A+ Charter Schools Graduates from Good to Great
How a Dallas CMO elevated its game by following the principles of a best-selling book on leadership and change management
Every time a young teacher tells him, unsolicited, that they want to spend their career working for A+ Charter Schools, every time he sees staff retention rates and student engagement scores climb across the four-school charter network, A+ Superintendent and CEO Brenton White is reassured that his decision to reshape the organization’s culture around the principles of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great was the right move for Dallas, Texas-based A+, its 400-member staff and its 2,800 K-12 students.
Soon after taking the reins at A+ in early 2016, White began pursuing inventive new ways to make an already solid organizational culture even stronger, and in doing so, hopefully, to give A+ an edge in attracting and retaining top teachers and administrators. When he read Collins’ 2011 book, “I realized that was the vehicle to get us there.”
White and his team quickly got to work applying the tenets of Good to Great in five areas:
1. Developing strong leadership skills in teachers, middle administration and top administration. Training emphasized concepts like leading by example, servant leadership and communication. In the latter area, teachers and other staff were trained in VitalSmarts’ Crucial Conversations techniques for providing and accepting feedback.
2. Attracting and retaining top teachers and principals. Following Collins’ “First who, then what” mantra, A+ revised its hiring policies to prioritize talent over skill, and to “get the right people on the bus” — that is, to make sure A+ has the right people onboard and the right people in key position before trying to figure out where to drive the bus. “Now we hire talented, A+ people, knowing we can train them for skill.”
3. Profile-based learning instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. In applying Collins’ “confront the brutal facts” principle, White and team sought to gain a better understanding of student and staff needs through student performance data, frequent anonymous “How am I doing?” staff surveys and other means. “If you don’t know who you are or where you’re at,” he says, “how do you know where you need to go?”
4. Get clear on organizational values. Borrowing from Collins’ “hedgehog” principle, White sought to better define the most important elements of the A+ culture, then get staff to embrace those elements. One cornerstone value to emerge from that process, he notes, is an organization-wide commitment to, and passion for, serving a mostly economically challenged student body and neighborhood.
5. Sustaining a high level of teacher and student engagement. To build and sustain engagement, White and team have worked to apply Collins’ “culture of discipline” concept, which says, “Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action — operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities — this is the cornerstone of a culture that creates greatness.” At A+, it means making every moment of every school day count, and striving for steady, sustained growth, he explains.
White acknowledges it took time to get staff members to buy into these principles, and the training he and his team provided to apply them. “Not everyone was engaged from the get-go.” Two years after the process began, however, the buy-in is there, and the results have followed. Here are some of the steps White says were vital to the success of the initiative:
• It starts with you. Engineering cultural change begins at the top. “You first need to develop yourself as a leader. You need to walk the talk.”
• Plan in advance. Define ahead of time what you want to achieve with the initiative, in what timeframe.
• Implement in stages. Trying to force too much change on people, too quickly, can backfire.
• Work on buy-in. Be gently persistent. Some people take coaxing to get onboard.
• Be patient. Engineering cultural change takes time.
• Measure progress. Identify and regularly track performance indicators that reliably show the extent to which the initiative is producing the desired results.
• Stick to the program. Once the initiative is implemented, find ways to keep key cultural values front of mind throughout the organization.
As A+ Charter Schools is proving, it’s possible to go from good to great. But getting there, and staying there, is a process.