When you think of the typical technology department, what comes to mind? Probably a bunch of guys hiding behind screens and grumbling in a closet somewhere. The truth is, technology departments are changing and those who lead these need to embrace the change to ensure success going forward.
This week, I moderated a panel with several tech leaders from around the country including Karen Fuller, Andrew Wallace and Shonte Eldridge . Each offered their unique perspective on this challenge of creating an inclusive leadership culture. To check out the full webinar, see the video below:
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
What is an “inclusive leadership culture”?
The panelists each had some subtle differences in their points of view, but the majority agreed on the following points around this idea of inclusive leadership:
It’s not about the title. The traditional mindset is that people with big titles make the decisions. In an inclusive culture, you are bringing in other voices for various perspectives. Having teachers, parents, and even students on committees when making major technology decisions will provide diverse perspectives for those ultimately making the decision. This is something I absolutely valued during my time at Eanes ISD when we created a “Digital Learning Task Force” to crowd-source ideas for building out our 1:1 program.
“Most projects fail, because they fail to include the right stakeholders.”– Shonte Eldridge, Executive Government Advisor, Amazon Web Services
Shared ownership. By bringing in a wide variety of stakeholders, you are creating shared ownership of the project. If you are a committee of one, then you ultimately make the decisions and own them. Everyone else has to tolerate or adjust to your decision. However, if you create an inclusive leadership culture, the community owns the decision. Not only do they share in the decision, they create a wider, unified voice when it comes to explaining the project to the wider community.
How do we create a encourage more diversity in our deparments?
Identify strengths and weaknesses. When looking at our own teams, we should identify strengths and weaknesses of our team. Sometimes that means we don’t necessarily make hiring decisions based on who we feel most comfortable. It’s good to have people that challenge us and help with our weaknesses.
“Sometimes we hire only internally and are shocked when we don’t have different ideas to take on new challenges.”– Andrew Wallace, Director of Technology, South Portland Maine Schools
Diversity breeds innovation. Hiring different people with different talents means that when you do bring your team together, the ideas will be more diverse. When you have an inclusive leadership culture with diverse viewpoints, it brings different angles into the conversation that you might not have originally considered. Brining in “outsiders” who may not know the back story to an issue can break the echo chamber that happens a lot in schools. Explaining a process or project to a lay person will strengthen the decisions behind it and the communication going out as a result of it.
Being deliberate about hiring people of diverse backgrounds. There are bias in all of us. If you are doing interviews and everyone looks the same and has the same beliefs, you might have an issue when it comes to bias. Creating a team that has a variety of race, gender, beliefs and backgrounds makes a stronger team. Recent research has revealed that the companies that had the most growth and success during the pandemic had one thing in common; They had more diverse board members for their company.
“My philosophy is: You are only as strong as your weakest link.”Karen Fuller – Chief Technology Officer, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, TX
How do we recruit and retain high quality staff?
“The Great Resignation” is a real thing and not exclusive of education and technology departments. Prior to the pandemic, technology departments were already losing staff to higher paying jobs with tech companies. Now with the stress of Covid and decades of education under paying talent, we see more high-quality personnel leaving the field. However, the panelists believe money isn’t the only reason why they leave. While finances can play a role in heading to greener pastures, the lack of being heard and feeling a part of team plays a bigger role.
Allow them to pursue a passion project. Giving staff time and energy to pursue their passions within their job give them more ownership. In a technology department, it feels like we spend 99.9% of our time putting out fires. If we can carve out a percentage of time for staff to develop, create and solve problems it will not only make them feel more invested, it can make your department more efficient.
Dedicate time to building relationships. Try to build out incremental changes and dedicate time to developing relationships with your staff. Changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight and can actually be more chaotic if you change everything at once. Look at their strengths and how you can put them in a place where they can be the most successful. If some staff work better behind a screen and others shine when being out front and interacting, then put them in places where they will succeed.
Be aware of mental and emotional health. While social-emotional learning has been a big push in education, technology departments are generally in the dark when it comes to practicing positive mental health. Staff that work year-round putting out fires don’t have many opportunities to recharge their batteries. Encourage staff to take an occasional ‘mental health’ day to allow time for them to refresh their batteries. They’ll often return feeling refreshed and more productive as a result.
Put resources towards training. Building a diverse and inclusive leadership culture means that you have to dedicate resources to increasing their skill sets. This investment will not only increase the talents of staff, but will also in turn help your organization with the skills they learn. Investing in professional learning is often the first thing schools cut when finances are tight, but doing so will slow the growth of your team’s talents.
The days of the old school tech department where a bunch of people that look the same sit in closets looking at 1’s and 0’s is coming to an end. Progressive leaders are putting energy towards diversifying their staff and investing time into improving their weaknesses. Thinking about the emotional and mental health of your staff might be a foreign concept to some, but after 18 months of Covid lockdown and major shifts, it’s more imperative than ever to invest in your staff’s well-being.
I want to thank Future Ready Schools and Amazon Web Services for asking me to host this extremely thought-provoking panel! Please check out the full recording for more in-depth conversation around this topic. Be sure to join myself and Adam Phyall on October 6 for a free webinar around building sustainable anytime/anywhere environments featuring some amazing presenters and conversations!