If you can’t get along with people…don’t be a leader!

I’ve always been a strong believer in the importance of fostering effective relationships in the workplace. There is good reason why it is the first competency stated in all three standards; Superintendent, Leadership and Teacher. But some of the best lessons regarding the importance of relationship building have come from the business world. In other words, the importance of effective relationships are not “siloed” in education only. Effective organizations anywhere, are only as effective as the relationships contained within and those relationships must always begin from the leader out. So, if you can’t get along with people, please don’t take on a leadership role!

Maybe it is because I’m approaching retirement and getting a little “cranky in my old age” but leaders need to be relationally focused. This is especially true in education where our bottom line is students and our business is people. You would think that is such a common sense statement and yet, we still have leaders within the education world who “just don’t get it.” Don’t laugh business world, because you have them too!

There is an old saying that goes something like this, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Non-relational leaders typically just want to be right! It is good for their ego- they get to prove to others how smart, etc they are! Being right is not necessarily evil, it is just that it can’t be used as the only leverage as a leader. “Right” leaders make excuses and point fingers. Sadly, I’m not sure whether “right leaders’ even know what happiness is, since it truly comes from serving others and helping people find the right solutions.

The expectations of our leaders to get along with people has to be higher than it currently is in society. Just because you are good at “X” doesn’t mean you have leadership capacity. Leaders need to be relational and not just with the people who have similar personalities or like them. You see it is up to the leader to try to forge relationships with all…even the ones you don’t really like! And sometimes that’s extremely difficult because there are some miserable people out there and even in your own organization. Don’t get hung up on the relationships that are sour (you won’t please everybody), but also don’t quit trying to build better ones with those individuals. That’s part of the responsibility of a leader, to foster effective relationships with all not just some!

Leaders set the tone for their organization or department. Without the ability to build high quality relationships, compliance rather than commitment breeds. Compliance has never served innovation well and quite simply it is unhealthy for any organization. Commitment to an organization will always start with leaders who value their people and strive to foster effective relationships throughout the organization.

Coming soon… Tips for relational leadership.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2019

February is the shortest month of the year…right? Given this nonstop cold snap, it has felt like the longest month of the year. I know that when Donna and I eventually move to Red Deer, I’ll expect a longer and colder winter but until then, I’m still looking for the break that comes from a good old chinook! Hopefully warmer weather is right around the corner.

I’m finishing up this message from my hotel room in Vancouver where I’ve been the past couple of days attending my C21 Canada winter meetings. Surrey Schools hosted the event and as always the ability to visit schools and meet with superintendents from across Canada is a tremendous learning experience. I know our senior team at the board office often fears when I return from these meetings rubbing my hands together with always some great ideas to be shared.

We finished off the afternoon yesterday with a presentation on social and emotional learning and the impact on student achievement. Wanting to reflect on that information and given the temperature of 6 degrees Celsius, I decided to go for a run along the ocean. I was pretty impressed with my pace as I was even passing a few of my fellow joggers on the boardwalk. However, that didn’t last long and my running ego was crushed as a race walker passed me, not once but twice!!!  So if you hear me say that I’m going for a run, it is probably a much better visual to think of a plodder and not an actual runner…more Clydesdale than Thoroughbred!

One of the bright lights this past February was some tremendous professional learning. Teachers’ Convention had keynote presentations from Michael Landsberg and Sarah Prevette and our support staff had the pleasure of hearing a no-nonsense full day presentation from Dr. Jody Carrington. Additionally, many staff, students, parents and community members heard a very powerful talk from Holocaust survivor, Dr. Eva Olsson. When we are immersed in the education system, we sometimes take for granted all the wonderful learning opportunities provided compared to the non-educational world. It truly is a blessing to be within a learning community.

Superintendent interviews were held by the Board earlier this week and a motion was made at Wednesday meeting. The process will now be offering the position to the successful candidate and negotiating a contract within the new compensation regulations and then sending the request to appoint a superintendent to the Minister of Education. As I’ve stated in various communications, the timeline for Ministerial approval can take up to 4 weeks once submitted. A public announcement cannot occur until this approval is received. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a quick turnaround.

