Field Trip: Be a Buffalo: Growing Leaders in School Systems


What is the single biggest thing that school leaders can do to impact student outcomes? According to Ted Neitzke, it’s to create the conditions that enable everybody in the school system to take on leadership roles.

Ted is the CEO of CESA 6, a consortium that serves school districts in Wisconsin. He is also the host of the Smart Thinking Podcast. Today, Ted shares what he means by leadership, why it’s so important that every employee has the chance to pursue leadership opportunities, and he shares several extremely practical ways leaders can improve schools and help others do the same.

  • How to recognize people and create processes that will set the stage for people to take on the mantle of leadership
  • Principles of improvement to apply in your school system
  • Quick and easy practices that can have a huge positive impact on meetings and working relationships


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Full Transcript  

TED NEITZKE: Human beings don’t jump over cliffs by nature. Human beings don’t climb tall buildings because it’s adventurous. when you create the conditions for leadership, you can inspire people and fuel their inner leader.

There is a reason why LinkedIn is overflowing with articles and inspirational quotes about leadership. There’s a reason why people are hungry for books from people like Brene’ Brown, Daniel Pink, Michael Fullan and Todd Whitaker. There’s a reason why if you spend anytime online at all you’ll come across quotes like this one from Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” And that’s because the kind of leader you have, and the kind of leader you are… matters.

TED NEITZKE: There’s no confluence if everybody is a follower and there’s one or two leaders. And confluence being this great energy that comes from people moving in the same direction. 

Our conversation today is all about leadership, and specifically, leadership in schools. When the end goal is better student outcomes, my guest today argues that the best way to reach that goal is to foster leadership with the school system.

TED NEITZKE: When you walk up to somebody and say, “You’re really good at this. You should consider _________,” at that point you have just planted an acorn that could very well grow into a mighty oak and create a new forest, because that person will think about that all the time.

And we’ll look at a number of practical principles that school leaders can use to have a massive positive impact.

TED NEITZKE: So in the school districts where we see people highly apply these principles, what ends up happening with them is they create a culture where people are hungry for what next? What next? What next? What’s another one? What’s another one?

From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.

RYAN ESTES: Today we’re speaking with Ted Neitzke. Ted is the Executive Director and CEO of CESA 6, that’s the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 6, in Wisconsin.

TED NEITZKE: We are in the dead center of the state of Wisconsin and my role here is, I serve all of the different employees in the different areas of our state. We service 39 school districts in the state of Wisconsin formally and all 419 of them informally.

Ted has served as a middle school history teacher, a principal, assistant superintendent of curriculum & instruction, and eventually as a superintendent.

TED NEITZKE: I have literally had every job in a school district. I worked maintenance when I was in high school and in college I cut the grass. And I did have quite a few other things, but I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that I get to serve in the public arena.

RYAN ESTES: Well, in education we often hear, “It’s all for the kids.” And that’s true. The whole goal is better student outcomes, not just grades but better opportunities, preparing kids for life, preparing kids to meet the challenges that we face in the world. And as a former superintendent, the leader of an educational consortium, where do you see the biggest opportunity for schools and districts to make changes to better impact those student outcomes?

TED NEITZKE: Well, I would say creating leadership within the school system. You know, it is all about the kids, but it’s also about creating the conditions so that the kids can be successful. First, when you’re dealing with children now as young as two and three years old in educational systems all the way through 21 to 25 years old, depending on what state you’re in, what has to happen is you have to create the conditions so that those kids, their teachers, have choice and voice in their day, that they have some ability to control not just their learning but their environments so that they can acquire the skills needed that they believe they need in order to be successful.

We’ve swung the gamut to such far standardization that we’ve kind of missed the opportunity for kids to be successful, as well as their teachers, by following their passions and creating the opportunities for them to lead. And when I talk about leadership, what I mean by that is providing people the mindset and recognition that they control the conditions of their life, and that they are the ones who have influence over other people through their actions. So I speak a lot around the region of the country about this idea of being buffalo. And it’s just the simple idea that as an educator, specifically as a teacher and administrator, district office person, you really can’t be hindered by having what’s called a bad day.

Before we go any further, take that phrase – “being a buffalo.” I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t heard that before.

