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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Part 4 of a series on performance management for education leaders.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The human resource function of managing leadership performance in education has never been conceptualized in strategic terms to gain a competitive advantage. This series of essays has concerned itself with that reality for two primary reasons. First, I'm fascinated that the customary pattern of performance management (marked by ritual, serving as a method for separation, at its nexus) continues to defy logic and exist in contradiction to what school districts want and need to do: develop great leaders and continuously improve. I introduced both the Performance Paradox, and the Abilene Paradox in Part 2 as examples of how organizations (not just school districts) fail to understand key elements of performance management, consequently undermining their effort to achieve their intended outcomes.

A modernist approach redefines the architecture of existing HR models.

Second, as I declared in Part 1, implementing a leadership performance management system in my current district is of great interest to me. Not managing performance is a missed opportunity. In most districts, only the superintendent's goals are aligned to the district's strategic outcomes. When the superintendent's goals, divided by division, are shared among the organization's leadership team, the district (and the leadership team) becomes strategically aligned. That's the first step in the process.

Now back to my fascination with our failure as an industry to maximize human capital, which, by the way, constitutes up to 90% of district budgets. The effect of not managing performance at the leadership level has far reaching implications. It trickles down to the entire organization, as evidenced by the rampant retention of under-performing employees.

The absence or misalignment of performance measurement between goals, strategy, processes and activities (read about the Performance Paradox) communicates the powerful message to employees that there is not a shared vision that connects all members of the organization together at its core.

Leadership performance management is a human resource function, but a governance team responsibility. Governance teams set direction, which, in turn, are operationalized by the superintendent and her or his team. Unfortunately, performance management is rarely among the directions governance boards choose to give. However, considering the adage, "What's important is what's measured," it too defies logic. I explain this concept in If You Can't Measure it, You can't manage it.

What are human resource leaders doing if not maximizing human capital by supporting and developing its leaders? The literature suggests there is a preoccupation with compliance. Keeping up-to-date with federal, state and local legislation ensures that the organization avoids costly penalties. It's more likely that strategic initiatives inspired by human resource leaders target payroll and benefits administration or employee recruitment and retention.

Intuitively, it seems logical that employee recruitment and retention would include performance management. But the evidence suggests that's not the case.

Among the objectives of my initiative, I expect this strategy to make an impact on the entire organization. While a significant strategic contribution to the school district is made when HR teams vigorously identify, and then improve, and if not, terminate underperforming employees, to me, next-level HR leadership is focused on aligning human resources and management practices, policies, and procedures with the school district’s direction, as identified by its strategic initiatives.

We all know we need to more effectively manage performance. Yet we don't, maybe even can't, for reasons that range from lack of knowledge, to lack of initiative, to lack of time (the most vexing of all reasons), to the inheritance model that has passed down knowledge and expectations from one generation of HR leaders to the next.

Some scholars point to not managing agreement effectively (known as the the Abilene Paradox) since going against the tide is not acceptable institutional behavior in some school districts. Others identify the Hamlet syndrome (i.e. paralysis by analysis) as responsible. One thing is certain, it's a leadership (or lack of) issue. Make of that what you will. I accept responsibility, as a member of the governance team.

Human resources should not be a department or a division. It should transcend the entire organization. Education does not produce a product. It produces people...right down to the children whose futures we shape.

Show me a high-functioning HR department and I'll show you the maximum use of HR information technology, a focused approach to measuring, monitoring and managing leaders (aligned with the district’s strategic objectives centered on student achievement), and an emphasis on people (relationships), the heart and soul of each of the design principles I have outlined below.

The subtitle of this final essay is from Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like most leadership leaders, Covey emphasizes people and process. He is among the first leadership gurus to identify context, best described as where the learning takes place, as the key to understanding and motivating employees. Among the habits he's identified as effective, Seek first to understand, then to be understood, speaks to the condition I'm addressing in this series of essays. Superintendents live by this philosophy, considering that their relationship with their fellow governance team members is dependent upon their ability to understand, and to be understood. It takes time and patience. As everything does. It would be naive to ignore the fact that performance management models have been rejected in education (and in the public sector too). Seeking to understand why is the key to shifting the paradigm and designing the architecture for a new model. I am not quick to import business models or embrace private sector revolutions...for reasons related to context. But I am quick to point out when every bus and bus rider is not maximizing its/his/her strategic contribution to the cause. I expect my superintendent colleagues to embrace this idea and recognize this source, that clearly has gone untapped, as a wellspring for continuous and dramatic improvement in their districts.

As a value multiplier, building human capital has no equal. Sadly, if you study the literature, you'll learn that it's never been used effectively as a lever to gain a competitive advantage in education.

OK, allow me to refocus on this series of essays, designed to motivate school districts to implement performance management systems. In The Halo Effect & the Problem with Performance Management, I hinted at my desire to move beyond the control system model towards an agile model favored in progressive and competitive industries committed to talent development. My professional experiences with impotent performance management models and my interest in studying control systems have led me to my conclusion that in education there is a disconnect between performance and outcomes. I speak not only for myself, but also for my superintendent colleagues, past and present, who agreed to inform me on this series of essays. We have failed as leaders for not valuing leadership to the degree that our expectations are so clear that they drive behaviors and push our teams to new heights. The impact of high expectations cannot be understated.

If leadership at the highest level models the highest standards, as evidenced by an unwavering commitment to the power of public education as the fuel for democracy, anything is possible. Students first. Always. If you don't adhere to that philosophy, don't read any further.