The February Board meeting had information provided on brain research, enrolment projections and a report on the status of our Board Continuous Improvement Plan. Planning also occurred for the upcoming Council of School Council Chairs meeting and discussion on the upcoming election. The board brief is available here.

Finally, we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday which is March 6th. Joann Bartley has provided all staff some great resources to assist in making your Lenten journey one of great significance. Please take advantage of these resources not only from a personal but also a family and community basis to make the season of Lent a focal point in your life. May God guide you along your Lenten journey!

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Transitioning to a New Superintendent

This is the first Lethbridge Herald article I’ve written since I officially announced my retirement for the end of December 2019. The new Superintendent of Schools for Holy Spirit Catholic School Division will take over the reins on January 5, 2020. It may seem odd to many that my announcement has come so early in the year, and even more strange that the advertisement for the position closed on February 15th with interviews to be held on February 25th. However, the reasoning is quite sound given that there are two additional senior administrative staff, Deputy Superintendent Brian Macauley and Director of Learning Lorelie Lenaour, retiring at the end of June.

One of my great advantages coming into my position almost 10 years ago was the ability to choose my own people early in my tenure. As people retired or left for other opportunities, I was able to select my own team to lead the school division. I believe there are less than six individuals in the system that I didn’t have the responsibility of hiring into their current administrative positions. I’m hopeful that the new superintendent will have the same advantage, and so the sooner she/he is named the sooner those senior positions can be filled. We are also about to embark on our next three year education plan and, while I have some great ideas about where we can go as a division, it is important that the new superintendent is well involved in the process.

How often have you heard that timing is everything? Since the superintendent is the Board of Trustees’ only employee, the selection of a new superintendent is clearly one of the Board’s most important responsibilities. Nonetheless, once the Board makes their selection and outlines contract, terms and conditions, it is the Minister of Education who provides final approval for the appointment. The review process by the Ministry can take up to four weeks and so this is why I say timing is everything. The Board is hopeful that this can occur prior to the calling of an election because, once called, the public naming of the new superintendent will be significantly delayed.

Probably the most important factor in my early announcement and quick search process is to ensure an effective transition for the school division. In a perfect world, the incoming superintendent will take on the role of deputy superintendent by August 1st, and I would be able to work with the individual for five months. The deputy role in the school division is highly concentrated in human resources. This initial placement would enable the successful candidate to better understand division practices and procedures and, more importantly, get to know the people. Since all systems have a resident culture, those five months will also allow the individual to become fully immersed before taking over in 2020.

There have only been three superintendents since Holy Spirit became a regional division in 1995. It is not a common occurrence for boards to hire superintendents, but ensuring the right one is chosen is essential. I’ve had a great run during these past 10 years, but it is now time for another person to take on this exciting leadership role. Fingers crossed, the transition plan established will empower the new leader to, not only build on the division’s current strengths, but to enhance and bring new life into the system, as required.

Know your people and let them know you!

It still amazes me there are leaders who don’t believe in the importance of fostering effective relationships with their people. And when I say people, I just don’t mean their direct reports but as many as possible within the organization. While I understand that may be impossible in larger corporations or school divisions, it should always be a priority.

Michael Fullan talks about “loving your employees” and I think that in order to love them, you must know them and they must know you. Let’s begin with the second part of that equation, “and they must know you!” Wait, wait, here comes that word…VULNERABILITY! Oh, Brene Brown would be so proud! In order to get to a point where you can really know someone, their hopes and their dreams, they need to know your authentic self. They need to know who you really are and what you stand for. I’m not talking about sharing your inner most secrets or your personal demons but quite honestly, they need to know you! While I may hold the leadership position of Superintendent of Schools, I’m also a son, husband, father and very proud grandpa of two amazing grandchildren. My staff and I would suggest a good portion of my network knows more about me than just simply being a superintendent. And that is where it must start, the beginning of an effective relationship, with trust and vulnerability extended from the leader!