TED NEITZKE: I learned about this Buffalo principal a few years back where the buffalos and cows on the eastern plains of Colorado, they graze together and they have very, very different behaviors in summer. And I aspire every day to be a buffalo as a result of this learning, and this is what it is. Each day on the eastern plains of Colorado, there’s a thunderstorm. Every day in summer, hot air from the desert hits the cold tops of the mountain, condenses and there’s a thunderstorm for 15 to 20 minutes. Well, cows, they actually turn and they walk east, so they hear the thunder, they see the lightning, and they try to out walk the storm. Buffalo, who are native to the prairies and the grazing land, they hear the thunder and they instinctively turn west and charge towards the mountains, so that they’re in and out of the storm faster. So they actually run into the storm, take on immediate problem, and then they watch as the cows try to outrun it. But as a result, the cows are in it longer, they endure more pain, they’re wetter, colder and miserable. And that’s the greatest metaphor for me in education.

As an educator, specifically as a teacher and administrator, district office person, you really can’t be hindered by having what’s called a bad day. You can have a bad moment, but you need to pivot quickly because there’s so many people depending upon how you present yourself, your relationships with them, the energy that you give to them, and what we’re missing, I think, in the overall scope is, we focus on strategy and moving kids percentile points, but we forget the whole journey of that child and the fact that we need to make sure that everyone feels that they have the ability and the autonomy to make a difference. And that is through process and that is by creating the conditions for those people to be successful.

So, while it is all about the kids, at the end of the day, it’s adults who drive the conditions for learning, it’s adults who drive the conditions for leadership and at the end of the day the kids are a result of those conditions, and that’s where we get excellence. And that’s really the biggest difference that you see, I believe, between school districts that are becoming Innovative and iterating off of old practices, and the school districts that are kind of stuck in the idea that it’s all about instructional strategies to make sure kids can pass the test.

RYAN ESTES: Well, I want to ask about that idea of leadership for a second and just play Devil’s Advocate, because I agree with everything you just said. You talked about the importance of leadership, the importance of everyone in the organization to understand that they have the ability to be leaders. So maybe a way of getting at this issue from a different angle is to ask it this way: don’t we need leaders and followers? If everyone is a leader, what does that bring to an organization and why is it not okay for people simply to remain followers?

TED NEITZKE: Well, okay, so there’s no confluence if everybody is a follower and there’s one or two leaders. And confluence being this great energy that comes from people moving in the same direction, So you have tributaries that feed into a small stream. That small stream becomes a big river. That big river has great power and influence, and that’s what I mean by that. Yeah, you need followers and there are always going to be organizational hierarchies, but within that hierarchy, people need to know that they have the ability to make a difference, and that’s where you get the difference between highly engaged systems and disengaged systems, where people come to work or come to the classroom with the intent not to do what they’re supposed to do, where in highly engaged leadership organizations where people know these are the conditions for success. This is how when I pull on the rope, it makes a difference, it changes. And absolutely, you’re right with the idea of being Devil’s Advocate against that. Everyone can’t be a leader, but no one can pass up the opportunity to lead. And that’s what you want to be able to create.

So a five-year-old walks into a classroom, into kindergarten, and leans into a kid and says, “This is stupid,” the kids next to him are like, “This is stupid. This is stupid. This is stupid.” And it creates that culture. Where if you create a culture where the kids recognize that they make a difference… There’s always going to be those Negative Nancys and Parking Lot Petes who are always making things harder for everyone else. But at the end of the day, there’s great confluence if you can come together around it.

RYAN ESTES: Trying to create those conditions for leadership, I mean, leadership isn’t something that you can just say, “Okay go be a leader now.” So how do you equip people to be leaders? How do you motivate them to be leaders?

TED NEITZKE: Process and recognition. It’s that simple, you know, “Here’s how you made a difference today.” So when I was assistant superintendent of schools, pretty much every problem landed on my desk. And at the end of the day, I would reflect to myself, “Okay, what did I do well today?” Because most days, I didn’t feel like I did anything good. Because I was inheriting an angry dance mom who the superintendent said, “You have to deal with this,” or I would deal with the teacher who didn’t like the resources and materials, or a community member who wanted to question why we did yoga. And at the end of the day I’d have to figure out, what did I do well? Well what I did was, protected other people from these distractions. I worked with other people to find compromise so that we wouldn’t have chaos. And that’s one of the things that you need to do, is creating those conditions. And then what I would find is, I would find when my superintendent would come in and say to me things like, “That really helped us a lot. Here’s how you saved us.” When leaders in the upper parts of the organization start to connect the dots for everybody else and say, “Here’s what made a difference.” That’s how you do it.

