Early on in my corporate communications career, I was fortunate to work for Phil. He was a creative, critical thinker who loved to push the boundaries. He would not only review and edit my work, but ask tough, important questions along the way. If you didn’t have ALL the answers, Phil would send you back to your desk to get them. And even if he didn’t necessarily agree with your ideas or approach, more often than not, if you did your homework and effectively stated your case, he’d let you spread your wings and execute.
Phil also taught me the greatest lesson of all: Selling an idea to others is best done with a balanced approach — where the pros AND cons are clearly articulated, rather than just presenting my own proposed plan of action. He would say, “People are smart. If you show them you’ve thought through not just the pros, but the cons too, the chances are strong they’ll come to the same conclusion as you, and you’ll gain credibility — especially with our senior management team.”
Phil was right. Not only did my proposal for a “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” earn across-the-board buy in from the CEO on down, I earned professional respect along the way, and in turn, people at every level of the company helped to make sure my team succeeded in executing (and we did — in a big way). It was a pivotal moment in my career because it eventually led to me running corporate employee volunteer programs, and non-profit recruitment campaigns for youth mentors.
Fast forward to my experiences with Medfield school task forces and committees. On any number of initiatives, we have smart and engaged parents, teachers and administrators who eagerly want to roll up their sleeves to make a difference. I’ve always come to those tables buoyed by the great lesson of looking at all sides of a proposal — and that’s in addition to journalism training (despite initially going to the “dark side” of PR, as my reporter friends liked to joke).
Yet four years ago, here I was at the first meeting of the former Elementary School Day Committee. Leading up to it, I had heard that extending the school day was “the only way” Dale Street music ensembles would be put back into it. Despite the warning, I felt it was critical that I approach my role on the committee objectively. Quite honestly, as the mother of three older children, I was most worried that extending the day would hurt the youngest K-3 students (and I found out too late that I wasn’t alone with my concerns according to survey data that was not made publicly available until after the extended day had been approved. However, teachers on the committee also voiced the very same concerns).
Sitting at those first few committee meetings and remembering previous classroom teacher feedback, I was motivated to see the schedule from all sides and came prepared with research about pros and cons, but the cons were quickly dismissed. After just a couple of meetings where the pros of an extended day were laid out in slide presentations and small group discussions, this question was asked of the group: “So are we all in agreement on the extended day? We don’t want to hear later that people walked out of here saying they are against it.”
Many months later, when it was all over and our work was done, I heard more than one fellow committee member express this frustration: “Why did we waste more than a year of our time when it seemed the decision had already been made?”
Whether elementary school day committee; principal, office staff and teacher search committees; or special task forces, the perceived “window-dressing” approach has since played out in multiple ways, and it doesn’t just happen here in Medfield (and it’s not the fault of sub-chairs who truly want authentic collaboration but are often held captive).
No matter what the role or where it happens, it’s demoralizing to want to do the right thing, and spend time and energy on an initiative, but then feel you don’t have a meaningful voice in the process. No one wants to put a lot of thought into creating a product only to learn after the fact that it has been changed by others, AND you never had a seat at the table where it happened.
We have wonderful, talented and dedicated people volunteering across our community on any given day. Everyone’s time, efforts and sincere motivations deserve respect.
So what’s the solution? When it comes to committees, leaders should be accountable for achieving authentic collaboration that requires:
- A statement of purpose before committee members are recruited. What is it that we’re here to achieve? How will we measure our success?
- Clearly defined member responsibilities on day one. Where do my ideas and feedback end, and where does the higher authority begin? Who is the ultimate decision-maker?
- A commitment to transparency and honest communication. How do we share our mid-term progress (good and not-so-good) to the outside world? People certainly want to hear that things are working well, but they also want to know the stumbling blocks, and where there’s a difference of opinion or views. A balanced view needs to be shared with the public early on in the process — long before any vote is cast.
If we want to see committee involvement and volunteerism overall flourish in Medfield, let’s put an end to taking advantage of people’s good intentions, overriding their decisions without their input, and ultimately treating the committees on which they serve as window dressing. Time is precious, but even more so, is one’s burning desire to make a difference in the lives of children. When volunteers as treated as true collaborative partners in education, it benefits everyone.