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Cage-Busting Network Performance

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Frances McLaughlin, President of Education Pioneers. Education Pioneers is a national nonprofit with a bold vision to transform education into the best led and managed sector in the U.S. to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education. To fuel this vision, Education Pioneers is working to attract 10,000 top leaders, managers, and analysts into the sector by 2023.

Rick Hess is right about the choice we have to work within or "bust" the cages that prevent us from educating every child in this country well. "Cage-busting" as a term is making its way into the Education Pioneers vernacular. But is cage-busting enough?

Hess talks about cage-busting as the Yin to the Yang of the five C's of education leadership canon - collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching, and culture - but I think the Yang may be network performance. Before talking more about network performance, I'd like to first share what I see as a potential risk in cage-busting.

Recently, I took Gallup's "StrengthsFinder" assessment, and it turns out that I'm an "Achiever." While that particular strength has an ambitious and productive-sounding name, it also comes with some strings attached, including a "relentless need for achievement." According to the assessment, "You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by 'every day' you mean every single day--workdays, weekends, vacations."

I suspect that many "cage-busters" may also rely heavily on their "Achiever" strength, and that may not be entirely positive. For me and for other "Achievers," a relentless drive to achieve can be counterproductive when it causes us to focus on the incremental changes that give us an "Achiever" rush but may not actually move the boulder, or when it leads to burn out. Relentless achievement is tiring, and if it's not leading to transformation it also seems futile. So we can come home both exhausted and dissatisfied with our results. And we look, relentlessly, for the next result we can achieve.

I'm thinking more seriously about how my own "relentless need for achievement" (doesn't that just sound pathological?) may be getting in the way of me, and others, creating the level and depth of change I believe the education sector needs.

We know this work isn't about one heroic person. And it may not be about hundreds or even thousands of cage-busters. It's about cage-busters working together.

A report by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in their recent CHRO Quarterly shows that highly effective teams and organizations are increasingly dependent on the "network performance" of individuals, which the CEB describes as "an employee's contribution to the performance of others broadly across the organization, beyond individual and team performance."

Top performers and leaders will be those who can use "their networks to improve individual performance, seeking out and adopting new ideas and processes from others; and [contribute] to their networks by sharing resources, feedback, advice, and innovations that improve the performance of their organization and their peers." Many of the cage-busters who Hess profiles in his book demonstrate their network performance know-how.
The CEB says that 50% of an organization's "enterprise success" is a result of its employees' network performance; the other 50% is a result of the employees' individual performance.

What competencies do strong network performers share? The CEB has identified four, in order of importance:

1. Prioritization: Prioritize contributions for the organization, not just the role.

2. Teamwork: Possess knowledge of peers' work, not just their personal characteristics.

3. Organizational Awareness: Understand organizational context, not just formal structure.

4. Problem solving: Identify and initiate change, not just positively react to change.

As I read through this list, I realized that Education Pioneers was ahead of its time when, 10 years ago, we focused on recruiting individuals who demonstrate these competencies, and we designed programs to ensure that all Education Pioneers would develop something I now know is called "network performance."

On Tuesday, Education Pioneers alumnus Scott Gaiber talked about how he was able to help transform Everett Middle School, but his success hinged on leveraging local education policy, support from the district, the strength of his own team, and the strong leadership from principal Richard Curci and his school team. Yesterday, alumna Shannah VarĂ³n wrote about gaining cross-sector leadership skills to best support her great teachers so that they can be most effective with students. Scott and Shannah have been successful because of their cage-busting and network performer attributes.

Transforming the education sector requires both cage busting and network performance. We need leaders with both attributes at every level in education to build lasting, high-performing organizations across the country. This Yin and Yang ensures that individuals and education organizations, both large and small, will change in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Success requires that none of us goes it alone. At Education Pioneers, we often quote an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." To transform education for every child in this country, we must go together.

- Frances McLaughlin

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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