And the second thing is through process. Most people do not walk into a staff meeting, a district meeting, any type of meeting with the mindset of, “Hey, maybe I’ll get to do something today, or I’ll get to speak up or change things.” And there’s always those four or five people in a room of 20 who talk the whole time. Well, what we do is we coach around creating the processes so that you have voice for everyone, so that the first person who speaks isn’t the one who gets to control the environment. So it’s around creating processes. Because you have introverts and extroverts and omniverts, right? The people in the middle of those two behaviors who are looking for the opportunity to shine but don’t necessarily know how, you have introverts who want to be reflective, you have extroverts who want to control the conversations, but at the end of the day what has to happen is, you have to create process and recognition. And that’s how you do it, and it works.

RYAN ESTES: Can you get into that a little bit more? When you talk about creating process, what what might that look like?

TED NEITZKE: So one of my favorite ones is called the consensogram. I take rummage sale dots, you know the little circular dots, five cents, 10 cents, and somebody comes in and they try to negotiate down that they’re going to give you less than a penny for something? So everybody has those dots at their table all the time, and every time we ask a question of any significance to the organization, system, classroom, you have the ability to go up and put your dot where you believe we need to be. So as an example, you take communication strategies. “I prefer email, I prefer texts, I prefer face-to-face, I prefer snail mail,” whatever it is, and you give people those choices. You give them a scale of 10 to 1 and then they put their dots up there. And then as the leader and the group, you step back and you see, “Oh, well, everyone in this team or group really likes texts, not emails.” When you’re done with a service or before you start a service, you ask people, “Where is your comfort level with implementing X?” And then they go up there in a scale of 5 to 1 and they put it there.

So now as the leader and the culture, everybody steps back and sees, “Oh, okay, so there’s a number five up there who has high confidence, and there’s a number one who has low confidence. I’m going to take the five and ask him to sit with the one and try to move that person, him or her, to a three or four by the end of the day to build their confidence,” because again, every organization has a natural hierarchy. Teachers are afraid to go to the principal in a vulnerable manner to share with them what they’re not good at, because we’re not in a system where it’s comfortable to fail. So we’re not in a risk business. We’re not high tech, where if it didn’t work, we’ll iterate really quickly. We’re in education. If we mess around, we mess with kids. That is one of my favorite tools.

The other tool is to make sure people have a clear idea of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Mission statements get banged up on all the time. But using a good process, you can create a mission statement in five minutes for everything that you’re doing, so that people clearly understand why they’re in the room. I mean meetings show up on all of our calendars. We get put on a district committee, or we get asked to go to a cabinet meeting or whatever, and you don’t know why you’re there or why they’re there. But a very clear mission that shows, “This is who we are and what we do when we’re together” really changes that. Because otherwise people go into meetings–my favorite joke is that  there are people who sign up for textbook meetings who go to make sure that there is never a new textbook. There are people who go to textbook adoption meetings with the idea that they’re going to get the one that they want. And then there are people who go just because they were asked or there was the opportunity to build their resume. But if you walk in the room and it says, “We will do the following one to two to three to four,” all the clarity’s put in place. Now, I can lead to that very specific outcome, versus this old idea that collaboration comes from four hours of talking about what we might want to do.

RYAN ESTES: It’s really interesting your first point there. It struck me that you’re very closely connecting leadership with voice, and I get the both of those things are very important in organizations and important for empowering people, but I don’t know that I would have necessarily, prior to this conversation, drawn such a clear line between giving someone voice and giving someone the ability to be a leader.

TED NEITZKE: My working definition of leadership is anyone who has influence over person, okay?

And many people, when they think of synonyms for leadership, they think of words like “power, authority, control “, but the word “influence” is the one that I put in my working definition, because you can have positive and negative influences. You can have neutral influences. You can have no influence. But all of those are being  influential and we want to be able to give people the opportunity to share their knowledge and be influential in the outcomes because that’s how you get high ownership. You don’t get success by walking around telling people what’s wrong with them and that they have to. You walk around telling people what they’re good at and then create the conditions so that they want to. Otherwise… Human beings are water, man. We always take the path of least resistance, because it’s in our nature to survive. Human beings don’t jump over cliffs by nature. Human beings don’t climb tall buildings because it’s adventurous. Now there are some who do, and they’re wired different. But the majority of us would be quite happy sitting on the couch, watching TV and had being fed, because our body says, “Low energy, longer life.” And when you create the conditions for leadership, you can inspire people and fuel their inner leader.

