Leading through High Expectations

I shared in an earlier post that I am not very good on land… Even with my 6’1 frame, I tried all the sports and the outcome was the same. I was terrible. I started swimming when I was 15 years old; a sophomore in high school. I had improved a lot that first year and even ended up finishing a surprising 3rd place at our district meet. Over the summer I asked to attend a swim camp and spent a week with some great coaches and swimmers and learned and improved a lot. I even met a group of really nice swimmers who were all from East Aurora HS, near Buffalo, NY. The week came to a close and as I arrived home and unpacked my bags, my parents were sitting at the table and asked me to sit down. I did and they shared that my dad got a new job and we were moving… for my junior year of high school… to Buffalo, NY. They shared that they knew how difficult this was going to be for me but that I could help them decide where to live by helping choose the school district. I told them I wanted to move to East Aurora, and we did!

That transition was the first time that I recall a massive change in expectations. My team in my small town in Rochester was good and the coaches were fantastic but I was new to swimming and my sudden improvement happened towards the end of the season. When I came into the team at EA, it was a whole new world. These girls were fast! (we had three D1 swimmers on our relay when I graduated). And they trained hard! If I was used to 5x100s on 1:45 or 1:40, these girls were going 10x100s on 1:10… Not just a slight difference; a massive difference. We ended up winning multiple State Titles in our relays together, setting 1 State Record and qualifying for All-American Consideration in 2 different relays. I could never have made the leap to swim at the Division I level without that experience. But I’m not going to lie – the transition to that level of training and competition was incredibly difficult!

Professionally, I’ve experienced a similar shift in expectations at different points in my career. I remember sharing with my Principal that I was interviewing for an administrative position in a particular district, and he responded that it was a different place; that I’d need to be on my “A Game” every day. I tend to think that every educator and leader is on their A Game every day. But he was right; it was different. And it was a culture shock in the significant increase in demands from everyone in the system – from the students to the teachers to the parents, central office, and the entire school community. And an incredible place to work! But the transition was hard.

I have also experienced a shift in expectations when I changed roles. I shared in an earlier post about my apprehensions moving into the superintendency and I’ll be honest – there were moments in the first 2 years where I vacillated from looking/feeling like I was deer in headlights to actually contemplating getting out. As a campus leader, the demands were high and the challenges difficult, but it was limited in scope to that campus. As a superintendent you are leading through challenges from every campus, along with managing the budget, handling HR concerns, working with the media, and partnering with 7 board members who have different needs and expectations. The work is incredible, but when you’re in that ultimate position where the buck truly stops with you, the expectations couldn’t be higher.

I’d also say that joining new peer groups can heighten expectations. I had the honor of becoming part of TASA’s Future Ready Superintendent Leadership Network and I remember the first couple of experiences walking away with my head spinning, thinking “there’s no way I can accomplish all of that with such limited staff in my small district.” And the more integrated I became with the group, the greater the pressure I felt to ensure that I was aspiring to achieve the “right” work in my district and that I was walking the walk; not just talking the talk.

I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to lead through seasons where you feel like expectations have increased or are exceptionally high.

1. Know that being surrounded in a high-expectations environment makes you better. If you can come up for air long enough to reflect, you’ll realize that there is nothing more powerful than being surrounded by high-performing people or people with high expectations. I have had the honor of being part of two incredibly high-performing districts and there definitely is such a thing as “winning problems.” The first time Gunter went to the State Championship in football, the superintendent of the opposing State Semifinalist district pulled aside my HS Principal and I and gave us great tips for managing what was about to happen. And he also shared some profound words… As someone who had been a part of multiple state championships, he shared that everything was about to change. We didn’t realize what he meant until weeks later, but the learning came fast and was difficult at times. Our students and our parents and our teachers all began to coalesce around the notion that “nothing was good enough.” No program was good enough – even though we were performing at high levels. Once your organization tastes that elite level of success, every part of the organization wants to rise to that level.

It has been exhilarating to watch and be a part of in our district, but leading through rising expectations is challenging! The thing to remember is that high-expectations make you better – whether that comes from a new boss, new colleagues, a new district or organization, or new performance standards. Embrace the goal and know that you’ll be better for it!

2. Get after it AND Give yourself grace. When you find yourself in that situation, you have two choices: sink or swim (I’m just glad the analogy is not walk or run because you all know I don’t do well on land…🤦🏻‍♀️). If you’re reading this blog, you’re definitely a swimmer (Yay!) so cheer yourself on and know that this is a season. It’s not that expectations will lessen; rather in time you will acclimate to those expectations and your every day in / day out will not feel like it does right now. Dive in. Learn what you need to learn. Reach out to others. Find a mentor. Develop an action plan for your own growth. Get after it!

But in the same breath, give yourself grace. Understand that the feeling of being overwhelmed, and even at times inadequate, is part of the growing process and not a sign that you’re not the person for the job or lack the skill set necessary to be successful in the situation.

There will be moments when you kill it and others where you wish you would have handled things differently. Through it all, take time to reflect on your own growth. Celebrate the small victories. Cling to the encouragers in your life. Be mindful of staying healthy – both physically and emotionally. Most of all, be thankful for the context that is raising your learning and leadership. Give yourself grace.

3. Speak the Vision; Paint the Picture. Often when expectations are raised, there is a lot of “new” coming at you (new expectations to meet; new learning from a job change; new paradigm shift from learning from others). One of the greatest strategies of leading through that is to become really clear about your vision – what it is you are trying to do; why you are doing it; how you will do it; and how you want to be throughout it. Gunter ISD was in financial crisis when I came in 2012 due to a perfect storm of events that no one could control. For me, the superintendency was new; managing an $8 million budget was new; the students, staff and community were new. But I remained steadfast in speaking the vision of what I believed about kids, about our community and about where we needed to go as a district. This meant taking incredibly complex financial information and painting a clear picture of how we got to where we were, why it was critical that we protect the financial integrity of the district, how were were going to rectify the situation with as minimal negative impact to students and staff and how we were going to lead through this crisis (with transparency, frequent communications, prioritizing cuts outside the classroom, in a timeline that minimized angst among staff, etc.). When you find yourself feeling underwater, come up for air, think about what is most important at that juncture and crystallize your focus around how you need to be leading and then share that vision with others.

4. Honor the Past AND Strive Towards the Future. When coming into a new situation or new set of expectations, it is critical to both understand and honor the past and set a course towards the future. Unless you are starting something completely from scratch, you are walking into a (district/role/team/etc.) that has been built for years. There is history. Legacy even. While you may not agree with everything that has been done, there is so much good that can come from deeply understanding and valuing the history of all of the work that was put in to bring the organization to that point. At the same time, we can’t live in the past or cling to how it used to be done. We have to move our organizations (and the people within them) forward. I love what George Couros says about this change: “The goal isn’t to change for the sake of change but to make changes that allow us to empower our teachers and students to thrive.” The same is true in our own lives – the goal isn’t to change for change’s sake. The goal is look for areas that we can thrive; where we can empower others in our organizations to thrive – and then support our people in moving towards that.

What about you? Have you ever encountered a season where you felt in over your head? Where expectations were raised to a whole new level? What strategies do you use to lead through those times?

3 thoughts on “Leading through High Expectations

  1. Needed these reminders, Jill. Thanks for so eloquently and succinctly describing the challenges and opportunities of leadership, whether or not you have a formal role or not. Leadership is needed in every role in education, and your words confirm what so many of us struggle with at times. But your suggestions work! Thanks for taking the time to reflect and share your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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