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Improving Culture and Performance Through Feedback

The Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District leadership team approached their ailing culture with a shared sense of urgency to develop a healthy environment for students and all stakeholders. Wisely, the team started by requesting, receiving, and responding to feedback to build trust with disillusioned employees. Through their partnership with Studer Education, leaders built their mindset and skill set to accept honest, actionable feedback and use it for improvement.

Challenge

After the retirement of a long-standing superintendent, Chippewa Falls School District experienced a period of instability under the rapid succession of three shorter-term superintendents. The impact of the leadership turnover was typical. Organizational culture and momentum took a hit through each transition. Student achievement ranked at the bottom compared with like districts. Student behavior problems became routine. Low employee trust resulted in high staff turnover. Staff perception spilled over, negatively impacting community perception of the school district.

Approach

In 2015, the superintendent again announced he was leaving. Staff were wounded with another loss. Dr. Heidi Eliopoulos, a middle school principal at the time, was selected as the next superintendent. The board president had faith in Heidi as a leader and valued her commitment to the community. Heidi accepted the role with a split 4-3 board decision. The same board president passed away three weeks after her selection. Heidi knew the board, staff and community deserved better outcomes. Building the foundation for a strong organizational culture became her highest priority.

Why Is Culture So Important to Success?

Culture acts as the “fuel” for strategy. That fuel generates lasting impact. Experienced leaders know a misaligned culture is costly. Rifts drive out high-performing staff members, erode trust and account for half of all system failures.

Strong culture creates greater discipline than disciplinary action does.
– Peter Drucker; Management Consultant, Educator and Author

Employees were characterized by Heidi as “good people” working in survival mode. Meeting basic needs became their primary focus. It was difficult for staff to portray a strong sense of commitment to the organization through each leadership transition. Heidi and her team have worked hard to bring trust back to the system as the full system charts the course toward a stronger future.

Building the Mindset and Skill Set for Feedback

Heidi knew her team’s job to build collective trust would be fragile. Culture is felt every day. Leadership actions can be easily misinterpreted among team members. The shift would need to demonstrate the leadership team’s skill set in
order to bring a safe work culture to life. Teams who experience a “learning and high-performance zone” where psychological safety is nurtured tend
to perform better.

Learning and improvement occur when staff effectively collaborate, learn together and get complex, innovative work done.
– Amy Edmonson; The Fearless Organization

Developing a safe work culture does not mean it is based on adult comfort. It means the team standards of behavior are high, and people feel safe to ask questions, debate issues respectfully, identify barriers in their work and face conflicts when they occur.

Culture either flames a bonfire of raging team success or leaves a landscape of emotional ashes.
– Daniel Goldman; Primal Leadership

Owning the Challenge

Heidi and her leadership team knew the damaged relationships would need significant effort. The 15 years of frustration generated a shared sense of urgency for the leadership team. They knew trust would not be extended until the full team of leaders owned the challenge. Heidi and her leaders worked with intention to seek input from all stakeholders. They knew creating a healthy culture for students and stakeholders would have to begin by building an effective team culture among staff.

Focused on building the leadership mindset and skill set to accept honest, actionable feedback, the leadership team began by partnering with a Studer Education to gather and analyze feedback from employees. The first rounds of feedback were raw for the leaders. Heidi indicated the leadership team received a quick lesson in humility. With high frustration and low trust among the staff, the first feedback reports were a focused reminder of why their leadership was needed. They couldn’t move forward until they listened deeply and responded consistently as a full leadership team. To support the team, Heidi made the decision to expand their engagement with Studer Education as an improvement partner with focused expertise in shifting culture and performance and building leadership capacity.

Starting with the Nine Principles® Framework, the leadership team and their coach began targeting the conditions necessary to achieve system-wide organizational excellence.

Gathering stakeholder feedback itself is not particularly unique. Coherent leadership development tied to facilitating the feedback process is what drives improvement tied to survey results. Leaders at every level of the organization were prepared to gather aligned feedback. Leaders learned how to start within that space of high emotion and honor the initial input. They demonstrated humility, facilitated two-way communication and used a researched protocol to consistently follow up to improve outcomes. Chippewa Falls invested in the tools and team development in order to rebuild their workplace culture and hard-wire success.

I love and appreciate my work environment at Hillcrest! Our principal does a fabulous job at creating an environment that makes me feel valued, appreciated and respected! I feel like what I do at Hillcrest matters and is recognized!
– Chippewa Fall School District Employee Feedback

The Stakeholder Surveys

The chart below outlines the feedback, focus and timing for the stakeholder surveys employed by Chippewa Falls to gain input from stakeholders. The survey items are researched and technically sound. Each is designed to seek input on a limited number of key questions which are aligned across spearate surveys administered to students, staff, families and leaders. Survey questions are also scaffolded to the organization’s strategic core values. Respondent identities are safeguarded, and the results are benchmarked among like partner organizations nationwide to provide context for key strengths and ongoing improvement.

