In a world where the nature of work has changed substantially in a very short time, the primary school classroom has much to teach HR practitioners, managers and CEOs, writes Charles Brass
A few nights ago I went to the parent information evening for grade five students at the college my youngest daughter attends. In an hour-and-a-half I learned more about managing people at work in the twenty-first century than from any other workplace I have visited in recent years.
Well, maybe I didn’t learn all that much that was new – but I did see in action the sorts of principles and ideals forward thinking HR managers (and enlightened CEOs) are espousing for their workplaces. And all the teachers thought they were doing were making parents feel part of their children’s school – something I don’t remember too many of my bosses trying to do for members of my family.
My own grade five teacher was a Mrs Stenhouse, and the only memory I have of her and of that year is the blackboard ruler she wielded to great effect as she strived to impart what seemed to me to be her overriding values: conformity, obedience and rote learning.
My daughter’s grade five teachers are also interested in imparting the values that will stand her in good stead when she leaves school, but these have changed somewhat in the past 40 years. First and foremost, her teachers emphasise the importance of teamwork, or being able to work with a wide variety of people to achieve useful outcomes. Courtney’s (my daughter’s) teachers told me about a variety of simple techniques they use to make sure she will work collaboratively with everyone else in her grade (even the boys, to her dismay) before the end of the year.
Despite all the claims made by modern corporations about ‘ensuring the employability of their employees’, I can count the number of workplaces I know where such teamwork is actually practised on the fingers of one hand.
Too often corporations are so focused on achieving today’s output that they aren’t prepared to move people around, to introduce new people to teams (except to replace someone who has resigned) or to deliberately expose their employees to a diversity of workplace experiences. My daughter’s teachers are also focused on achieving outcomes (they still have tables tests nearly every day, and they have a curriculum standards framework to report against), but they take a longer term view.
Teamwork was important to these teachers in another way as well. When the parents arrived we were seated in a circle with the two classroom teachers sitting next to each other.
Once they began speaking they were starting and finishing each other’s sentences, bouncing off ideas the other had raised, and often simultaneously pointing out the same thing in the classroom. I asked them how long they had been working together, and one said five years. I told them it showed, but the other one pointed out that this was only the second year they had taught grade five together, but because they had both been at the same school for five years they shared a common understanding of the way things are done in this particular workplace.
The value of teamwork is not just espoused by a couple of enlightened teachers – it was an integral part of the way the school operates. Not only do the grade five teachers work as a team, but the whole school supports them.
How many workplaces struggle to get any sense of teamwork between different floors, let alone between branch offices and head office? How many team leaders can tolerate the ambiguity of having team members in overlapping teams? How many functional managers are welcome to drop in on other team’s meetings? But then, how many CEOs are prepared to sit in the audience at new employee induction programs to hear what they are being told?
When deciding where to send our children, this school placed strong emphasis on self-directed learning and empowerment. The school believed this philosophy enough to have abandoned the school bell, which traditionally marks the end of each period. Even the timetable written on my daughter’s whiteboard was headed: “Today will look something like this …”
Courtney doesn’t even hang her bathroom towel back up until she has been told three times, yet somehow she manages to navigate her way successfully through her school day without bells, periods or rigid timetables.
I’m sure there are students who abuse the responsibility this school encourages them to take. But rather than creating a system designed to manage the recalcitrant few (often to the detriment of the responsible many) the school chooses to demonstrate in every way possible the benefits that flow from increased self-responsibility.
It’s an interesting sort of discipline required to align all facets of the school to reinforce this policy of encouraging self-responsibility. It’s a discipline reflected in the way teachers (and students) are recruited and inducted; in the way succession planning and professional development are undertaken; and in the way little victories are continually acknowledged and celebrated.
In my view, it’s HR practitioners who are in the best position to observe this discipline (or lack of it) at their workplaces. It would be terrific if CEOs and senior managers understood their roles as system reinforcers and advocates of the mission and vision. But all too often they are too harassed to notice.
So, it is left to HR systems, practice and behaviour to model the ideal and experiment with what tinkering is needed when things deviate.
Perhaps the thing that struck me most at my parent information session was being told that my daughter had spent part of each of the past seven days with her classmates working out their mission statement; though their teachers didn’t call it that.
The final statement (all six paragraphs of it) was prominently displayed on the classroom wall, but my daughter had a pretty good idea what it said when I asked her at home the following morning. She also told me she enjoyed being involved in developing her mission because “it means I know what this year will be like, and I can talk to Miss Begg when it isn’t like that”.
Every corporation I have been involved with over the past few years has had a mission statement. In all but one case the mission was developed by a small team (consisting of either senior executives or sometimes a ‘diagonal slice’ of the organisation) and occasionally distributed more widely ‘for comment’ before being adopted.
Dare I ask why a class of 11-year-olds can all be trusted to work seriously on developing their own mission, but not adult employees? Surely in the twenty-first century it can’t be because senior executives still think this is their job? Or, because today’s competitive environment doesn’t allow us to take the time necessary?
Perhaps it’s just because so many adults have so little real experience in forward planning, goal setting or visioning the future. I know these are things I was not taught.
Courtney’s teachers also talked about the processes for reporting on her performance during the year. They explained she would be given plenty of time during school to think and talk about her performance, and that she would be present at the end of the year on parent-teacher night to demonstrate what she had done and say what she had learned.
Her experience here will at least be partially shared by employees in many modern workplaces. Self-assessment is, at last, an important part of many contemporary performance management schemes. I would have to say, however, that the range of characteristics and attributes which will be used by her teacher to assess and report on Courtney’s performance is far broader in scope than is entrusted to almost all corporate managers. Great care will be taken to ensure that the discussion of performance in grade five focuses on all seven of what Howard Gardner calls ‘multiple intelligences’ and it will be as focused on Courtney’s emotional development as much as her intellectual development.
I know how challenging this can be, having tried to introduce broader, more effective criteria into corporate performance appraisal schemes, only to be confronted by line managers lacking the necessary training or understanding – despite many of them earning more than twice what my childrens’ teachers do.
This highlights a significant opportunity for HR professionals to make a real difference at their workplaces. After all, HR training is supposed to equip us to better understand people at work.
In this context, I can’t help commenting that both the grade five teachers are women. Perhaps more respect still needs to be given to the way feminine instincts approach the creation and nurturing of human relationships.
Courtney’s school does have a director of human resources, but the only time I have ever seen him was at the welcome ceremony earlier this year when he handed out staff long service awards. Interestingly, the principal told me that this would be the last of this style of ceremony since the school had moved to a career structure based on demonstrated competence rather than length of service. Given the strong influence of trades unions in teaching this was a bit of a surprise. However, when he told me that the staff voted virtually unanimously for the new agreement, I guess the union had little choice but to endorse it.
Finding stable and inspiring role models is difficult in today’s work world, and it’s even harder to be sure how to adapt them to any particular circumstances. Perhaps a primary school’s an unusual place to look, but then again it’s here that the workforce of the future is being shaped.
Charles Brass has 17 years HR experience and currently serves as chair of the Future of Work Foundation. Email: email@example.com