Talent Talks

It’s time to get real about mental health in organizational leadership

Kelly Gleischman
May 30, 2018

In May 2015, Austen Heinz, founder and CEO of Cambrian Genomics, took his own life. Unfortunately, he is not alone. Other entrepreneurs have gone down the same path, committing suicide given their immense (mostly private) struggles with mental health challenges like depression or anxiety. While suicide is certainly an extreme outlier in the broad universe of CEOs, the underlying mental health struggles these individuals have wrestled with are unfortunately far too real for many organizational leaders – particularly for entrepreneurs. The immense highs and lows of the entrepreneurial journey are just the right type of conditions for depression and anxiety to form. My own struggles with anxiety have illuminated this even more clearly for me.

And yet we are still not in a place where people can openly talk about these problems. Despite my generation’s increasing willingness to talk about mental health in personal settings, the idea of sharing about mental health issues in a professional environment still gives me significant pause; indeed, writing this article alone has spiked my anxiety levels because of how my colleagues, clients and potential future employers might view it.

In a 2015 study by Michael Freeman, M.D., 242 entrepreneurs were surveyed about their experience; the study found that entrepreneurs were much more likely to report a history of depression than the comparison group. 30% of respondents reported experiencing depression; for comparison sake, the general population statistics show depression as occurring in roughly 7% of people. Another interesting takeaway from the study is that entrepreneurs were more likely to report significant family history with mental health challenges; this seems to suggest that “mental health symptoms, in individuals and their family members, may co-occur with highly advantageous and adaptive outcomes that benefit both the individual and society.” In other words, people that are more susceptible to mental health challenges are the same group of people who succeed as entrepreneurs.

In my view, this is exactly why we as leaders have immense difficulty addressing this topic more broadly: the very traits that make us susceptible to mental health issues are the ones that have led to us to these positions in the first place. How do I reconcile that the very strengths that have brought me success – an unwavering bar for excellence, a deep level of diligence and focus, and an immense care for others – are also the traits that contribute to my susceptibility to anxiety and depression?

I don’t know the answer – and there isn’t one single answer for everyone. For some people, the mental health challenges that are brought out by assuming more significant levels of leadership are simply not worth it. People have to first and foremost take care of themselves – and in no way do I think that people should just “power through” the pain: it’s the quickest route to increased suffering, a mental breakdown, suicide…you name it. Listening to our bodies and minds when they say “enough!” is paramount.

But I do think we need to wrestle with how to create the conditions for people with high levels of conscientiousness and emotionality to be supported in senior leadership roles in a much more intentional way than we ever have. Because the challenges we face as a country – certainly in the area of education – require a different type of leadership than we’ve traditionally had. Leadership that is caring, connected, and kind. Leadership that is representative of our most marginalized communities. Leadership from women and people of color. For this to happen we have to consider how to fully shift the paradigm of how we think about organization leadership and support.

I believe that doing this requires stepping toward others. Vulnerability. Our biggest struggles are amplified when we feel alone – and eased when we are vulnerably able to share them with others.

As I’ve found is true with most things, musicals usually bring some clarity around tough issues. The lyrics in the song “You Will Be Found” from the musical Dear Evan Hansen articulates this call for vulnerability:

“Even when the dark comes crashing through…when you need a friend to carry you, when you’re broken on the ground…you will be found. So let the sun come streaming in, cuz you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again. If you only look around, you will be found.”

I operate in a distributed leadership model; I serve as Managing Partner with two peer leaders as Partners. While I am the one who works directly with our Board of Directors and who has the ultimate tie breaking vote, we consider ourselves from a daily operations perspective to be equal leaders. The two women I share this responsibility with are the only reason I am able to function in this role successfully (or at least as successfully as you can be in your first year of organizational leadership!). Stepping toward others in our organization means that it’s fine to say you have a therapy appointment; it means allowing emotionality (both happy and sad); it means reassigning projects when needed to make room for our non-work, life priorities (like kids and dogs and spouses!). Stepping toward others on our team means vulnerably raising up our imperfections for all to see – which ultimately creates an environment that values innovation and continual growth.

