Shape Culture Through Connection

What role does intentionality in connections play in shaping a strong organizational culture? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher as she interviews Mr. Al Betry of CESA 9 to discuss the strategies he uses to drive improvement, achieve remarkable outcomes, and create a culture where people want to come to work. We’ll explore the profound significance of exceptional service as a cornerstone principle and how it underpins his agency’s journey to success. We’ll also dive into Mr. Betry’s strategic planning process where he skillfully gathers input from a diverse array of voices, fostering a sense of shared ownership and values within his organization. Listen and gain invaluable insights into Mr. Betry’s commitment to employee engagement through his culture playbook centered on compassion, integrity, and growth.

This episode addresses questions such as:
  • What are some effective ways to boost employee engagement?
  • What does it take to foster a sense of unity within an organization?
  • How can I use survey results to create a strategic plan?
Episode Transcript


[Intro music plays in the background.] 

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, and I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership in action so that we can all be leaders in our organizations. And the focus of leadership is connected to the 9 Principles Framework highlighted in my new book Hardwiring Excellence in Education.  

Let’s dive into today’s episode. I’m pleased to introduce you to our guest Al Betry. Al serves as the agency administrator at Cooperative Educational Service Agency 9, or CESA 9, in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. There are 12 CESA’s in the state of Wisconsin. CESA 9 services over 34,000 students covers 5,669 square miles and is made up of 22 school districts. Prior to his current role as Agency Administrator, Al served for 9 years as Director of Continuous School Improvement Services for CESA 9.  

Al spent 17 years teaching at Horace Mann Middle school in Wausau, Wisconsin. During that time, he served as the social studies department chair, an interdisciplinary team leader, and also coached wrestling, baseball, and track and field.  

From there, he transitioned into administration and became an Associate Principal in charge of curriculum instruction and assessment at Horace Mann, were there he served two years before transitioning to CESA 9. CESA 9 has partnered with Studer Education since 2014.   

Today we’ll talk with Al about his success using surveys as part of his team’s improvement work, his intentional approach to communication, and how he’s built an outstanding workplace culture. 

I’m so glad to have Al on our show today.  


Janet Pilcher: So, it’s with great pleasure that I welcome Al to our show today. Al, welcome. 

Al Betry: Thank you so much, Dr. Pilcher, so awesome to be part of this program today. 

Janet Pilcher: It’s look forward to the conversation and learning more about what you’re doing. We’ve been connected to your organization for quite some time. So, it’s just great to have you as a partner in this process with us. So, let’s start. If you would just tell us a little bit about yourself, your background. What led you to get into the field of education? 

Al Betry: That sounds great and thank you for the partnership. It’s been so rewarding for us to work with all of you. But yeah, so I guess I’ll start by saying, you know, teaching is kind of a family business for myself and my family. So, my grandmother, my father my 2 brothers, my sister, my wife, my sister-in-law– all teachers.  

And I think my journey, you know, as you start with the family like, I’m not doing what everybody else does. So, I was going to do something different. I started actually thinking about pre-law and that route. And then actually, I took an education class and was able to go out and work with some fifth graders for some public kind of sub service requirement for all my classes. 

And I just fell in love with the idea of working with kids and those kinds of things.  

So, I then went into education became an eighth-grade teacher for 17 years in a middle school. Gotta love those eighth graders middle school teachers out there– way to go. 

Janet Pilcher: You gotta love them.  

Al Betry: I loved every day of it. And I said, eighth grade is, it was just such a great time to work with students. 

And then, basically what happened from there, as I was interdisciplinary team leader, in a building of about 800 students. 

And then also became a department chair for social studies and had an opportunity from one of our leaders in the district. I actually went to the Wausau School District, which is where I was teaching to get involved with curriculum and the standards movement that we all– some of us remember. 

And so, I started working with that and got introduced to, you know, understanding by design and trying to figure how we really focus on what’s best for kids. And what’s the most important learning that we can do with them. Found my passion with that. So, then I decided, after 17 years teaching, I was gonna go in administration. 

And I was in the– also in the middle school setting– 6, 7, 8 grade with, I guess– about 800 students, and I was actually the administrator in charge of curriculum instruction and assessment.  

And it was just a great opportunity to see how hard our educators work in the great things they do every day and be a different leader that way.   