RYAN ESTES: How did you become a leader? As you look back on your earlier life, and I know you’ve spoken a little bit about your prior roles, is there a very clear time when you look back and say, “Ah, this is when someone spoke into my life in this way. This is when I began on the path to becoming a leader”?

TED NEITZKE: That’s a really interesting question. So I guess I would look back at my behaviors more. we were put in a groups when I was a kid, you know, say like in eighth grade, then count off by fours, and then you’re in a group of five people and you’re looking around. I’ve always had kind of a restless spirit. So when they say, “You’ve got a week to do something,” I want to get it done now. And what’s happened to me over the course of my life is, that’s drawn me into some pretty unique life opportunities. When we go into status leadership, how did I get to my roles and titles? That is because of other people who walked up to me and said things like, “You should be _________.” And that’s why we have a process that we coach around about succession planning, because they joke about horse whisperers. There are leadership whisperers. When you walk up, and that’s why I talked about recognition before, when you walk up to somebody and say, “You’re really good at this. You should consider _________,” at that point you have just planted an acorn that could very well grow into a mighty oak and create a new forest, because that person will think about that all the time. “Can you believe that they think I should be this? She said that I could probably become a superintendent schools!”

When people say things like that to you, it’s very empowering. Most of us live in a world of discouragement where we look cynically upon leadership because that’s what we’ve been trained to do the last 50 years. And instead, when someone you admire and have trust in comes up to you and says, “Hey, I think you’d be a great principal. I think you’d be a great director. I think you should be a division leader.” That sticks with you, right? Has anyone ever complimented you into a potential raise or promotion, where you’ve been like, “You’re an idiot,” you know, that never happens! You’re like, “Wow, somebody thought well of me!” That’s where leadership and coaching come to such great connections because at the end of the day, a really, really good coach sees in you what you don’t see in yourself and  they push you to it and they give you no exceptions for being who you can be.

So that man for me was a guy named Dave Farnham. He was my middle school principal when I was an eighth grade teacher. My second year of teaching he came in and he said, “I think you should go into school administration,” and I looked at him, because my life goal at that point was, I wanted to retire the winningest soccer coach in the Cedar Lakes Conference Soccer Division, and I wanted to be a high school history teacher till I died. But six short years later, I was out of the classroom and then schools became my classrooms.

RYAN ESTES: That’s fantastic. Let me give you a chance to brag on brag about some of the people that you have led over the years. I’m just curious if you can share any stories of people whom you’ve been able to speak into their lives and just seen them take that and run with it.

TED NEITZKE: Well, that’s a great thought there, because when you think about  coaches in basketball and football and you see the John Wooden tree and you see the Bill Walsh tree from the 49ers, things like that, Pat Summitt’s tree, you really admire the fact that again, like I said, that they’re acorn tenders, they are picking these seeds up and they’re helping them grow into great people. You know, I can name any number of principals in the field, any number of my former students that have gone on to be teachers who write you back and say, “You inspired me to be a teacher.” Most recently there was a young man named Justin Deppies who played soccer for me 17 or 18 years ago, and was a student of mine, and about five years ago he wrote me a note on instant messaging on Facebook and said, “Hey, Neitzke, I just wanted you know that I’m in a class right now. I’m going back to school to be a teacher,” and basically the thought was , he was in crisis because he had gone into a different career and he wasn’t enjoying it, and he was thinking back to the best times of his life. And I can’t tell you the energy you get when somebody says, “And you were part of the best times in my life.”

So, again, leadership with intention is going around making sure that you’re lifting people up to recognize who they can be. And I feel immodest talking about this, but if you walk around with your blinders off and you’re looking for the opportunity to support others’ improvement, it just happens. I don’t play the guitar. I don’t know how to sing Kumbaya, any of that stuff. I’m a pretty real person. And I just love when I run into what you just described.