Ushering in a new type of leader – one with a bent toward collaboration and shared ownership – will bring more cutting-edge solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. But without the type of organizational structure that supports these leaders in the right way, the shadow sides of these strengths will stifle the very success they are capable of bringing.

I don’t have all the answers. But organizations can start by simply considering the fundamental question: “What structural changes would lead to a working environment that is fundamentally compatible with strong mental health?” For me, that question – and the ultimate power of vulnerability – has made all the difference.

How does your organization approach mental health for employees and organizational leaders? To what extent does your organizational structure allow for mental health considerations? Share more about your experiences with us and the broader education community by commenting here or on social media! Tweet us @EdFuelOrg or find us on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Lessons from Online Dating: Defining Your School’s Employee Value Proposition

Kelly Gleischman and Mary Mason Boaz
April 26, 2018

When it comes to online dating, we know that your dating profile is the critical step between you and the love of your life (or at least a good date!). You probably put a lot of time and energy into choosing the best picture and thinking of some funny quips about your hobbies and interests. What you put out to the world is all about who you want to attract in return. You also may know (or have learned the hard way) that if you say in your profile that you like to go hiking a lot, but in reality you mean you like “hiking” to the fridge for cold pizza while watching Netflix, then you are doing yourself, and the person you might date, a disservice.

The key to successful online dating is authentically representing yourself in a way that will attract the type of person that you think will be the best fit for you. The same is true for education organizations.

Competition for top teacher talent has reached a new high. The multitude of options leaves many schools fighting tooth and nail for their best people. So the fact that organizations are starting to become more serious about defining their value to the labor market is no surprise; in fact, it might be the number one thing that matters most in recruiting and retaining your top performers.

Businesses have long known the need to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Private sector companies are obsessive about market research. We take it as a given that if we’re trying to sell something to someone (or attract a mate via an online dating system), we have to differentiate ourselves. And yet we don’t treat the way we attract and retain talent in the education sector the same way.

Recruiting and retaining top teacher talent requires that same intentionality of practice. It requires deeply understanding why current teachers choose to work at a school in the first place, and what has kept them there. Just as importantly, it requires understanding why former teachers chose to leave. Fundamentally, it requires knowing what your teachers want and how your proposition of value (i.e. what you can offer them) differs from other places they could choose to work. In other words, your Employee Value Proposition – or for you education jargon lovers, your EVP.

An organization’s EVP generally falls into one of the four following categories that employees care the most about: Mission & Fit, Total Compensation & Rewards, Working Environment, and Professional Growth.

At EdFuel, we love helping education organizations determine their employee value proposition: that special mix of things that transparently shows top talent who you are and what they can expect as an employee. We’ve seen that the organizations that get this right are better positioned to recruit with more clarity, find better talent matches, and retain their staff over the long haul because of the alignment and investment that comes with a clearly stated EVP.

Here are four guiding principles to help you and your Leadership Teams accurately and effectively identify (or refine) your organization’s EVP.

Ask, Ask, Ask

“The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.” –Paul Broca

Ultimately, defining the value proposition of your organization rests on understanding what makes people come to you in the first place and what makes them stay for the long haul. Your EVP has to represent the lived experience of your staff members. Many organizations “sell” values that they don’t actually live, which can cause employees to feel disgruntled if they were promised something that isn’t, in fact, reality. Going back to the dating analogy: if you don’t love hiking, don’t say you love hiking.

Putting Into Practice: Ask, Ask, Ask

Asking does not need to be overwhelming. Here are quick ideas for how you can assess what makes your teachers come to you, and what has caused them to stay.

Questions to Ask:
- What are the top two reasons you chose to work at originally?
- What are the top two reasons you choose to stay at ?