And then actually, I was my former boss here at CESA 9, Dr. Karen Wendorf Heldt, who is now retired, you know, said, “Hey, Al, we have an opening at CESA 9, and it’s a new position, and it’s school improvement services”. So, I was able to take that position– now been in that position for 9 years. 

And now I’ve been–  when Karen retired, I was able, very fortunate, to continue in my journey of working at CESA 9, which I absolutely love every day. And now I’ve been an Agency Administrator here at CESA 9 for two years. 

So, what kind of cool thing Janet is when I started it was just me and the Department of Student Improvement Services and now, after 9 years, we have grown that department to 10– working with districts and have just hired some amazing staff.  

So that’s kind of my journey. And it’s kind of, you know, it’s kind of, you know, how individual moments in life can change your trajectory of your career and what you what you believe in. 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And I do think that’s, you know, that’s the way it works. I mean, we just kind of as we’re doing the work that we love to do. And we’re, you know, we’re good at it like you have been. Then, you know, those leadership opportunities really open up.  

That’s a great story for others who are looking at, you know, how do you move up? You always tell people you just– you’re passionate about what you do. You do really good work, and doors will open for you in particular ways, right? And if you usually, if you plot it out in a particular way, it doesn’t work that way.  

Al Betry: Yeah, absolutely.  

Janet Pilcher: It’s allowing for that evolutionary process to occur. Just do the right work and do the right things. 

Al Betry: So true. So true, we also talked to kids about taking risks, you know, as educators and as leaders, and we do the same things. And it’s not always planned like you said. And it, it’s sometimes getting outside your comfort zone. It’s hard, but it’s also the right thing to do for you and for your journey. So yeah, I would agree. 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s a– that’s a great story. And I have loved working with Karen over the years, too. So again, just the long connection with CESA 9 and the great work that you do, and it speaks to it. The reason you’re able to grow the department is because you all have done such great work, and it merits that growth, you know.  

So in part of that has been just your working with us. And you know, looking at the Nine Principles and really hardwiring some of those behaviors aligned to the tactics. You’ve used surveys. You’re a service provider, you know.  

So, you’ve used the district surveys, your employee engagement survey. You know, you’re performing at some of our highest levels, Al– at the, you know, 90 or 95th percentile, you know.   

So, on your district services– 99 percentile, you know, with your engagement work. So, tell us a little bit about that work and what your team has done to achieve that success. It’s a great story behind those numbers, I’m sure. 

Al Betry: It is. We’re and we’re so proud of that. And I think when I say we, I mean our districts as well. We serve. We work with 22 school districts at CESA 9, you know, over 34,000 students.  

And you know, it’s really based on relationships and trust. And I think that is the foundation of who we are and what we do. And I think, working with our districts, it’s just, just humbling to work with great leaders and great teachers.  

But I think the one thing that’s important is we can’t make assumptions about what people think you should be doing or how you’re doing. And sometimes we have individual perceptions that we feel, and sometimes those are correct, right?  

But surveys provide you the data that really builds that solid foundation of how are we doing? What’s working? Well, what are areas of improvement?  

And I think strong culture and, you know, those kinds of things with the surveys– it starts with voice. And you know I always I always say that, like we have to be very responsive.  

And you know, I say, we are what our district needs us to be. Say, hey, you’re knocking out of the park in the air of getting back to us, but we could do a little better here, and then we talk. We get deeper, and then we round, and we have conversations.  

So, I think surveys really serve that well, and I think both externally, you know, and internally. It has to be a balance like, what are people– you know, what are our districts saying about us and our services? How’d we do? And also, how are our employees feeling? 

Employee engagement is a huge part of that, and I think you have to balance that. And it’s built on trust, strong communication and data that takes away some of those personal feelings or assumptions that we say, this is what we this is what we’re hearing and seeing. Now, how do we get better? How we grow? 

So that’s been I think, that’s a really important part of it. 

Janet Pilcher: You’re engaging in those conversations with your teams and your– quote– customers. You know those people you serve, right? And that’s– that’s probably what gets you to those defined improvement actions. 

And people see, oh, you’ve listened to me now. You’re doing what you said in a way that we understand, and you’re helping, you know, build that better service internally and externally. Is that right, Al? 

Al Betry: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think what it also does– it’s real time. I mean, you know, we’re having those conversations. I always compare it to a formative and summative assessment, right? We have summative assessments that are very important, but this allows us to look at things as we’re hearing them and being responsive. Being responsive means many things, right? And the surveys allow us to say, what do our districts need right now? 

