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Reading two articles that our colleagues Lisa Alexander and Ray McLean recently shared with all at Leading Teams reminded me of the incredible significance of all organisations being very clear about their core purpose; that is why they exist.

“Hers was the Writing of a Five-Year-Old,” was an article written by Brendan James Murray, published in The Australian on Saturday May 29th and was about a young student by the name of Grace that Brendan had taught as a year eight student. Grace was / is functionally illiterate. The premise of Murray’s article is that this child had been significantly let down by the system. Grace had been identified as being at standard in her most recent report in the key learning area of English and seemingly by a teacher who didn’t care where he placed her. According to her previous English teacher she was a ‘great kid,’ ‘didn’t make a sound,’ and importantly, ‘isn’t disruptive.’

The same child was reading and writing at the early primary level and desperately needed support. Sadly, the response from school administrators (note I haven’t used the word Leaders) was that while they could see that Grace was at an abnormally low level of literacy, she didn’t meet the benchmarks for the appointment of an Integration Aide; “She doesn’t qualify.”

Tragically Grace had been pushed through a system, including the primary school system, and essentially been set up to fail. Worse still she had been identified as being potentially gifted in the learning area of the visual arts and at no point had anyone seen fit to use this strength as a leverage point to support her area of challenge, English literacy.

The second article, “Culture Splits Good Stocks from Bad,” that Lisa shared was taken from the Australian Financial Review on May 21st. In this article Michael Trigg, a Portfolio Manager based in California for WCM Quality Global Growth Fund shares with us the philosophy that drives the manner in which companies are incorporated into WCM’s investment portfolio. Reference is made in the article to the recent experiences of Credit Suisse and Boeing whose honesty and transparency with their investors has been exposed as not just negligent, but also morally bankrupt. One analyst asks questions, about the culture within both companies. “Were risks downplayed? Were risks ignored? Did bad news not travel upwards?

Trigg explains that a significant focus for WCM is the culture of the business that they are considering investing into. He asks questions, lots of questions, about the culture of the business at shareholder briefings, often to the chagrin of other investment advisors. Having done plenty of research into the culture of businesses, significant investment decisions are made.

“We try to build a mosaic of what the company’s culture is,” he says. “That’s really what culture is – it’s what people do when bosses are not looking,” he says.

In the article Trigg shares a typical question used to determine how managers think about culture: ‘What are the three pieces of advice you’re going to give a new employee about how they can successful in your business?’

As an educator and facilitator with Leading Teams the connections between the two articles are palpable for me. They both point to what happens when we lose sight of our core purpose. They both cause us to consider the human toll of turning a blind eye to the genuine conversations that need to be had. They both remind us what happens if the values and behaviours that we have agreed to, and espouse, are mere words on the wall and not lived.

Grace deserved so much better from her schools and teachers over many years. Her risk factors were ignored or downplayed until they became someone else’s problem. There wasn’t line of sight from the top down to ensure that effective practices were in place for the most vulnerable. There was money there to help Grace, there always is! It simply comes down to what has been prioritised, and in this instance, it wasn’t the needs of the most at-risk students. Clearly the culture of the schools that had overseen Graces’ ‘education’ was such that staff didn’t feel safe, competent, or empowered enough to speak on her behalf.

Corporate parallels are not in short supply. Ask the whistle-blowers at the Commonwealth Bank or at AMP. Speak to the Directors of Crown Casino or Westpac. We don’t need to think too deeply to have some semblance of empathy for how the indigenous people of Australia feel when ancient sites are blown up by Rio Tinto. I could go on.

The reality is that unless organisations of all stripes are prepared to genuinely invest in their people and culture there will continue to be stories in education likes Graces and of other corporates who seemingly disregard any sense of morality.

Having a deep sense of purpose and accepting the reality that we can improve ‘the bottom line,’ whether that be improved student learning outcomes or greater profitability, when we invest in our greatest resource, our people should be the driving motivation in any team! I am genuinely proud of the work we at Leading Teams do in this space and look forward to every day I engage with teams knowing that I am helping individuals and teams improve.

No student should be left behind as Grace was. Every good teacher knows that he or she has the responsibility to ensure that their students meet success and know that their talents are recognised and celebrated. Similarly, no employee should feel incapable of sharing insights, offering opinions and experiencing an ever growing and evolving sense of empowerment. In doing so every student and every employee will encounter a culture of genuine welcome and a true sense of belonging.   

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The Power of Self Talk

Before joining Leading Teams I taught and led in eight schools across Victoria during a 40-year career in the Catholic education sector.