RYAN ESTES: Our listeners to this podcast are leaders in education, people who work in schools and districts, and they live in a very boots-on-the-ground reality each and every day. And one of the things that I know that they are constantly trying to do is to drive ongoing continuous improvement in their schools. And oftentimes, that means ongoing continuous improvement in their schools through their people, always moving forward. I know that one of the things that you do is you teach on principles of improvement, and I wonder if you could simply speak a little bit more about that. Can you walk me through what some of these principles are that are so critical to continuous improvement and how you’ve seen them applied in schools?

Yeah, the first thing is, just to back up how I even got there was, I had a superintendent of schools who pulled me into her office one day her name is Pat Greco. I’m a voracious reader, and I would read a book on a Friday/Saturday and I’d come back to school and I try to implement it. I have high enthusiasm. So people would be like, “Oh, yeah, we should do this. We should do this,” and then once they walked away and started to really think about, “Oh my gosh, he just asked us to redo everything that we’ve worked on for the last two weeks on that last book, now we have to redo it.” So she pulled me in and said, “Theodore, you know, you’re really good at this stuff, but you are horrible at making it stick,” and she told me I had to basically go back to school to become an engineer.

So I went on a journey where I was certified in Six Sigma Lean principles. I went on a journey where I was certified and became, I worked with Baldridge and became an examiner, and found out all of these things that I had been sinning all over my staff and my career, by leading with enthusiasm instead of leading with process. And the principles of improvement are basically that journey for me combined with Six Sigma, all of these different things, but in the specific setting of working in a school.

So principle number one is identify the problem. Teachers and school leaders are really good at solutioning. We’re really good at telling people like how to fix it. We see our reading scores go down or vocab scores go down and we say, “Do one, two, three and four,” but we never say, “Why do the reading scores go down? What’s the root of this issue?” So we train and teach people in the classroom how to think that way. The big flip is, where did we fail? Admit that we failed, and then with rapid speed, let’s fix it.

Most school systems are on 180 day school calendars. What we say is, “You have three days to find the problem, three more days to adjust, three days after that, we’re going to review it.” No one’s used to that. And all good school initiatives, which are usually solutions, die right after Thanksgiving. And the reason they die after Thanksgiving is because nobody’s checking on them. They’re working in some places and not in others. There’s no confluence or energy. So then it kind of goes south.

The other six principles are pretty simple as well. One of the things we want to do is, once we identify the problem, we want to go put our eyes on the problem, and we want people to go see what’s going on in the field and see what’s going on in other classrooms. And that’s something in education we’re not good at. What we’re really good at is professional learning communities, pulling adults out of the classroom, putting adults in a library around a table, and having them talk about a problem without any of the actual stakeholders present. What we want to do is, we want to put them in the classroom, have them talking to kids, reviewing what’s going on, walking the walls and seeing where are the consistencies and inconsistencies, and providing teachers with what’s called an OFI. O-F-I, an opportunity for improvement. So not a normal walk through where, “Hey, this is horrible, your fire extinguisher is clipped off. Where’s your safety kit?” You know, all of these catchya, gotcha kind of things? Instead, making sure they can go see the problem.

And then the third is short cycles of improvement. So we have something called the rule of three, and that’s three days after we implement, we review it, three weeks later we review it again, three months later, third quarter, and actually it boils down to after three hours of asking people to do something, we want you in there asking them what’s working and what needs to be improved. It’s called the Plus Delta process. On the left hand side of a document you say what’s working. And on the right hand side. It’s a triangle, what needs to be changed or challenge.

So I mean, overarching, what we do is we use the principles of improvement based upon Lean Six Sigma, other school Improvement tools, but we also, if we work with the schools, we also tell people, “You can’t call this something.” You know, once you name something, you create a division. You’re either for or against it. Instead what we want you to do is employ these practices, so people see the results and they start to start to use them.

And my favorite principal of all of them is what’s called the wisdom of crowds. And it’s this idea that if you bring everybody together and you show them the problem, and then you ask them all for solutions, but you ask them in isolation, by themselves, and you collect all of that, what will happen is you’ll get this amazing glob of agreement where everybody believes, “This is what we should do about this problem,” and then you get these crazy outliers, people on the far ends of the two spectrums of the problem. But it is there that innovation and iteration lies, because those are the people who think different. Everybody else says, “The problem is there are kids in the hallway because there’s no administrators out in the hallway.” Well, the outlier say things like, “Well the problem is there’s a couple of teachers on our staff who let kids come and go whenever they want. The problem is the cameras are broken in that hallway, and we need to fix them.”  And then you get all these ideas that you can bring back and create strategies around.