And what do they need in the future? And I think that’s where we’re CESA’s in the State of Wisconsin are just– play such a crucial role, and CESA’s in the nation. In that, we’re built on relationships, you know, I mean cause I always say this, like we sing for our supper. 

Janet Pilcher: [Laugh] 

Al Betry: Which means if we’re not providing high quality services, we’re not gonna be around, and we’re not gonna grow.  

But I credit our districts for also, you know, helping us in this journey. And it’s just a side-by-side awareness together mentality. And we always say, with these- this data.  

You know, we just help. We’re support. We try to help people grow. And we also need to inspire all the people working with and surveys help that. They really do. 

Janet Pilcher: So, let’s talk a little bit about those services. You’ve increased those services. And obviously, by the growth of your, you know, your area and with the number of people on your team. You’ve increased those services that you provide to the district.  

So, I mean, talk a little bit about that. What are the services? How they expand it? And you know, kind of why has that occurred?  

Al Betry: Yeah, it they have expanded greatly. I mean, this past year, you know. I think we went– we had over 13,000 people that were a part of our, you know, our workshops and things in the in the prior year, we’re at 9,000.  

So, we saw a huge jump in those services. And I think it’s a couple of things. You have to hire exceptional people, of course, that have skills and– but also, we have to listen to the needs of your stakeholders.  

And that’s one of the things that we really focused on this past year is, what are, what are we doing that it’s hitting of the mark? And what are the holes and services? Like, what are districts saying to us that they need?  

And I think that’s where the rounding conversations come in, right? With that. So, I think what we’ve tried to do is, for example, we know literacy is a really important thing. But I also know that we have to have real high-quality people that do that. So, our literacy services have increased because of– there’s a need.  

We’ve also looked at different ways of being innovative. We don’t have substitute teachers, you know, available anymore. It’s just we can’t hard to find.  

So, what we do? We have to shift your model to going out, not people coming to you, we go out to them. So, I think that’s where it is. And I think one of the things that while we’ve grown the services, districts are using us more because it’s built around those things, Janet, that we mentioned earlier.  

It’s built on trust, knowing you’re gonna have high quality services and high-quality staff, but also, a “we’re in this together” mentality.  

And I think we don’t– we don’t judge, you know, where you are or what– we just try to– how do we– how do we celebrate with you what’s going well, and how do we help you get better? And I think if you do that mentality, you will grow your services. 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it’s so good. It’s kind of the inside out approach to what you know. Sometimes we’ve been accustomed to historically. And what I mean by that is, you know, sometimes historically, centers have said, “Here are the services we provide. Pick them.” Right? You know, versus, “Let’s see what your need is. Let’s talk to you, understand what your needs are, and let us help serve those needs by the way we define what we do. That’s the standard probably that we should live to as service providers, right?  

I think about the service centers that I’ve been connected with all over through the decades, sometimes running those through university Al, you know? That’s not always been what– how we’ve thought about it, right?  

Al Betry: I think it is that inside out approach it is. And I think of this, too, it’s the people– like we have innovation and ideas of the staff on hand. And I think when you try to– you try to build capacity and everyone. And we have a lot of learning that takes place and they’re working extremely hard.   

And they have great ideas because they’re working with the teachers every day in the classroom, and say hey, we need to do something different, and our staff has been so great with that, and the other thing is, every person matters. Everyone has to feel a part of something that’s bigger than just them. And I think when you do that, and all of our people here that work– we have 59, you know, staff, right now. And we’ve grown that number from it was like 43, you know, a few years ago, so I think, having that mentality too– we’re all hands-on deck. Never saying it’s not my job. 

It’s just helping each other. And I think that’s how you grow it. And also, having that really support and that really good connection with your districts and your leaders and your teachers to do what’s best for kids is what guides you.  

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s so good, you know. As we’re thinking about–  we’re talking kind of at that grassroots level, and then you run an organization. So, let’s kinda pull it back up for a few minutes. 

And you know–  as I’ve talked to Casey– Casey, you know, just really sings your praises in terms of the work that you’re that you’re doing, and she talks about your team strategic planning process that you’ve been very thoughtful about the communication with your team, about the process, and offered opportunities again for them to provide feedback. 

So, talk about like from the organizational standpoint, and leading at what our priorities are on the organization, you know. Have you been intentional about including your team in those conversations? 

