My history with Hendy Avenue Consulting began at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side one afternoon in late 2014. I didn’t know what to expect, but thought it would be great to reconnect with Sarah, share a bit about what I had been up to professionally, hear about her work starting a consulting business and maybe, just maybe, start a conversation about how I could fit in the picture.
I couldn’t have imagined what was to come: five years at Hendy Avenue made up of great client partnerships, numerous high-impact projects impacting thousands of teachers, leaders and students, hundreds of hours video-conferencing, and a growing and tremendous team of colleagues and friends. We’ve built something special, and I couldn’t be more proud.
I’m so fortunate to work in an environment that not only supports professional (and personal) growth, but prioritizes it. It’s hard to narrow down, but here are four big lessons I’ve learned during my time at Hendy these last five years.
1. Take a Breath & Think
Prior to joining Hendy Avenue, my professional responsibilities consisted mostly of doing, rather than thinking. That’s not to say I did my work mindlessly, rather the focus and value-add of my contributions were grounded in producing materials, knocking things off a to-do list, and frankly working longer and harder than others. This efficiency-focused reality served me well in prior roles as a teacher and district administrator and during both stints in graduate school while working full-time. I thrived putting out fires and meeting tight deadlines–it was energizing. And look, I still love making and completing to-do lists, but the hyper-focus on efficiency limited the depth of my understanding of the tasks at hand, the quality of the ultimate end products, and the legacy of my work once I had moved on.
Now, as a more mature professional and seasoned consultant, I’ve retrained myself to take a breath and prioritize thinking as the real work, and as a result, my work is better, clients are happier and the impact on leaders, teachers and students is greater. Please know that This. Was. Not. Easy. (Sidenote: It’s still not easy). I was the archetype of young, type-A, overachieving, borderline obsessive, complete the task and your feelings be damned worker-bee. My own self-worth and value were tied-up in finishing the job. In fact, I remember early on into the role at Hendy just sitting at my desk with what felt like NOTHING to do. My inner-monologue wasn’t pretty: “I’m a waste. What value am I providing? Am I really doing anything to better serve students?”.
With time, and lots of other quiet moments, this role has shown me that yes, sometimes you need to put out that fire, but more often than not, we are brought into work precisely for our thinking, for our fresh and focused take on things made possible by the time and space we have as outsiders to pause, breathe, and think. When you’re treading water to stay afloat, you’re not best positioned to survey the ocean to find the route to safety. From the shore, surveying all that you can, the path becomes clearer.
I know now that my value-add is not just additional capacity–it’s asking tough questions, aggregating data, absorbing information, drawing from experience, guiding decision-making and making strong recommendations precisely because I intentionally hold sacred time and space to be strategic. So what can you do? Block time in your calendar for strategic planning/problem solving, journal or record a voice note of your questions and theories of the case, work with partners to pressure test ideas and most importantly, know your work and value are greater than a completed to-do list.
2. Build Comfort in Ambiguity
With all that time and space to think, you’d imagine the answers come easily. Sometimes, that’s true–we can identify a problem and name the best solution after a quick introductory call with a client. But usually, even if the answer is clear, the route to success is cloudy. Organizations are complicated, even the best ones; look under the hood and something, somewhere is a #hotmess–it’s the nature of people working together.
Five years ago, when confronted with a less than clear road forward, I would have likely either (1) built a quick plan based on instinct or (2) retreated from taking a position and deferred to others, not yet confident to survive the painstakingly vulnerable moment of someone publicly disagreeing. If ambiguity persisted, I would feel like a failure, thinking I was not providing my clients what they needed, deserved, and for some reason, were paying for!
With time, I’ve learned to sit with ambiguity, become less judgmental about it, acknowledge it, respond to it, and sometimes leverage it as an opportunity. This comfort didn’t happen overnight; in many regards, it’s grown alongside my work (and persistence) with clients.
As I’ve wrestled with making decisions within confusing and changing contexts, a few tried and true techniques have proven fruitful:
- Return to the overarching purpose and big goals: Start projects with a clear, compelling goal. Knowing what success looks like will help you make decisions that drive toward that end goal, keeping you on track, even when the view ahead is blurry.
- Assess the current moment in time within the larger lifespan of the project: Is this truly critical? Where are we in the scope of big decisions to be made? What are the implications of moving quickly/slowly? What’s within our locus of control that we can act on now?
- Consider all the possible theories of the case: In any confusing situation, there are many potential causes and solutions. Push yourself to see the situation from multiple points of view, pressure test theories with colleagues and game out possible paths forward, considering the pros/cons for all stakeholders.
- Pessimistically plan: Intentionally think about likely obstacles then developing ideas for how to pre-empt or respond.
3. Invest in Relationships
If you couldn’t already guess, I love a good project plan; I live for a beautiful Excel spreadsheet. But it has been obvious over the past five years that relationships, not these tools, make the work happen and achieve success.
On one hand, our ability to analyze data, review policy, design communications, and make recommendations rests on knowing the stakeholders involved—their interests, expertise, passions and limitations—which can’t live on a spreadsheet.
Second, and maybe more important, this work is really personal–it’s about kids’ and their life opportunities. I think about my former students every day; my heart still aches for the pain they felt 10+ years ago when they fell on the playground and I remember joyfully the smile that came across their face after reading aloud their own writing during a publishing party. So many of our clients and partners have similar driving memories–of past students or their own children–making our work to better teaching and learning incredibly meaningful and high-stakes.