Part 1, was crafted to set the stage for developing a proprietary performance management model given the context I have summarized above. Successful performance management systems tend to function best when anchored by communications. They have the power to build trust, boost confidence, and improve morale among the actors, if they are equally engaged in the process. Growth is realized throughout the organization, as the actors working together towards common goals are observed as an institutional behavior norm.

In Part 2, I expanded on the implementation challenges given education’s juxtaposition between being a semi-autonomous organization, while, at the same time, operating in a quasi-market environment. Both the concepts of the Performance Paradox and Abilene Paradox were presented as ideas for thought leaders to explore performance management from a theoretical perspective.

In Creating Fertile Ground for Performance Management, Part 3 of this series, I developed a framework based on the design principles of simplicity, collaboration, variety, and continuous improvement. I also advanced the notion from Part 1 that as a powerful communication tool, performance management systems have unparalleled potential to shape attitudes and beliefs among members of the team. The growth is reciprocal, under the best of conditions.

The French concept of “terroir” was tendered in Part 3 as a useful metaphor to emphasize how critical organizational readiness is, given the high cost of leveraging a system that has resisted change, time immemorial. Furthermore, education has historically shown no signs of reinventing itself on an institutional level, until recently when market-based strategies have begun to advance onto our hallowed ground. I am seeing more and more innovation in the field of human capital. Savvy superintendents recognize the necessity of a thriving leadership pipeline to meet the demands of a complex system, and are passing that responsibility down to their talent managers. The leadership shortage is handicapping the profession and threatens public education in the era of choice.

In this final act, I aim to outline the “How,” given the context for doing the work that was established in Parts' 1-3. I will lead the work in my district and aspire to systematically implement a performance management system accordingly, based on readiness. Patience is a virtue. I've been party to many initiatives that have died a slow and costly death as a result of tensions between things that are urgent and things that are important (some school board are all about urgency). Urgency has proven to win that battle, at least in my experiences. As I expressed in Creating Fertile Ground for Performance Management, like fine wine, most systems evolve over time. Patience and thoughtfulness are critical attributes if a system is to root and subsequently become institutionalized.

The design principles of simplicity, variety, collaboration, and continuous improvement provide a framework for engaging in the process of developing a performance management system, with student success at its center. The principle of simplicity may fly in the face of many reader's ideas of sophisticated models, designed to mitigate threats to validity and reliability. But in reality, sophistication is a prerequisite in the process of creating a model that is simplistic in its design, yet complex in its outcomes. Let's begin by exploring this idea and how it manifests itself among the processes of an effective system.

Design Principle #1 in practice: Applying the KISS principle acknowledges the importance of import and agency. Building the capacity of individuals to act independently (i.e. make and live with their choices) conveys a clear message that "they" matter. That everyone matters. Given the "Why" and the necessity to reinvent an existing performance management system that has become ritualistic and event-oriented, the KISS principal is applied at this first stage to ensure a high level of participation (I referenced Simon Sinek's "The Why" in Part 3. Here's another take on the "Why" from comedian Michael Jr.). There is nothing incredibly complicated about identifying what should be measured to ensure optimum growth is being realized. Nuanced, yes. But complicated, no. Actors on both sides of the appraisal equation engage in this process. The results are not as critical as the process, at this developmental point in time. Both actors engage in a symbiotic fashion to agree on a set of expectations, and how to measure them. At its highest level, the process is mutually beneficial.

Design Principle #2 in practice: Collaboration is a mainstay in education. Adaptive schools and districts understand its value as a game changer. It's evolved as a useful process for problem solving, replacing the hierarchal models that dominated the profession from its infancy until it finally gave way to progressive models that increased interaction among various actors, created buy-in, and built morale. The value that interaction is designed to develop is trust. In a performance management system with collaboration as a design feature, appraisal by an expert is replaced by a dialogue between professionals. The focus is on learning. Trust is developed, not assumed. Mutual agreements that serve as rules of engagement, commonly referred to as norms, are developed during this stage of the process. The adage, the soft stuff is the hard stuff, aptly describes the challenges leaders face realizing positive behavioral shifts when entrenchment has evolved over time.

Design Principle #3 in practice: Variety ensures that different actors, with different opinions on the interpretation of performance, are heard, understanding that the outlier is the deviation and is summarily dismissed. A 360-degree feedback loop anonymously gathers feedback (mitigating the threat of Mintzberg's non-intervention principle) about staff from those working most closely with those staff members. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional approach to performance review (the event model featuring an appraiser). A distinguishing feature of this model is that it doesn’t actually focus on performance. Instead, its focus is on aspects that can be attributed to behaviors. In the most advanced models the opinions of external actors are sought too.

Design Principle #4 in practice: Education has been slow to respond to external factors due to its institutional DNA. Historically a closed system, education has been patently unresponsive to the external environment. Specifically as it relates to performance management systems, education as an institution has been prone to institutional inertia, isolationism, and insensitivity to external developments. It's remained susceptible to shifting dynamics and consequently fears change. Continuous improvement thrives in an open system. This final stage in the process is the most challenging since education is hard-wired to resist dynamism and its reliance on liveliness. The elements of tension, productive activity, and constant change can raise the level of anxiety in closed systems to potentially unhealthy levels. Leaders must acknowledge and address the discomfort if a continuous improvement model is to emerge. It’s based on the principle of creative tension. Peter Senge coined the term to describe the space where ideas emerge, innovation and growth happen, and the capacity for change becomes the norm. Read more about it in an earlier essay, Urgency vs. Capacity Building. Plan on it.

Designing a performance management system is a process that cannot be bound by time. The context will inform the timeline. For leaders responsible for its implementation, they would be wise to seek first to understand, then to be understood.


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