Al Betry: Yeah, it’s been awesome work with Casey. Her and I had a chance to, you know, in my first year as Agent Administrator, she, you know, she was my coach. And yeah, I mean, I think we say this a lot, and I’m not sure exactly what it is. But you know, you gotta have a go slow to move fast mentality.   

And I think we’ve been very intentional here about getting input voice to make sure that when we get to our end product, we have something that we feel really good about and everyone owns.  

It’s not Al’s plan, right? It’s ours. And I think also our districts are a part of that, and we included legislators. We included school Board members. We included our Department of Public Instruction folks in our listening sessions, gathered that data.  

Our staff– we met numerous times to gather input about what, you know, the questions that we ask are, you know? What are we doing well? What things can we get better at? What are we missing?  

You know the– those conversations, and I think when you get there– what I found is it’s the journey. It’s not the scorecard, which is fantastic that we’ve created now, but it was a journey to get there, and the intentional communication around what we’re trying to do as an agency and having voice, having discussions, listening. 

It’s easier if I just did it myself, right? I could just go through things and get very fast. But you know, it’s really important to make sure you have a backwards map.  

You know where you wanna be, and how do you get there? And then, step by step, the process of working with Casey, having a coach like that to go through the process just been really rewarding. And our scorecard, I just– I rolled it out at our big step, you know, in our beginning of the year staff meeting, when we were all together.  

It’s just like. It’s such a great feeling, Janet, because, like everybody like, yeah, this is, yeah, this is us. 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and I was just thinking that, you know, as you’re looking at your strategic plan and your scorecard, people can see themselves in that, right, from those conversations.  

I love what you just said. Yeah, this is us. This isn’t just this thing, you know, that we’re trying to build an accountability tool. It’s really about a tool that drives us to do the great work that we want to do and, you know, have the goals that are in front of us that are meaningful, that we had input into. 

Al Betry: Yeah, you know that’s so important. I want everyone– I want every person to feel that they could find a part of that. They could find how they fit into that.  

We have, you know, our pillars, exceptional people, trusting partnership, responsive services, every one of us in CESA 9, and I can attach to those things and believe in it and be a part of it, and set goals around it.   

And I think cascading is important when you should do your strategic plan. I’m very intentional about making sure that we’re in alignment, you know, from the big picture down to the departments that we have down to the individual, and then the goal setting it, it all lines up.  

And I think that just allows you to have a really good direction. And you can also speak your–you know, who we are to everyone. It’s kind of like an elevator speech, right? Like, if you got two minutes, who are you?  

Janet Pilcher: [Laugh] Yeah. That’s great, so we’ve talked a little bit about it. But the other thing that Casey talks about, and I love this. I love this this term, you know, she talks about your organization’s culture playbook and the consistency around that. And we in– how critical that is in your organization and how intentional that is.  

So, as we as we kind of close today, you’ve talked really about being strategic and building your improvement focused approach with your outcomes that are there. And you’ve also talked about the significance of providing great service as a key and cornerstone to what you do, and really building the engagement with your people. 

You know, what I’ve learned, and we’ve all learned over the years is we can’t do any of that if we don’t have a great culture that allows us to be at our very best. 

So, I’d love for you as we close with our last question today, really talk about what you mean by that culture playbook and how it’s implemented and is intentional with you.  

Al Betry: Yeah, it’s our- it’s our, you know, so important to us, I mean, and we have three big parts of that connecting with compassion, serving with integrity, and grow with intention.  

We have a playbook, and where are the plays of that playbook? And I think what we talk about a lot is every interaction matters. Every interaction matters.  

And I think when you have a- when you have a solid understanding of what that looks like. What does serve with integrity, look like? Feel like? How do we? How do we live, right? 

Connecting with compassion– after we went through with Covid, and all the things, compassion has never been more important for working with our educators– cause, it’s been hard, but they’re resilient. And I think we need to connect with them and be compassionate and also help them grow with intention.  

So, I think it has to be that every action matters, every phone call, every conversation in the hallway, every interaction in the district. Everything matters, and I think we- I always say I’m old school. People like laughing me. I still keep the old, you know, white notebooks full of notes and things like that. But I do believe that word of mouth is your best advertising many times.  

And what people say is how they feel, how you feel about something. I always– what we always talk about as a staff is– we always want people to feel better when we leave as a CESA, when we come in, and I think that culture and each other.  