For the past six years I’ve held future plan meetings with every administrator (central office and school) in our division. In someone who believes in moving people around, it provides me with some great insights for possible transfers and so it is extremely helpful for the organization. Getting people not only on the right bus but the right seat on the bus is essential. But the power of the exercise is the knowledge of your people’s plans and then seeing how you as a leader might assist them in fulfilling those plans. Simple questions that ask about future plans, growth areas, opportunities and barriers and successes and challenges all allow the leader to know their employees better. While my meetings are fairly structured, the idea is to portray the conversations as simply “fireside chats.” The more honest they are with you, the more you are able to support their development and sometimes, just get them “unstuck.”

I’m reminded that these types of chats don’t arise without a significant investment in trust building by the leader. You can’t get to that rawness without it! It is the rawness that you need in order to truly know your people and assist them in their own growth. And please don’t confuse “rawness” with the need to become a counsellor. You are coaching at best and listening at the very least, which is often what is just required.

The vulnerability scale for your people is on a continuum. Sometimes, employees are so tight-lipped (and for many reasons) that your ability to coach and sometimes just listen are limited. Sad and very frustrating but the building of trusting relationships is unique for every person, with some it requires a little more flexibility and a lot more skill. No matter, keep trying to know your people…they deserve it!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2019

Last week, principals and senior administrators travelled to Mount St. Francis for a retreat. The focus of the retreat was on the 5 Marks of a Catholic Leader. The marks were developed by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta. An Excellent Catholic Leader:

  1. Embraces the dignity of all as created in the image of God.
  2. Advocates for Catholic Education within and beyond the school community and makes decisions rooted in Catholic teachings.
  3. Intentionally directs and fosters the development of Catholic Education through faith permeation.
  4. Is called to be a witness and an agent of hope, proclaiming the Gospel message to all people, everywhere and at all times.
  5. Ensures a communal vision; recognizing that God will be found with and in each other. 

It has been 6 years since this group has gone offsite for some spiritual nourishment and while I know how difficult it is to get away from our schools and offices, I was again reminded of the importance of doing just that! Earlier this month, trustees participated in their yearly retreat at the Martha Retreat Centre. Like in our schools and for our students, spiritual retreats are an essential part of what we do in Catholic Education and going forward, we must continue the commitment to nourish our souls just like we nourish our minds in professional development.

One of my closing comments to the group was that this would be the last time this entire group was together for another offsite retreat. With the retirements of Brian Macauley and Lorelie Lenaour at the end of June the group will not be the same next year. This will also be the case in many of our schools with those who have already participated in the voluntary retirement program or those who may be announcing at a later date. While I’ll speak more about our retirees at our banquet in June, I can’t say enough of the blessing I’ve had to work closely with both Brian and Lorelie. They are truly excellent Catholic leaders and both have served Holy Spirit exceptionally well in their time here.

Speaking of retirement, the closing date for the Superintendent of Schools position is February 15th. Interviews have been set up for February 25th and I’m hoping that the turnaround for the announcement is quite quick. It takes approximately 4 weeks for the Minister of Education to sign off on a superintendent appointment. The sooner the announcement is made, the sooner we can begin planning for 2019 and beyond. While I’m very interested in who will be applying for the position, the decision for the new superintendent rests with the Board of Trustees and I’m taking as much of a “hands off” approach as I can in this process.

I’m well involved in my annual future plan meetings with all leaders in the school. This is year six of this process and I’ve always found it to be beneficial for both myself and the Division. The benefits are largely due to the honesty (and sometimes vulnerability) provided to me by our leaders. While I’ll have next to no influence beyond 2019, the information of future goals should be extremely helpful for the incoming superintendent. While I schedule these meetings with all administration, my door is always open for any staff to book a time to come in and discuss future plans.

