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Two Kinds of People in Your School

by Dr. Andy Johnsen, Coach, Principal
Valley Elementary School in Poway, CA

“The key to success is working on your business, not in your business.”
– Michael Gerber

In his bestselling book The E-Myth, Michael Gerber offers a compelling explanation for why 80% of small businesses fail within their first five years. His message is simple and might not be what you expect. Although geared towards small business owners, I believe his insights have a profound lesson for school principals and can help explain why so many of us are stressed, fatigued and overworked.

Gerber says that every organization has two kinds of people: technicians and managers. Both are vital to the smooth functioning of the business and their roles are distinct.

Technicians are those people in the organization who “do things.” Their areas of expertise are specialized and they have a tightly defined scope of responsibility. In schools the technicians would be teachers, office staff, custodians, counselors and other support personnel. Your school cannot run without them. They are the ones who “do the work” of your school and without them your school will simply not function.

Managers are those who coordinate and support the work of the technicians. They ensure that each one knows what his or her responsibilities are and they provide the training and professional development for the technicians to continually improve their work. Managers provide feedback, encouragement and support to the technicians and put their energy into creating smoothly functioning systems so everyone can do their best work each day. In the same way the conductor of an orchestra coordinates the playing of the musicians, it’s a manager’s job to make sure that all of the technicians are working in a coordinated way together. In your school you, the principal, are the manager.

Note: in our circles it is common for principals to shy away from being called a “manager,” preferring to think of ourselves as “leaders.” That’s a legitimate distinction we’ll talk about later. But for now, understand the term “manager” as Gerber is using it to distinguish between those who do “technical” work.

In his book Gerber tells the story of Sarah, a woman who was very gifted at baking pies. She baked the best pies in town and was well known far and wide for her skill. In fact, baking was the joy and passion of her life. At the urging of her friends and neighbors Sarah opened a pie shop, and in a very short time was miserable. Almost immediately her leisurely days of baking inher kitchen turned to getting to her shop before sunup to prepare for each day and working late into the night wading through invoices, purchase orders and inventory sheets, shopping for supplies, addressing customer needs, depositing money at the bank, and struggling to stay on top of the myriad needs of her business.

Within three years she was ready to close the doors for good and through tears actually said, “Not only do I hate all of this [pointing at the pile of paperwork], but I HATE baking pies. I can’t stand the thought of pies. I can’t stand the smell of pies. I can’t stand the sight of pies.”

What happened to Sarah in such a short time? In a nutshell, she had failed to understand that the moment she went from “an excellent baker of pies” to “the owner of a pie shop” she transitioned from technician to manager. Because she knew the technical work of baking pies but not the managerial work of running a small business, she was overwhelmed and unhappy.

The same thing happens to us as principals. All of the positions we held prior to the principalship were technical ones: teacher, program coordinator, assistant principal, etc. We were “doers,” and we did our work very well. The problem is, nobody told us that the moment we became principal of the school we left our technical work behind. When we became managers, our role changed drastically from the doer of technical work to the coordinator, supporter, and developer of the technicians at our school.

Since we are so used to doing technical work (and we are so good at it) we go right on doing it. We continue the technical work of filing, typing, scheduling,copying, ordering, accounting, and more. We spend hours each week answering our own phone, wading through our email, typing meeting agendas and managing our own calendars. We put up bulletin boards. We manage student files. We write the entire monthly school newsletter. Some principals I know prepare their own budget transfer requests, do playground duty every day and even help with cleanup in the cafeteria from time to time.

You want to know why you are working 60- and 70-hour weeks but still not getting everything done? It’s because you have not learned to be the “manager” at your school. You’re more like the “head technician.”

We have to remember that our districts pay people to do the technical work in our schools – and they all do it better than we can! Every hour we spend doing other people’s work is an hour we are not spending observing, supporting, encouraging, and training the people who are charged with doing the technical work of the school. And since you’re the only one at your school charged with the task of managing, when you’re not doing it, it’s not getting done.

So this week remember this: when you’re working in the system you can’t be working on the system. What tasks on your to-do list are technical tasks that are part of someone else’s job description? Assign those tasks to that person. If they’re not able to do them, it’s your job to train them so they can.

Let go.

© 2014 Andy Johnsen

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