Lead like a golden retriever when speaking to your school district

lead like a golden retriever

Lead like a golden retriever is a low risk and effective way to deal with school districts. Many parents are afraid to speak in public meetings, or even attend. We don’t want to offend a school official and make things difficult for our children.

Imagine looking out on a sea of faces in a packed room. Parents line up behind a microphone. They are waiting to address you and your fellow Board of Education (BOE) members. Speakers fall into three groups.

  1. The attack dogs are angry or scared for their kids. Barking and growling loudly, their teeth bared. It is easy to fear or hate.
  2. The barker yelps “complain,” “complain,” “complain.” It is easy to dismiss or hold in contempt, even when great ideas are buried in all that noise. (This is how our kids see us when we start repeating ourselves as they test boundaries.)
  3. Golden retrievers also come with a strong point of view, but always want to play ball. Telling them no or ignoring them, doesn’t dent their friendly enthusiasm. Golden retrievers are hard to hate.

While most of us operate in all 3 modes at different times, I’ve found leading like a golden retriever is the most effective.  Start with these 4 steps.

1. Share contagious enthusiasm

As a breed, golden’s are friendly and enthusiastic.  “Let’s go do this!  It’ll be great.” The Golden Retriever’s incessant energy and desire to interact are usually persuasive. At worst might mildly annoy. Contagious enthusiasm is also a great way for us humans to sell a win-win solution.

2. Communicate your goals clearly and simply

A golden retriever’s desires are quickly clear.  They want to retrieve, play, get dirty, be happy and repeat. Their deep conviction and confidence are contagious. In a similar vein, pick one special project or request at a time.

In contrast, the complainer shares a laundry list of gripes. At the end the listener might not remember a clear action item. Suggesting solutions also makes action easier for all. What do you want them to remember afterwards? Stop and jot it down.

3. Build trust

  • A golden retriever’s intentions are easy to read, making it easier to trust.  Also, a history of consistent, positive encounters with the breed is likely to make you more likely to trust the dog in front of you today.
  • In contrast, a guard dog watches a new person warily. Then it decides if the interloper poses a threat and should be attacked. No one likes to be bitten so others are naturally guarded.
  • Similarly, build trust between your parent community and school administration. In conversation I’ve often had officials start with “we understand what you’re trying to do” before explaining legitimate hiccups. My special projects should fit around our main mission of educating kids. For example, that Walk to School Day or STEM club can start a little later. As a result, we both understand that I might have to wait a few months for a quieter period.
  • If someone excludes or is mean to a Golden, they just move to the next person with the same positive energy. They’ll work with anyone who is playing nicely.

4. Show up, repeatedly

Frequent presence shows interest. In Angela Duckworth’s seminal book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance she emphasizes that effort counts twice. The Golden persists through water, mud and under brush in order to retrieve. Similarly the parents that keep showing up to meetings and are willing to help will eventually get some of what they want. Offer to help. Get in the weeds. Be willing to get muddy. Keep at it until you find win-win solutions.

5. Partner: parents and schools

Schools want parents as partners in our children’s success. They need our votes in bond referendums and to elect Board of Education members. In the U.S. school quality drives residential property values. Most of us want our efforts to be appreciated and our time to be well spent. By engaging in civil discourse we set an example for our kids and community.

6. How do I start? Just say it.

I usually start simply, in person or at a public meeting. This makes it easier to “read the room” to gauge next steps. It is also time efficient. If it is more complicated then follow-up in writing or attend the next meeting. We have to speak up for our elected officials to know what we are thinking. School Administrators (Principals, Superintendent’s office, Department Heads) and BOE members are often at school events such as concerts, sporting events, PTO meetings, Back to School nights in addition to formal meetings.

Introvert? Send an email or make a call.

7. Be friendly, respectful, and sincere.

Don’t bring your pitchforks every time.” I’ve heard from various BOE Members over the years. It is okay to smile, thank, and give sincere compliments. As the old saying goes “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

You’ll find your ideas are better received, if you consistently suggest possible solutions and offer to help. In a similar vein, most of the time our golden retriever is killing you with kindness.

8. Look for the win-win

If you have a concern, someone else probably does as well.

Like the Golden’s perpetual “Let’s go play!” attitude.   Be flexible, willing to adapt, and add ideas to benefit a broad base of stakeholders.  If at first you don’t succeed, try the following:

  • Tap into existing themes rather than just advancing your own narrow agenda
  • Channel each objection into your well thought out, consistent plan
  • Employ data objectively to make your case and do the math – surveys, go out & count, encourage the community to help you
  • My early training as a management consultant, economist and MBA trained me to fact find by going out and collecting data objectively.  Then devise a solution that will benefit all stakeholders
  • For example, stranger comes, throws a ball in a new direction, the golden will retrieve that ball too.

9. Know you can make a difference

Your Golden Retriever looks at you with those eyes, knowing that eventually you’ll come play. Their conviction is so strong.

“Growing up, I never knew I could make a difference.” a Mom confided at a monthly “Coffee with Mayor Al.” She and several residents had just shared their wish list, and offered to help.

“I find I always welcomed suggestions that come with an offer to help.” This is a sentiment that I’ve heard repeatedly from our town councilmen and other leaders. Remember that many local leaders and elected officials are also volunteers. Be willing to help champion the projects you suggest. The year I started STEMshoots the slogan for my kids’ school was “Be the difference you want to see in the world.”

10. Understand the format

Formal meetings such as BOE or town council usually use Roberts Rules of Parliamentary Procedures.

There’s an agenda, often posted on-line the day before. Often, there are 2 opportunities for public comment.  Part way through they will ask for public comment on the information that was just presented.  At the very end of the meeting the public can comment on anything.

State your name and address first.  If it is a busy night they will limit you to a 3 minute comment.  We parents need to respect the neighborhood fences.

Lead like a Golden Retriever and Stay in the Parent Box

I learned to lead like a golden retriever the hard way. At first, I approached meetings with our school district as I would business meetings. Much to my surprise we failed, spectacularly. Failure taught me to play within the Parent Box. But that is a tale for another day.











Cecile Seth

Trying to make our world better. Mom to 3. Recovering Management Consultant. MBA. STEMshoots.com Founder.

4 Responses

  1. Maria says:

    Great advice!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this, Cecil! It is a wonderful approach that can be applied to many situations.

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