Potential Methods:
1. Assign each of your top performers to members of the Leadership Team. Task each LT member with asking each top performer the set of questions above.
2. Add the above questions to a pre-existing culture survey.
3. Incorporate the two questions in your pre-existing “stay conversations” with top performers.
4. Build the first question into your hiring process; ask candidates who sign offer letters to share why they chose the organization and record responses.

Share More About How You Ask Your Top Performers

Ruthlessly Narrow

If everything is important, nothing is important.

Working with so many schools on this concept has demonstrated one thing: narrowing down the list of what makes a school unique is HARD for leadership teams. Inevitably, the chart paper list of adjectives grows and grows as the discussion wears on – until we’re left with what reads like your to-do list on a busy week.

But determining your value proposition means ruthlessly defining your differentiator – your competitive advantage. For example, like many retailers, Amazon has low prices and a large selection, but their key differentiator is convenience. Buying things from your couch in your sweats has never been easier thanks to Amazon. The bottom line: People should hear your organization’s name and think of the two or three things that separate you from the rest.

Putting Into Practice: Ruthlessly Narrow

Prioritizing can be easier said than done. Here are some strategies to help your leadership team prioritize the components of your value proposition:

1. Based on the responses to the questions you ask above, have your team identify trends and themes.
2. Narrow these down to the most salient trends.
3. Do some research: determine which of those key trends is a true differentiator based on other schools or networks in your area.
4. Circle back to staff: once you’ve decided on your 1-3 differentiators, circle back with your staff to make sure they resonate and refine from there.

Share More About How You Ruthlessly Narrow

Define What You’re Not

“Oh I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that” – Meatloaf

If you ruthlessly narrow and your EVP is still similar to other organizations, it may be time to consider another approach: define what you’re not. Given the fierce competition for talent, schools are typically in “sell” mode with incoming candidates and highlight all of the perks of becoming an employee: the retirement match, the career pathways, the autonomy over your own work. And yet, it can be just as illuminating for a potential employee to consider what the organization is not or what they won’t get if they come to work for you. Transparency and clarity on what will not be true at this organization is often what separates schools with the ability to recruit top talent from schools with the ability to retain them.

Putting Into Practice: Define What You're Not

Take a look at some ways one network has worked to communicate what they are not.

As the Leadership Team surveyed their staff members, two key trends around EVP emerged:

1. Operate like family
• Know each other’s backgrounds
• Students come back to work there as adults
• Idea of “love” in the environment
• Kids are involved in interview processes for teachers

2. Holistic focus for kids and adults
• Yoga and wellness classes
• Teachers have flexibility
• Academic model focused on whole child
• Not super structured environment

Here is how they’ve identified what they are not and how they plan to communicate it with current and potential employees:

Employees should come to this network if they want a holistic, family oriented culture. Our school is not a strict and structured academics-only program, but rather one that focuses on the whole child as well as the adults in the building. Given this holistic approach, candidates should not come to work here if they are expecting to receive the top salary across the city because we utilize funding for programs, such as on campus fitness classes, that other networks may spend on salary.

Share How You Are Defining What You're Not

Over-Communicate Always

“Communication works for those who work at it.” –John C. Powell

If your EVP is something tangible (i.e. you pay at the top of market range for salaries) it is easier for current and potential employees to understand what they’re getting if they work for you.
However, for many organizations, their EVP is something intangible that can be hard to pin down. It can be a “feeling” or a “way of being” that people experience when they work there. If your EVP is something that is less tangible than a high salary or great benefits the onus is on your Leadership Team to define and codify that “intangible” element so that it can be clear to current and potential employees.

Putting Into Practice: Over-Communicate Always

Messages have to be reinforced constantly to become sticky. See the table below for an example of how one network over-communicates their EVP focused on “world class professional development”.

Ultimately, defining your EVP and continuing to utilize it requires intentional, embedded practice. How are you and your organization approaching this critical work? We’d love to hear your stories and problems of practice!

If you are interested in learning more about Employee Value Proposition or want to hear more about EdFuel’s work, please reach out to us at info@edfuel.org or follow us on Twitter @EdFuelOrg.

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