable for their performance. According to the Science of Care, a caring workplace also increases employee retention and wellbeing and reduces feelings of burnout.

We can build a caring workplace through our actions and by taking the time to have personal and professional conversations with one another. We show others that we value and care for them when we get to know them personally. Both leaders and colleagues can connect and build trust on deeper levels through informal conversations about life outside of work in addition to leader-employee connections focused on performance feedback and progress monitoring.

Ohio State University research has shown that paying attention to the emotional and mental well-being of employees during stressful times (and all times) can help anxious workers stay engaged at work. Effective managers can reduce stress levels on their team by helping people channel their anxiety into positive behaviors such as volunteering.

In her interview, Casey explained the importance of asking social and emotional questions across all levels of her team.

Those social and emotional questions have been really key for us to understand what we need to do as leaders to support and connect those doing the work and who are struggling potentially in this kind of environment. And those really give us additional information and pieces where we’re making pivots.

When leaders spend time connecting employees to meaningful work and listening to their needs, people are more likely to perform their best work. Also, don’t forget the power of a simple thank you—to increase motivation show more appreciation.

Establish Guiding Principles

The concept of establishing values or principles is not new to most leaders. However, if we can not use the values to guide us while making decisions, they may not be as useful as we think. To work in alignment with one another, employees use the values to guide their behavior. In a time when quick decisions were necessary, Corey recognized the importance of taking their principles one step further. He redefined them for his team around the crisis at hand:

Very early we established guiding principles that we would use across the system to make our decisions. We just wanted to be clear with people what our intentions were as we we’re going into this.

Corey and his team relied on their values to provide stability and consistency for our culture. When organizations define values and standards to live by, leaders can use references to those familiar phrases and key words in their messages. That common language and common behavior helps teams have the same focus, especially during times when distractions are prevalent.

Does your organization have a set of guiding principles to anchor and align your teams in difficult situations? Are leaders using the values to model the expectations for behavior? How often do leaders recognize team members for living the values?

The next time you prepare communication about decisions being made, changes taking place or just to connect with your team, consider how your values can be incorporated to align individuals and provide focus.

Over Communicate

Leaders who make clear, concise and timely communication a top priority are able to build trust with stakeholders in uncharted times. Quint Studer candidly explains in a podcast interview that it’s impossible to establish the right communication cadence to satisfy every person. However, in times like we have been experiencing, it is best to lean on over communication rather than under communication.

Trust is formed when we communicate regularly and people know what they can expect. Corey and his team at SDMF started communicating very early with families and employees to establish an intentional pulse of messages people could trust. This open, honest flow of information from SDMF to its stakeholders, both internal and external, increases employee engagement and the likelihood that the community will be more loyal to the organization.

People rely on leaders to communicate what matters through various mediums to facilitate understanding, using the right amount of information tailored to the specific audience. When there are many distractions in our external environment, teams and individuals benefit from receiving multiple messages to keep their focus on the most important outcomes.

Effective communication is not a one-way street. When we want to be sure people are aligned to the organization’s goals, we solicit feedback to clarify the message is correctly understood by the receiver. Listening to feedback tells people we value their opinion and want them to be successful.

To sustain energy and a focus on our mission despite disruption, we have to put people first.

Casey Blochowiak and Corey Golla will be presenting at our virtual leadership conference, What’s Right in Education (WRIE) November 17-18, 2020. Casey will discuss why and how SDMF leaders discovered solutions to increase reading proficiency in specific third grade classrooms. Corey will also join Waukesha County leaders to describe how their community increased collaboration to realize better outcomes for the students and families they serve.

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Group of colleagues high-fiving and showing recognition and appreciation to each other.