Yesterday, I did an interview for the BAM network on Good Boss, Bad Boss. The content expert on line was Justin Snider, who teaches at Columbia and has in-depth knowledge about K-12 schools, as that was the focus of the conversation. Justin had great questions and comments about bosses in general (see this recent post) and about school principals in particular. I thought he made especially good comments about how the best principals are PRESENT, constantly interacting with teachers, students, and parents. He especially suggested that school principals think about where their offices are located.. are they in a place that essentially requires them to keep bumping into teachers and parents, or are they in some corner of campus that reduces the amount of interaction.
I like Justin's point about the office because it reminds me of the design for Pixar's building in Emeryville, which was inspired by Steve Jobs' assertion that they needed to make sure that everyone was basically forced to bump into each other as a result of the placement of the food and bathrooms. At one point, Jobs half-seriously suggested that there be just one central bathroom so that everyone had to run into everyone else and there would be a lot of random encounters as people walked to and from that crucial location. The ultimate design resulted in more than one bathroom , but the food and bathrooms were located so that people need to walk through this central area constantly -- one of those little things that has helped fuel Pixar's creativity over the years.
After the interview, Justin and I exchanged emails, I told him a story about how I saw the difference between the impact of a good versus a bad principal at my daughter's middle school, how there was a great principal who seemed to know every students name and was widely loved. He retired and was replaced by a bad one who seemed to not know any student's name and was so out of touch that his lack of soul and other more objective acts of incompetence provoked widespread despair among students and parents, and quite a few teachers complained about his lousy leadership openly. I was reminded of this difference between the two principals just a few weeks ago when, even though it is has been a few years since the good boss last saw my daughter, he greeted her by name in a local restaurant. In contrast, my daughter is still annoyed that the bad one mispronounced so many student names, including hers, at graduation (Her name is "Eve," he called her something that sounded like "Ev.")
Justin had an interesting reaction to my little story:
Actually, right after our call concluded, I realized I should have said that a great back-of-the-envelope measure of whether a principal is generally doing a good job is how many students' names he or she knows. In my experience, there's a strong correlation between principals who know almost all students by name and those who are respected (and seen as effective) by students, parents and teachers. It's not a perfect measure, of course, but I think it's probably a fairly good indicator of a school's climate and a leader's effectiveness.
I like Justin's observation. Of course, some us are better at remembering names than others and we all have cognitive limits. But Justin's argument is compelling to me because knowing people's names seems like a good sign that a boss is directing attention to those he or she leads and is responsible for helping and is not overly focused on him or herself, or on kissing-up to the superintendent, board of education, or other superiors.
What do you think of this metric? Is it right for schools? What about other workplaces?