Of all the principles of improvement that Ted just talked about, I asked him to pull one of his favorites, and tell me a story of how he used it in real life in a school.

TED NEITZKE: Sure, so I’ll give you one we’re actually dealing with today. How do we better market ourselves? How do we get people to understand our story? How do we get people to understand the value proposition of what we do in public schools?

So we sat down as a group, we had 60 people in the room. I posed the problem, which was that we do not have an effective strategy to market ourselves. So people said, “We need to hire somebody to write newsletters. We need to hire someone to send out emails for us. We need better flyers. We need, we need, we need.” And then on the outliers were the ideas that we’re actually going to take. We need to provide thought leadership. We should stop spending money on creating commercials and marketing the school systems or districts that we serve, and instead what we should do is we should give tips and provide thought leadership to really four key categories: teachers, school leaders, students, and parents. So now, we went from a strategy where we were going to put tens of thousands of dollars into billboards and all this other stuff, and because of our learning of using the wisdom of the crowd, we went to an outlier who said, “We’ve got to do something different here. This is what everybody else does.” Now, our core leadership team here was in the mindset of hire an advertising firm, go through the traditional pieces. Well, we’re taking the thought leadership one. We’re going to give that a 30 day cycle, then a 90 day cycle, then a 120 day cycle. We’ve got a gajillion measurements for it.

I’ll give you another one, too, which is, a lot of times with specific students and student behaviors, if you’re an administrator and you’re sitting in your office and the same kid gets sent to your classroom all the time, one of the things we train around is the 5Y strategy. And this leads to the wisdom of the crowd to get to the root. So, when I was a middle school principal kids would get sent to my office all the time and they’d say, “I don’t have a pencil.” And I’d give them a pencil and tell them to go back to class. 10 minutes later, they’d be you know back in my office. “Well now why are you here?” “Well, she kicked me out. She said I’m disrespectful.” “Well, I thought it was about the pencil.” So then I used to go to the teacher and say, “Why are they here?” The teacher would say, “He came in disruptive.” I’d go and I’d give the kid a detention and in my mind I was done with it. Well, after learning and training, now what I do is when a kid would come to me with a pencil, I’d say, “Why don’t you have a pencil?” “Well, I don’t come prepared to class.” “Why don’t you come prepared to class?” “I don’t really like that teacher.” “Why don’t you like that teacher?” She calls my name out when she knows that I don’t have my homework done and she embarrasses me in front of everybody else. “Why do you think she does that?” She hates me. Well, that’s a far stretch from where I was before with the pencil. Now what I know is my root cause is, I have a broken relationship. It used to take me like three months of this kid getting kicked out of the classroom to come to my office to figure that out, because I had a lot of people. Now what we do is then we take that problem, that core problem, to a group of four or five people and say, “How do we fix this relationship?” Instead of just going back to the teacher and saying, “You need to fix this relationship with the kid.” That’s a heavy weight.

So now take that and compound that to anything else going on the organization. It’s a different way to think. It encourages others to participate, and before when you were talking about voice and leadership, if you are quiet, you become a victim of your own circumstance if you don’t engage. So that’s what we do, and using the wisdom of crowd, you can do that for anything.

And my favorite activity is, if you go on to YouTube, BBC has a video called the Wisdom of Crowd, and it shows the mathematical process and fact behind this. I always bring a jar of gumdrops with me when I do training, and I ask people to guess how many gumdrops are in the jar. And it’s a small, one quart mason jar filled with gumdrops, and most people guess like a hundred fifty, hundred forty, hundred ten, hundred thirty, and then there are people who say, like 15, and there are people who say 580, 600. Well, there’s a hundred and twenty-six gumdrops in that jar. But what ends up happening when I ask everyone is, the larger the sample, the closer they are to the exact number of being able to identify the problem. And there’s one condition you have to create: people have to guess in isolation what the problem is, because the soon is other people start talking, it’s like The Price Is Right. You say $299 for the dryer, I say $301 for the dryer, right? And then the next guy goes “One dollar,” because you know, it’s closest without going over.