At the beginning of this school year, we began our partnership with Canadian Blood Services. Our initial pledge target was 15. I am very proud to say that we had a total of 78 donors last year of which, 14 were brand new donors and 10 were reinstated (not donated between 12-36 months). Congratulations to all who donated this past year. Our target this year is 80! Happy donating!

In closing this message, I want to sincerely thank all those who in person or via email sent congratulations on my retirement announcement. I am most grateful for all of the kind words. God bless!

Doing right not simply being right!

Most young leaders come into positions with the strong desire to be right. It makes good sense! Walking into a leadership position there is a need for your employees to gain confidence in your abilities and one of the quickest ways to do that is to be right. However, if being right becomes the only mantra for young leaders little development occurs. The world (unfortunately) is full of young leaders who have turned older and still want to be right! They tend to be toxic to any culture and want to rule rather than lead!

But it feels so good to be right! That is because it is our ego that is taking over and the truth is, ego has little to do with effective leadership. The shift that must occur for the leader is from being right to doing right! The need to be always right is often authoritarian. The desire to do right comes from wanting to influence and not dictate. The ability to influence is one of the true characteristics of effective leadership.

If you have any sort of power in your position, you have the ability to make decisions and cast your “rightness” on them. Power, does not necessarily bring you influence or respect! Power, in of itself, does not make you a successful leader. In most cases, ultimate power brings only fear and compliance not support and commitment.

With power comes much responsibility to do the right thing. But how? I would look to two of my favorites, Simon Sinek and Brene Brown for insights and suggest that both of these leaders’ works are read and studied. Sinek always asks the question about the “why?” Do you know your why? Do you know why you exist as a company and as an individual? It is about your own core being, your own mission. The farther you move away from your mission, the more often you want to be right instead of do right. Brown has some great work on vulnerability. Leaders must “shed their armour” in order to lead with vulnerability! You cannot be right all the time but you can strive to do right always. That means being authentic, open and transparent. It means parking your ego and doing what is right for those you serve.

Traditional leadership wants you to lead with power and authority. Unfortunately we have too many examples of this in our world from politics to large corporations to even small businesses. Intimidation is often seen as the way to be right. But we can’t afford to continually support traditional leadership in any organization. Doing right for others must always prevail over being right for yourself!


Change Required

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on January 09, 2019.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. They typically require far too much change and, as we know, change is very hard. I’m a little friendlier with “fresh starts” since they can occur at any time throughout the year. But I think all of us, whether in education or in general life, should be looking at slow and steady improvement. Massive change rarely happens overnight and without many casualties. In reality, massive change tends to occur when little steps are taken and repeated until they become the norm.

Before I wrote this article, I took some time to review my superintendent colleagues’ musings over the past year. Virtually all of these articles spoke about change; things being initiated, practices being tweaked or improvements being made. Interesting when we know how difficult change is to accomplish. Douglas Reeves explains that, “Change of any sort is difficult and painful. Change represents a loss – a loss of prior practices and a loss of an established comfort zone.”

So what is the alternative? Do we really want to just maintain the status quo? Most people believe in change as long as it doesn’t impact them. There tends to be a fair amount of finger pointing when the topic of change comes up in any organization. Statements like, “They must be talking about him,” or “That never happened in the old days when she wasn’t here,” might be heard. The ever-increasing speed of change only seems to add to our resistance.

And what about leaders? They have seldom been hired to maintain the status quo. They are generally asked to build a better future, increase profits or get better results, all of which require improvements – and that means change. Being the best organization requires constant incremental shifts in policy, procedures and practice. That is part of the job description of any leader.

Change, whether from an organizational point of view or a personal perspective, begins with some uneasiness. Though no one likes to be uncomfortable, most of us know that being stuck in the same old routine is not overly healthy either. Improvement needs to come from honest reflection of one’s work and achievement of one’s goals. That in itself can be difficult, but it is a necessary step to begin the change process. Contextual data is far more important here than any individual’s opinion or judgment.

