Tag Archives: Leadership

Going for Gold

Inspiring Spires

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Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University

Last week our Leadership Team at Sanoma Learning visited Oxford. We’re working together on how we will lead the transformation of learning for the next generation. It was inspiring to be in this environment of educational excellence and the sessions on Educational Neuroscience and the Purpose of the Team were especially good.

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Team GB winning Olympic Gold in Beijing

Most inspiring of all was the session with Double Olympic Gold Medal Winner, Steve Williams at the Leander Club (he won rowing Gold in the coxless four in both Athens and Beijing). The Leander Club was founded in 1818 (15 years earlier than the oldest established part of Sanoma Learning – Van In) and is arguably the World’s most successful rowing club. Steve talked us through his journey to becoming an Olympic Champion and then took us out onto the water to row together.

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Our teams after the rowing session

Steve is not only an Olympic Champion but also a gifted storyteller. I will try to re-tell the core ingredients of what brought his team success, but nothing can beat the inspiration of hearing it in situ. He strongly credits many other people for the success, especially their coach, team members and everybody who supports the operation.

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Steve explaining to us how they train

Overall, I believe the distinguishing factor behind their huge success has been their mindset: a culture of excellence where they truly live by their code. This has been nurtured and cultivated and almost certainly dominates the lives of the teams – you truly feel it everywhere at the Club. In my own words, I would summarise the essence of their approach as follows:

1. Set the highest expectations (goals)

Purpose: inspire a nation

Goal: win Olympic gold

Stopwatch: performance target (time)

They have set themselves a noble purpose with a clear and highly ambitious goal and they track progress consistently on the journey – not only to check and improve performance but also to affirm progress and success. The hunger for Gold in particular is deeply embedded in the culture and symbols of the Club. For example, the names on the Honours Board at the entrance to the Club for major international events such as the Olympics, are given in two colours only: Gold (winner) and Black. There is no doubt that this Club expects its members to win Gold. It triggered us to think how we can sharpen our purpose, goals and stopwatch at Sanoma Learning. What’s our ‘Gold medal’ – our impact on learning, our reach, our size?

2. Focus on moving the boat (strategy)

The Olympics are held every four years and a race lasts about six minutes. All of the focus on the journey there and during the race itself has to be on doing the things that move the boat. Make a plan to win, cut out the things that don’t make an impact and focus on moving the boat forward. The things that don’t move the boat forward basically hold it back. What lessons can we learn from this at Sanoma? What are the things we are doing that really move the boat forward? Is everything we are doing ‘moving the boat’?

3. Get the basics right (execution)

The team develops supreme physical fitness and technical competence that helps to bring them the bullet-proof confidence that underpins a winning mindset. Part of this derives from a gruelling training schedule of six hours per day, six or seven days per week. Good nutrition and rest are taken seriously and staying mentally strong is crucial. Essentially, the team is making the kilometers so that they are better prepared than anyone else on race day. The determination and pure discipline in delivering on the basics Steve showed were inspiring and possibly obsessive (no offence intended Steve). It makes me wonder: are we as fit in all places as we need to be to succeed in the future? How can I make myself fitter on the basics?

4. Learn fast (improve)

Part of any high-performance culture is to learn fast. I was especially interested in the ‘hot wash-ups’ they do immediately after each outing on the water. Very quickly, they huddle up and ask eachother a) what went well and b) what can we improve next time? Simple and effective. Part of their code is also that people speak out early and at the right time (before a decision) and that no problem lives longer than two hours. Feedback is so crucial to learning! We did a ‘hot wash-up’ and ‘feed forward’ with our team afterwards. We learned a lot and it was interesting and (sometimes) fun too! We have an open and trusting team so it was easy to do. Imagine how much further we could develop ourselves, our team, our people and our business if we would structurally build this into our culture. Let’s do it.

5. Celebrate success (enjoy!)

Members of the Leander Club want to be winners. And they want to feel like winners. Celebrating success feeds that mindset. Check out the Honours Board. See the photographs of winning teams hanging on the walls. Read the newspaper articles pinned on the wall, telling their stories of success. Listen to how they tell their story. Feel how Steve radiates pride at being part of the Leander Club. See how they measure progress and affirm their success. Who would not want to succeed in this environment? I am sure we could do a better job at celebrating our successes and those of our customers at Sanoma Learning.

Aim higher

I was inspired by Steve and his journey. Listening to him made me want to set (even) higher standards for myself, our team and for Sanoma Learning. We’ll be working this out with the team in the coming period.

Inspire a generation

Even more fundamentally: what about our schools? Imagine Steve Williams as Headmaster of a school. Think about the high aspirations, the culture of excellence and the dedication to purpose. The ‘fitness’ on so many dimensions. Imagine the positive impact such a leader would have on the next generation of children and teachers. What could be a better ‘Gold Medal’ than that?

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Inspiring leadership in education

This week I attended the Global Education Conference in Boston sponsored by Harvard and Goldman Sachs. This was one of the most inspiring conferences I’ve attended in recent years. Sessions were spread over two days and included hot topics such as “financing disruption”, “creating value in a world of content abundance”, “bridging the skills gap” and “the promise of accessible education”.

I could happily write a post about each of them. But I will write about just one. The absolute highlight of the meeting for me was the opening keynote by Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school network of 12,300 students in New York. He has been instrumental in improving the performance of his students over a period of two decades such that 95% of high school seniors these days are accepted into college. He gave the best live keynote speech I have ever seen.