I think it’s hard, though, too, Janet. I think you have to have courageous conversations– 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. 

 Al Betry: – Around, that we can talk that. But you also have to be willing to say, how do you own the culture playbook?  

You’re in your own. We call your own 20 square feet, right? How do you own your 20 square feet of the culture? And how are you handling not only the good things, but the challenging things.  

 And that’s growing capacity which leads to really, really strong culture and believing in one another and trusting one another. So yeah, we, it’s the culture is something we’re super proud of. And our people really just live it.  

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and that’s why you get good people. You know, I mean when you have opportunities to hire people and build your capacity, then you’re getting some of the best people because they wanna work in a place where there’s a culture that really supports them and supports the people that you work with each and every day.  

You know, you kinda started with the concept of building trust, and we get that. Trust is such an important part of an organization and for leaders to be able to lead well. 

People are like, how do we build that trust? Like a lot of hard work, very intentional action.  

Al Betry: Yeah. 

Janet Pilcher: It’s conceptually not difficult, but to be consistent, the execution of those tactical things that we do each and every day that are very intentional in the way that we really engage with our people and those we serve, is that consistency. It’s a must, and you do that, that’s part of your DNA now. That would be my guess. It’s not an option, I’m sure within CESA 9. That’s just how we roll. 

Al Betry: Right. That’s how we roll. And I think you’re right, so right. You nailed it. I mean, it’s about people. It’s about at every– I round every morning, Janet. I walk in for the first half hour. I walk in our staff, and I just make time for that. And when I– if there’s something that comes up, but I walk around, and you learn about the people you learn about who they are, and I think when you have those difficult conversations, you have relationships built on trust that will help lead you to good solutions. And I think that’s important.  

We can’t forget about the human side of leadership, how important that is. I mean, we can have the best laid plans on paper. But it’s about the people that we have, you know, doing that.  

And also, it’s something else I just want to mention with culture, the power of pressing pause is something that we talk a lot about with that.  

As you know, there are times when you wanna fire off an email, right? Or you’re upset, and maybe it’s based on an assumption that you’re feeling that you think something is happening. Maybe it’s not. And I think the power of pressing pause and talking through that. 

I always tell folks that culture building a strong culture is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance race, and you’re gonna have ups and downs. But you have to stay on the right course. And I think if you do that, you’ll be okay. 

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s right. So good, Al. This is such a such a fun opportunity for me to get to talk to great leaders like you, and just appreciate the work that you’re doing in the partnership that we’ve had.  

So, thank you so much for being with us today.  

Al Betry: Well, thank you. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be a part of this, today. We’re just, we love our work and our partnership, and we just appreciate you and everyone else. But also, we appreciate all of our districts and teachers and leaders and, you know, on the CESA 9 for helping us in this journey together, so, thank you so much. 

Janet Pilcher: Alight, thank you.  


[Outro music plays in the background.] 

Janet Pilcher: Al and his team at CESA 9 do excellent work. They service school districts in their region, and it makes a great contribution to the state as well. They are truly a high performing service agency and Al leads the team to provide great internal service to the people who he leads each and every day and the leaders leading the teams.   

And he also provides great service to the schools and school districts and the leaders who are connected to those districts as well as teachers and staff in the CESA 9 region. We’re very appreciative for the contributions that Al and his team makes to our profession.  

We have a couple of weeks left of our virtual book club about leadership, and I’d love to invite you to join us. We’re diving chapter by chapter into my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education: the 9 Principles Framework. This book club is for leaders who want to take their leadership to the next level.  

Our next book club meeting is in the at the end of October. It will meet on Monday October 30th at 2:00 PM Central. We’ll dive deeper into the principal the last principle –Principle 9– Reward and Recognize Success. It’s one of my favorites. It’s important to do and a must have for all of what we do each and every day. It’s a culture changer, and I hope you’ll join the conversation. To register head to studenteducation.com/hardwiringexcellence.  

If there is a question we can answer or topic you’d like us to cover, we’d love to hear from you. You can email me at jpilcher@hcg.com or you can email our podcast producer Mary Stackhouse Consoli at mstackhouse@hcg.com. We’d love to hear from you. As always thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance.  

If you like this episode, we invite you to please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We value you and your feedback. Also, if today’s topic resonated for you, please share this episode with a colleague or friend. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the 9 Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work.   

Have a great week. 

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