In the coming year, Holy Spirit will begin working on our next 3-Year Education Plan. Through a review of Alberta Education’s Accountability Pillar surveys and our annual ThoughtExchange data, trustees will begin to set the direction for the next three years and administrators will wrestle with how best to build on current successes and shift priorities to continually improve. We don’t want to lose the good work we’ve achieved through our focus on faith, literacy and numeracy or our commitment to First Nations, Metis and Inuit learning, but our priorities and efforts will need to be reevaluated and challenged to ultimately become better.  

That is the essence of change, to become better! School systems across the province have always been charged with that goal. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect that the students in our schools will be better served or organizations will suddenly improve. Change is hard work; mostly because it is unpopular and creates uncertainty. Yet we can’t just wish for a better anything without making the necessary changes. Call it a New Year’s resolution, or a fresh start or simply building on your own successes, but engage in change this coming year to become the best version of yourself! As eloquently stated by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Twitter Trolls!

I love Twitter! Since joining in May 2011 I have utilized it as a great source to share my own educational thoughts but more importantly learn from thousands of others in the Twittersphere. Virtually everything that I tweet out in regards to education, I include the hashtag #hs4 which is the school division where I serve as Superintendent of Schools. I also tend to include #abed which is the hashtag for Alberta Education. I think it is selfish not to share great information that can assist educators throughout the province.

While I love the power of Twitter from a professional standpoint and even a little bit personal, I’m becoming more frustrated with what I will call “Twitter Trolls.” While everyone is entitled to an opinion, it is disheartening when tweets are laced with hatred, foul language and rudeness. It is even worse when those tweets are coming from faceless accounts and the statements are made void of actual facts or misleading information for the sole purpose of “proving a point.”

Twitter and other social media platforms have some great benefits when used properly. Schools work hard to ensure that students are taught proper digital citizenship and leave an appropriate footprint. But when the adults can’t do the same…

As we approach a new year, I’m wondering whether all of us on social media might pause just a second before we hit send and…

  • Reflect on what message we are sending?
  • Reflect on what we are role modeling to others?
  • Reflect on the impact of our posts both positive and negative?
  • Think about who we might be helping or hurting?
  • Reflect on whether the content is leading or misleading?
  • Decide if we would really say what we want to say in person?

To me the last statement is essential and for most sets the bar. Could you really say the things you do on social media, with the same expression, to the person directly? If you can, maybe it is because you’re just not that nice or really vengeful and then in reality your bar is pretty darn low! So instead of being “Twitter Trolls” or just plain offside on other forms of social media,  let’s try to raise the bar in 2019!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Christmas Message 2018

We are in the last week of school before Christmas and I’m sure many are looking forward to a little rest and relaxation over the coming holidays. Let’s just begin with this… WELL DESERVED!!! For those who don’t live in the education world, it is easy to point fingers and tell us “how few hours we work” or “how many holidays we get” but we know the truth about looking after our students and each other day in and day out. It is what you are called to do and you do it so selflessly and always for those in most need. Thank you!

December is always a tough month as we lead up to a vacation but this one was just a little tougher. We had more tragedies than usual and serious ailments and illness consumed many. Sometimes people find it difficult to be as faithful when bad things happen to good people. Yet, when we are faced with these issues, we turn to God and offer prayers to those in need. We strive to build a community of hope and offer a spirit of joy even when we face difficult times. It is this blessing that I see in the schools I visit and the people I see. Thank you again!

This time next week, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the arrival of our grandchildren for Christmas. Donna and I will be hosting Christmas for the entire Smeaton side of the family for the first time here in Lethbridge. Usually, we head to Medicine Hat, but it just felt right this time to stay home and cherish the blessings of little ones and older ones. Carter will be three in January and so Christmas will be very exciting for him, while Emerson, at only 7 months, will just be intrigued with all of the lights! I can’t wait to hold these two little ones! 