Well, that’s not independent thought. That’s not the wisdom of crowd. That’s stealing. So we want to be able to create those conditions.

And then the last principle, number seven, which is the one I get most energetic about is fix what’s bothering you. So, when you’re a superintendent or a principal or a teacher, you have all these micro things that irritate you. Almost all of them you can fix. Yet you will sit around and wait for someone else to tell you , “Hey, I can fix that for you,” or “As the leader, I’ll wait for someone else to notice that I’m struggling to fix it.” Our principle is this: fix what’s bothering you. Because you’re a leader. If your door squeaks in your classroom, don’t sit around waiting for the janitor to notice and 15 years later say, “No one cares about me.” Go get some flipping WD-40 and spray it and fix it. If the copier’s broke don’t sit around and say, “Oh, here we go again. Nobody cares about me.” Fix it. That’s one of the pieces of empowerment with teachers and leaders that we often miss, we feel like people don’t care about us because there’s no one there to fix our problems for us. When it’s our job to fix that, bring the people together who are the experts around us to support us, but really provide the energy and leadership to do it. And that’s one of those big differences, man. That’s a big shift between us and a lot of other people.

RYAN ESTES: Let me ask you a sort of a basic question about all this stuff. We have things like the five why’s principle. We have the rule of three, you have the principles of improvement, lots of different things, lots of different tools for our tool belt. I don’t know about you, I have a lot of things going on in my life, and on any given day when I’m dealing with X, Y or Z, I may or may not think, “Oh, I should use the principle of the five why’s here,” or “I should use the rule of 3 over here.” How do you keep these tools at the top of your toolbox? How do you keep them top of mind? How do you remember or know or think about, “Oh, this would be the appropriate thing to remember at this particular junction”?

TED NEITZKE: Right. Well, first of all, I just want to disclose, I wasn’t born way. I used to, you know, I would stick my hand on a hot stove over and over and over again be like, “Why is it hot again? How did that happen?” How it happens is repetition, reinforcement, and then getting rewarded for it, seeing it actually work. It also works really well by not trying to do all of it. It’s picking one process and getting good at it.

What you just said for me would be, if you and I were coaching, I would say, okay, so first, it’s called The Gap Analysis diagram. It’s very simple. It’s two boxes that are like eight inches apart on a piece of paper. On the left hand side it’s the current state, on the right hand side, it’s the desired state. And I would ask you, “What are three things we’re going to do to get ourselves to the desired state?” And that’s it. That’s a principle of improvement process. Where am I at? Where do I want to be? What are the three behaviors I have to change in order to get there? And then recognizing that each step is the new c urrent state.

I have a really, really good friend who uses an analogy. He has had cancer six times: two different types of leukemia. And he abides by something called the Point A principle: no matter where I hit my golf ball, it’s a new start. It’s a new point A. So when I wake up in the morning and I go to the doctor and he says I have leukemia again, I plan a trip. And I looked at him like, what? He goes, “I plan a trip. I give myself a new point A. So I have something further down the road to look forward to other than blood transfusions, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants,” and he said, “I keep myself looking down.” That’s mindset, right? But now you take mindset with principles of improvement or tools, oh! You just get dangerous.

So in the school districts where we see people highly apply these principles, what ends up happening with them is they create a culture where people are hungry for what next? What next? What next? What’s another one? What’s another one?

And there are plenty of people who would share the mindset of “I’m too busy. How would I do all this?” And again, it’s just habit forming and modeling. When someone comes to you with a problem, it’s only because there isn’t a process. So you stop and you find that.

Now full disclosure, even me and my organization, I have a guy named Jason. Jason’s job is process, because I’m a shiny object kind of person. Like I could be like, “Oh, yeah, forget it. Let’s just move on. We’ll drop that.” And he’ll go, “No, no, no, let’s go to process, Ted.”

RYAN ESTES: Is there one takeaway that you think would be most beneficial to the most people leading in education today? For Jim it was the Point A principle that he just used all the time. Which of these do you think tends to meet most people right where they are, so you can say, “Hey, here’s your target. This is what is going to be the most beneficial to the greatest number of people who might be listening.”