Talent development programs too are incredibly personal. The average American spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. So much of our identity and self-worth is tied up in our jobs. As anyone who has lived in New York City knows, the most common question you’re asked after meeting someone is: “what do you do?” As a result, any efforts to define, develop and reward excellence at work can strike at the core of who we are and how we feel.
Here are four strategies for building and maintaining relationships that I’ve found to be helpful:
- Be authentically yourself. One, you deserve to always be your true self. Two, you’re always modeling behavior for others, so set and hold the expectation. Three, people like other people who are comfortably themselves; think about a time you disagreed with someone, you probably continued to respect them if you sensed they were being honest. If you felt like they were trying to game the system or play politics, you probably don’t want to re-engage with that person unless you have to, regardless of the content of their opinion.
- Be intentional about knowing people, especially when working virtually/at a distance. Building strong relationships won’t just happen. Think about ways you can plan routines and systems that are inclusive, review how your time is spent and with who, audit the airtime of folks in meetings, and reference the accomplishments of others. Know the names of your client’s kids. Ask about upcoming plans to travel to Mexico. In other words, be a real person at work. I can’t encourage this enough, but take notes–you probably do during all other work meetings and engagements–why not now? I’m horrible at remembering names and worse with birthdays and anniversaries, so instead of not knowing, I write them down. My Outlook calendar is a color-coded Rosetta Stone for my life, and the 10 seconds it takes to set a recurring reminder for someone’s birthday goes a long way in showing colleagues and clients that I value and care about who they are.
- Make yourself part of the team. It can be difficult to feel part of the team when you’re (1) external to the organization (2) not physically situated with others and (3) present for some, but not all key meetings and events. Teams may not sit in Office Space-style cubicles and have to write TPS reports anymore, but so much of a group’s culture building happens around the proverbial water cooler. So what can you do?
- Do your homework and know what’s happening in town: the weather, the hot new restaurant opening, the big game that weekend; all are great for making yourself part of the team. Pro-tip: set up Google alerts!
- Make a concerted effort to learn and use the language used by your clients: Are they students or scholars? Principals or School Leaders? What’s the funky acronym for their central office teams? These little cues help you meld into the team and live in their world comfortably, even if it’s only for a few hours a week.
- When possible, invest time (and money) in being physically present: go to team happy hours and lunches; join weekly team meetings and spend a day working from the office–you may even be there for the creation of a lasting inside joke.
- Be vulnerable, appropriately. Vulnerability is hard for many of us, especially achievement-oriented, type-A folks who lead teams. We’ve been (unfortunately) conditioned to think that we must be confident, direct and all-knowing at all times or face the wrath peers who hold you in low regard. Not only does this limit our ability to be authentic and build relationships, it presents a damaging model for colleagues who are likely to replicate your behavior. Take the risk and be vulnerable when the moment calls for it. This could look like telling a deeply personal story about why the project you are leading is meaningful to you or sharing lessons learned from a time you failed miserably. Keep in mind however that the benefits of vulnerability have limits, and efforts must stay within the standards of your professional context. I don’t encourage starting all meetings with a trust fall exercise or co-opting a team retreat to complain about your neighbor’s dog. Instead, productive vulnerability humanizes you and connects to the work.
4. Implementation > Design
Talent leaders often spend so much time working to craft “perfect” rubrics, surveys, rewards and retention techniques. While these factors matter a great deal, they are usually not the tipping points between success and struggle. What matters more is the depth, breadth and quality of implementation.
This reality comes up most when I think about projects that fell short of their intended outcomes. Did I spend my time wisely? How well did I prioritize building internal capacity and skill to execute? With one client team for example, we had some of our best plans and meetings, smartest designs, and the beginnings of strong relationships with stakeholders across the organization. I honestly re-use some of the content from those evaluation design meetings because I think they were our strongest to-date. And yet, we had to pause, then end the project early, well-before we had met the intended outcomes because internal capacity was not there.
As we stew on how to find the right balance, here are a few recommendations for successful implementation:
- Over communicate the why: you can never, never, never over-communicate the rationale for programs and decisions. For those in the work daily, the outcomes we seek can be obvious and the rationale behind decisions clear. But for most, especially folks on the receiving/participatory end of our projects, they have thousands of other things to worry about and therefore need to be constantly brought back to the overarching purpose and compelling reason for the program/change/initiative you are leading.
- Start from the ground up: this could also be called, “don’t make assumptions”. It is easy to make generalizations about what stakeholders want, whether it be a firm’s employee value proposition, retention strategy, or compensation model. Yes, you should read what Vox says about Millennials in the workplace or Gallup’s best methods for responding to Q12 survey data—those are helpful, but as a floor, not the ceiling. The best outcomes stem from going directly to the source, the end users or folks who will be impacted by the policies and programs we manage and asking, “What do you want?” “Would this be meaningful?” “What matters most/least?”
- Pilot, pilot, pilot: Everyone underestimates the lift required to successfully implement a change. I can’t count the number of times a C-level leader has said, “we’re really good at instructional coaching” or “our data systems are strong” to only have that same strength become THE roadblock to success. The key to avoid this trap is investing the time, resources, energy and attention to robust piloting. There is no better way to learn what will and won’t work than testing within your context. Do it early and often.
So what now? While the field always moves forward, systems change over time and life circumstances always bring surprises, the one constant is the opportunity to grow and develop. I’ll just have to keep learning. Here’s the next five years and all to come that can’t even be imagined. -Grant