Sunday, January 13, 2008

Little Things are Big Things

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career has been mentoring those who are going down the same road I have traveled. That opportunity presents itself once again as a close colleague was recently appointed to a principalship literally overnight. During the past week, I have spent some time each day at the school in an honest effort to give this principal the kind of support that every new principal deserves yet few receive.

Seeing my colleague in action serves as a reminder of the challenge the principalship brings and the tools needed to meet that challenge. Input comes from all directions, often at the most unlikely of times. Even lunch is fair game. The requests for the principal’s time and attention are by in large little things. The challenge comes in handling the sheer volume of them. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that the “signature tool” is the secret to making things happen while maintaining sanity.

The “signature tool” can take many forms. It can be paper-based, such as a notepad, a loose-leaf planner, or a legal pad. It can be digital, such as a Palm or BlackBerry. Whatever form it takes, the signature is always available, must be quick, and must be easy to use. It is that trusted partner who never forgets anything and holds everything in one place. Over time, the appearance of that tool gives confidence to the observer that what is being talked about at the moment will not fall through the cracks. That little tool becomes unmistakably linked to accomplishment.

Over the last several days, a goodly share of the talk between me and my friend has included that particular idea. How and where will she record all of the requests, all of the ideas that strike while walking down the hall, and all of the positive activity that is happening in a school which already does so many things so well? How will she trap all of those “little things” while staying focused on the task at hand? We discussed the pros and cons of entry directly in the BlackBerry, initial entry on a notepad, and even the use of Jott.

During my most recent visit, a teacher walked into the principal’s office and in words which obviously came from the heart, began by saying, “I just want to tell you how much all of the little things you are doing means,” and went on to tell of how word of little things getting done was spreading into the community.

Doing little things, and doing them well, is a big thing. Virtually every task we perform is insignificant when viewed alone. Knit together, those small accomplishments move mountains.

My friend and I set up a voice mailbox, imported scores of repeating tasks into Outlook, devised needed forms, and ironed out all sorts of organizational details which will later save time for the entire faculty. Our work, however, was interrupted numerous times…by children. A child came to read to the principal, another came to show off her artwork, and another simply needed a little morale boost. This principal stopped and spent time with every one of them. A couple of minutes here. A couple of minutes there.

Little things, yet big things. Big things in the eyes of a child. Big things in shaping the direction of a school. Big things in defining a leadership style for a new principal.
I came away that day with the distinct impression that “a good place to learn and grow” just got a little better.

In the end, it is the attention to detail that makes all the difference. It's the center fielder's extra two steps to the left, the salesman's memory for names, the lover's phone call, the soldier's clean weapon. It's the thing that separates the winners from the losers, the men from the boys, and very often, the living from the dead. Professional success depends upon it, regardless of the field.
--David Noonan
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