TED NEITZKE: Wow. That’s a powerful question for me. I’m going to reflection and I know this is taking us out of the loop here a little bit, but  there are two core behaviors of system leaders, classroom leaders, and that is one is they have to be empathetic and understand their actions in the shoes of the people that they serve but second is creating the conditions for reflection. And when I say that the strategy or process is ofi what are my opportunities for improvement? What went well, and what would I change and that’s the plus Delta process. It’s a line down the center of a sheet of paper on the left hand side you write what went well on the right hand side you write what you would change or challenge You end every interaction with three or more people using that process. It is the simplest tool ever. And the reason it’s so important is as the leader you have got to give voice to the people that you are serving.

So let me give you an example. Everybody has mission norms and values for all of their teams, right? How do you know, Ryan, that it’s actually working?  So at the end of your meeting you ask people what went well, what would you change or challenge at the end of a class period, at the end of a committee meeting, at the end of a school board meeting? And you, as the leader, then get this feedback, immediate feedback, raw feedback. And this is what happens: I’ll make it simple. You’re on a  district-wide committee, and one of the norms that people establish is that there will always be food, fun, and fellowship, those three conditions. Okay. Well, you brought chocolate and you ran into Walmart, you grabbed a mixed bag of Hershey’s. Then you went into the meeting, you were late to the meeting because you got that. One of your other norms is to start on time and end on time. Well, what’s going to happen is people on the Plus Delta are going to write things like, “Appreciated the food. It was a good meeting. We stayed on topic and appreciated that we got done on time.” And then on the Delta side, it’s going to say, and this is really what happens, right? It’ll say things like, “No dark chocolate. Started late. And as a result of starting late, I had to pay 30 more dollars in child care because I was half hour late for picking up my kids.” So now as a leader, what just happened? I’m empathetic. “Geez. My actions have consequences.” Two: I’ve got to change some behaviors. Because what’s the first thing you’re going to do for the next meeting?  You’re going to bring chocolate.

And that sounds so simple and stupid. But here’s the deal: if you’re the guy who wrote down “only dark chocolate,” and the next time you come in, there’s just this little thing, and it’s just a change, and there’s milk chocolate and there’s you know Good & Plenty bars and all that stuff. You’re going to say, “My leader cares.” You’re going to get in the car and it could have been the worst meeting ever. But you’re still going to be stuck with, “He or she made that little adjustment for me.” The next time you’re going to give the gift of time as well. “Guys, I’m going to start on time today, but we’re going to end early. I want to give you that 15 minutes back that I stole from you the last time.” And people are like, “Oh wow, that’s amazing.”

And I know that sounds trivial. But if you want to create the conditions to have raging rivers of confluence because everybody’s a leader, it has to be these little micro pieces. So the one thing that I think everybody needs to do is the Plus Delta. And imagine this: if you did this in a classroom, so I taught high school social studies. I never asked my students, except at the very end of the year, how things were going. But if at the end of every class period, what went well and what would you change your challenge about how I taught? And I read that? First hour gives me feedback, I improve when I go into second hour. First and second hour gave me feedback, I improve going in a third hour. And by the end of the day, I have a master lesson because of the feedback of my customers, my students.

And then think of this:  if you’re a superintendent of schools and you’re listening, how often are you asking the board, “What did you think of our meetings?” Most of us, when I was a superintendent, we planned these extravagant PowerPoints, and we have all this information, and we think are seven, nine, or eleven school board members really care about all this stuff. But the majority of them if they’re given the opportunity to say “This is what worked and this is what I would change or challenge,” what they will say is, “Shorter meetings. More to the point. Less PowerPoint slides. I appreciate the work,” or the opposite: “This came out of left field. I had no idea,” and all the things that superintendents deal with in their annual report can be dealt with every other week,  just simply by asking. So if you want to create the conditions for leadership and voice, it’s the plus Delta process, Ryan.

RYAN ESTES: Ted Neitzke is CEO of CESA 6 in Wisconsin. Ted, this has been fantastic. It’s been great speaking with you and I want to thank you for your time today.

TED NEITZKE: Yeah. You’re welcome. Thank you.

I should mention that Ted is also the host of the Smart Thinking Podcast, where he goes further into detail on many of the things we discussed today. Check it out.

And speaking of podcasts, if you like this one, be sure to subscribe! We release new episodes every two weeks, covering topics for leaders in K12, and I’d hate for you to miss anything.

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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.