Feedback Focus Training
Parent Satisfaction Annually
Employee Engagement Annually
Department/Division Service Excellence Leader to leader feedback on support within the organization to another Annually
Student Engagement Annually

Heidi shared that the first report created the shared sense of urgency lighting a fire under the leadership team. After the initial feeling of being “punched in the gut,” the leadership team knew they could do better.

The Survey Results Rollout Process
The process used to respond to feedback is key. Trust is damaged when input and follow-through are ignored. Every leader has been challenged with a time when feedback was shared but it was hard to figure out how to make the input actionable. Every staff member has experienced a time when they felt their feedback was not valued or heard. Preparing staff and leaders matters when working together to shift organizational culture. Feedback shines a light on team strengths to be celebrated and the next steps to work through together. Conversations grow deeper as everyone learns how to make the feedback process safe, productive and actionable. Too often teams are conditioned to avoid facing the conflicts creating barriers for the team. Individuals opt for being nice or silent in the moment rather than trusting themselves and their team members to successfully work through hard issues. Creating the conditions and productive work behaviors for difficult conversations is on the other side of these awkward moments. The survey rollout process is key to building that bridge among team members.

Leaders become skilled in celebrating with staff what is working well. They learn how to transparently clarify the key challenges without becoming defensive. Leaders learn to model how to identify and use constructive comments. As a team they select one or two key actions they are willing to commit to over the next 90 days based on the feedback they have received from the survey results. As the changes are implemented, leaders regularly communicate the actions taken. Together, the team assesses the impact with the next round of feedback. Constructive feedback becomes the new norm as leaders hard-wire the process.

The level of communication from the District Office to employees is working great. I feel that a lot of the decisions that are being made are being made with the input of staff members from various areas of the district rather than just being made by a few people.
– Chippewa Fall School District Employee Feedback

Focused Organizational Excellence

Working with intention, Chippewa Falls shifted their organizational culture and student outcomes. Leaders demonstrate the skills of deep listening, strong communication and sound follow-through. Strategic efforts have moved from a laundry list of 52-plus isolated initiatives to a focused direction that is understood and actionable.

Feedback is routinely used to understand varied perspectives and improve decision making. The feedback process has been hard-wired to include individual rounding with staff members. Heidi describes a team that moved from an outward mindset focused on what “they” should be doing to improve, meaning the students, teachers and parents, to a service mindset with a core set of hard-wired leadership behaviors. They learned how to shift culture, and they have.

It’s unbelievably rewarding to guarantee strong leadership across our entire system. We have evolved as a leadership team and a system. We can onboard new leaders and still guarantee strong leadership behavior for our students, staff and community.
– Heidi Eliopoulos

Results

Deep listening and follow-through shifted the Chippewa Falls workplace culture. The shift in leadership mindset and coherent skill set mproved their perspective and performance. They have refined their strategies, focusing on the vital few. The leaders stopped chasing the 52-plus isolated initiatives.

Leadership is not done in isolation. Impactful decisions should not be made in isolation. As a leader, I cannot pretend to know the potential impact of various decisions without talking openly with those that may be affected by those decisions. By collecting and using feedback, I believe it has saved significant work on the back end. I would rather be proactive than reactive. It creates a collaborative calm versus the reactive stress. We are more effective leaders when we understand the perspectives of our students, parents, staff and leaders. The feedback shows us, and our stakeholders, whether our action steps were effective. When they are not, we have another opportunity to work together toward improvement.
– Sara Denure, Southview Elementary School Principal

The full team centered themselves on Nine Principles Framework for organizational excellence and continuous improvement. Working coherently, their main things really became their main things. Improvement didn’t happen overnight. Hard-wiring a commitment to service rewrote their culture. Working together they were able to center their focus, multiply positive impact and live their mission.

The shift in culture is significant, which in turn has changed their overall momentum:

  • Performance is up as is the trust level of staff, families and the community.
  • The district is recognized as a best place to work.
  • The staff is a key source for staff recruitment.
  • The district is a district of choice in the area.
  • Employee feedback benchmarks are at the 80th percentile.
  • Success for diverse learners is accelerating.
Improving our results hasn’t been linear. Learning how to own our results, consistently respond to feedback, and focus our strategic agenda has been key to our continued improvement.
– Heidi Eliopoulos

KEY TAKEAWAYS

To improve alignment and performance across a school system, leaders must:

Think differently.

Recognize the misaligned culture is costly and accounts for half of all system failures.

Plan differently.

Prepare leaders for the mindset and skill set necessary to productively receive and act on feedback for improvement.

Act differently.

Approach cultural improvement with a cyclical system that gathers and shares feedback often.

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