For some, this marks the last Christmas vacation as an employee of Holy Spirit. There have been quite a number of staff who have taken advantage of the voluntary retirement program.  I know this decision is not easy and so I can only wish you the best in your future and many thanks for your work. May this Christmas be extremely memorable!

Finally to all, I hope this Season of Advent was one of preparation, prayer and reflection. In just over a week, we will celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. May the light of Christ guide all your travels and may the warmth of His love encompass you always.

On behalf of Donna and I, we wish each of you a most blessed Christmas and best wishes in 2019. God Bless!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2018

December has arrived, which means I am rid of my “Movember” throwback Tom Selleck, Magnum PI moustache. Great cause…terrible look for me today!

All joking aside, the start of December is important for us in our Catholic tradition, as it is the beginning of our liturgical year. Over the next four Sundays we will be celebrating the Season of Advent in preparation of the coming of the Christ child. New beginnings are always important as they give us an opportunity to “reboot.” How do we get ready for Christmas? Who do we need to forgive? How do we learn to give more of ourselves to help those less fortunate and in need? All of these are questions to be reflective upon during this season.

But there is something else we must be aware of as we journey toward Christmas. Sadly, this most Holy season is not beautiful for all. Christmas can be a reminder to some of fractured families and broken relationships. It can cause anxiety or fear when food might be scarce or safety might be in question. It can also be a source of heartache if love is not present. Sometimes we are aware of the students and staff in our schools who will feel this way but many others either hide it well or lash out without us really knowing why. I think the second group I’ve mentioned are the most difficult, because we often want to lash back because “they” deserve it. And, maybe they do, but in this Advent Season we might want to look for a softer approach and a more compassionate response because… 

The month of November is always hectic. With meetings and conferences for CASS, CCSSA, ACSTA and ASBA, I felt like I was never home sleeping in my own bed. But one of the great benefits of attending those meetings and conferences is the opportunity to learn from others and share our own practices. Education is far too complex for anybody to do it on their own anymore and that is why I was so happy with the direction of our Division PD Day. Sharing our expertise and areas for growth in collaborative structures should always positively impact our practice and ultimately our students’ successes. I’m hopeful that we can arrange at least a couple of these collaboration days into future calendars.

The November board meeting tends to be the “meatiest” of all yearly meetings. The Board of Trustees are presented with the quarterly review of our Continuous Improvement Plan and are provided with the 2017-18 Annual Education Results Report.  The Fall Budget Update is provided as well as the Audited Financial Statements. Expenses are consistently higher than revenues and this year the Board dipped into their operating reserves to the tune of $752,829 plus $190,000 from capital reserves to balance our $65,632,839 budget. Over 79% of this budget will be spent on instruction and the percentages to be spent in the areas of Operations and Maintenance, Capital and Debt Services, Transportation and Board and System Administration have each been decreased from the actuals in 2017-18. While our enrollment growth this year did not meet our projection, I’m very pleased that we continue to place supports both certificated and non-certificated into our schools directly. Over the last five year period, our enrolment growth has been 4.8% while I growth of certificated personnel has been 11.9%. This year alone we’ve added 6.28 FTE to our teaching composite and 11.73 FTE to our support staff. This type of data is a great testament to our Board’s commitment to student learning.

As was communicated on Friday, Brian Macauley has announced his intention to access our Voluntary Retirement Program and will be completing his tenure as Deputy Superintendent on June 30, 2019. The deadline for accessing this program is December 14th. I know there are a number of staff who have made contact with HR to discuss this program more fully. I can also make myself available for those who would like to discuss their future plans with me. This is never an easy decision and so please know that my prayers are with you in your discernment.

Winter hit today and so roads won’t necessarily be great for travel so stay safe out there. Please remember your impact on others as we journey together in this Advent Season. Your response may lift up or put down those most in need. May this Advent Season be one of prayer, forgiveness, compassion and love. Have a wonderful December and God Bless!