GeoffreyCanadaMuch of the focus of the conference was on technology, and I certainly believe that technology can be a great enabler in improving education.

However, Geoffrey’s impact comes from excellent leadership. In particular in taking actions to re-set the normative behaviour amongst the stakeholders including the local community. In a nutshell, in changing expectations in the community from “you have to be a genius to go to college” to “if he can do it, I can do it”. And amongst teachers from “don’t blame me, this is a mission impossible” to “my job is to get these kids into college”.

I personally believe that excellent education can be delivered when skilled teachers, motivated pupils and high quality learning materials play together effectively for the benefit of the learning of the pupil. The role of the school leader has not been strong on my radar. But of course, these three cornerstones rely on selecting and leading the right teachers and ensuring that a healthy culture and practices are in place in schools and their communities! The role of the school leader is pivotal. I should re-examine my beliefs!

Canada is a brilliant and inspiring speaker. You know that he wants the best for his pupils. You know that he will do whatever it takes to make it happen. He is highly engaging and has tremendous energy. He’s firm but fair. It’s not about him, it’s about the future of the kids at his school. I liked the clarity of his message. “Your job is to get these kids into college. The military is good. Vocational training is good too. But your job is to get these kids into college. That is what I expect from you”. I liked that he saw it as a journey. Year-on-year he saw impact. But transformation is a journey and the impact 20 years later was massive.

What would the equivalent message be for my own team? The essence of it is “help teachers to excel at developing the talents of every child in their class”. I believe this is the right direction and will be the journey of learning in the coming decade. How to achieve and measure that? If you have inspiring ideas then you are welcome to join our Learning Lab this coming Autumn!

Most of Canada’s keynote was energetic and funny. He is also a poet and took a more serious tone at the end by reading one of his own poems “Don’t blame me”. Inspiring and touching. Thanks Mr Canada, a brilliant leader, for making a positive impact on thousands of lives, and for inspiring me too.

DON’T BLAME ME
February 2007

The girl’s mother said, “Don’t blame me.
Her father left when she was three.
I know she don’t know her ABCs, her 1,2,3s,
But I am poor and work hard you see.”
You know the story, it’s don’t blame me.

The teacher shook her head and said,
“Don’t blame me, I know it’s sad.
He’s ten, but if the truth be told,
He reads like he was six years old.
And math, don’t ask.
It’s sad you see.
Wish I could do more, but it’s after three.
Blame the mom, blame society, blame the system.
Just don’t blame me.”

The judge was angry, his expression cold.
He scowled and said, “Son you’ve been told.
Break the law again and you’ll do time.
You’ve robbed with a gun.
Have you lost your mind?”
The young man opened his mouth to beg.
“Save your breath,” he heard instead.
“Your daddy left when you were two.
Your momma didn’t take care of you.
Your school prepared you for this fall.
Can’t read, can’t write, can’t spell at all.
But you did the crime for all to see.
You’re going to jail, son.
Don’t blame me.”

If there is a God or a person supreme,
A final reckoning, for the kind and the mean,
And judgment is rendered on who passed the buck,
Who blamed the victim or proudly stood up,
You’ll say to the world, “While I couldn’t save all,
I did not let these children fall.
By the thousands I helped all I could see.
No excuses, I took full responsibility.
No matter if they were black or white,
Were cursed, ignored, were wrong or right,
Were shunned, pre-judged, were short or tall,
I did my best to save them all.”
And I will bear witness for eternity
That you can state proudly,
“Don’t blame me.”

Thank you Jacques!

Last week our leadership team at Sanoma Learning and the local team in Den Bosch thanked Jacques Eijkens for having been a great CEO and founding father of the company. It was truly touching to hear the personal stories and feel the respect and trust that Jacques had built up with the team.

It was about five years ago that I met Jacques for the first time. He was looking to recruit someone for the Learning team to help them to develop the business further. I remember coming back from the discussions with him, Barend de Graaff (CFO) and Mark Marseille (CHRO) thinking that it would be great to work in that team with that boss on that assignment. And also wondering what they feed the people in the South of Holland that makes them so tall 🙂 (answer: lots of cheese sandwiches and milk).

So I joined the company soon after and experienced Jacques as an excellent boss! There are three things that I’ve especially appreciated about working with him and think these things have contributed to the success of our Learning business today:

1. Great coach. Jacques has been a great coach to both the team and the individuals in the team. His feedback to me has been consistently true and insightful and always comes from the perspective of helping me to do my best for Learning. He respects your strengths and challenges you to develop yourself further in a very natural and motivating way.  You know he wants you to be your best.

2. Customer first. Probably borne out of his marketing background, putting the customer at the centre of our thinking has always been front-of-mind and tip-of-tongue for Jacques. We win or lose in the market depending on how well we serve our customers. Especially in a corporate setting it’s of critical importance that we never lose sight of that.

3. Feeling for essence. I have always respected Jacques’ feeling for essence. Our business is getting increasingly complex and Jacques has been a good guide in finding the way on our journey. Focus on the things that really matter.

It’s about 9 months ago now since I heard Jacques was intending to step aside. My first thought was that this would be a big shock to the people at Sanoma Learning: he has done an excellent job and is loved by the people in the organization. My second thought was that I share his passion for learning and can bring new skills that can help us on the next step of our journey to the digital future.  I was keen to lead Sanoma Learning – although it will not be easy to succeed such a big man!

I’d like to thank Jacques for his trust and support. And for having been a great leader, a true professional, and for all the fun we have had on the journey so far!