The most successful leaders are lifelong learners. They are open to learning from anywhere and everywhere. The ability to gain knowledge from other domains and applying it to their own is a hallmark of the most exceptional people. Corporations understand this and often invite people from diverse backgrounds, such as sports team coaches or armed force generals, to impart their wisdom to executives. But there is another group of people, far closer to home, from whom you can learn precious lessons on how to be successful under the harshest conditions.
Kilian Betlach is one such person. Whether you are a leader at a scrappy startup or a complex, mission-driven enterprise, Betlach’s experiences are sure to help you. He is the principal at Elmhurst United, an Oakland middle school where 95% of the students are low income, and 100% are people of color. Students at Elmhurst are no strangers to hearing gunshots at night and come from an environment where they don’t trust schools or society. Betlach’s mission is educating them and preparing them for a world that often is not ready to accept them.
Like any other organization, Betlach is only successful if his team (teachers) succeeds. But unlike most organizations, he does not have the standard tools to incentivize his team. He can’t offer the same financial rewards as a corporation; neither can he provide the societal status of other public service jobs. The reputation of being a teacher has been steadily declining with every generation. People don’t look up to teachers as they do firefighters, and no one walks up to them to “thank them for their service.”
Despite the challenges, Betlach has been successful in his mission. While a middle school principal may appear as an unlikely source to impart leadership lessons to corporate managers, there are three elements to his method that can help you become a successful leader.
1. Values-Based Leadership
While corporations spend countless hours developing and refining their values, Betlach’s school lives them. Mission and Values aren’t an afterthought created at an executive offsite. They are the sole reason for existence. Imagine you have to recruit people to work, very hard, in one of the country’s most dangerous places. And in return, you can’t offer them money; you can’t offer status, and you can’t provide any of the traditional corporate incentives.
All you can do is honor the other reasons people want to work: purpose and values. And when values are the only thing you have to offer, you become very good at living up to them. Betlach’s school values include community and self-knowledge, academic mindset, relationship skills, and effective communication. But they are not just words. Betlach has every team member write narratives about each of these values and why they matter. This process makes the values real, and this simple exercise is something corporations would do well to emulate if they genuinely want to become values-driven.
Values play a role from the start of any employees’ tenure. They are a critical component of the interview process, ensuring they hire only those who show a strong commitment to the mission. Additionally, the school reinforces values in everything they do. For example, Mondays traditionally were the day staff would meet to discuss administrative issues. Betlach realized that these meetings were an inefficient use of time as administrative matters could be addressed through email.
He changed the meetings’ focus to create “Mindset Mondays,” where values are reinforced, and the team was allowed to show vulnerability and address the formidable challenges they face as a group. Like the creation of Mindset Mondays, countless little decisions add up to create an organization that truly lives its values.
2. Team Development
Oakland is a hard place to attract and retain teachers, and it is difficult for any organization to deliver on a mission if the employee turnover is high. Betlach was one of the few principles able to reverse that trend. Under his leadership, the Elmhurst United School started a school year with no new teachers for the very first time. Every class was taught by returning teachers, something that was almost “unheard of” for any school, let alone an urban middle school. While this may appear as a small win, it is a big step in the right direction.
Betlach understood that employee retention starts with the hiring process. His school’s values-based hiring process leads teachers to be more effective and stay longer. But that is not all, you also need teachers to be successful at their job, else students won’t learn, nor will the teachers stay.
Betlach realized that teachers hit a plateau after about three years, and there is nowhere they can turn to for learning and growth. So he instituted a coaching program and ensured that every educator, new or old, had a coach who would observe classes, provide feedback, or sometimes simply listen. This program made educators more effective and allowed for the sharing and institutionalization of best-practices throughout the organization.
Betlach focused on changing the nature of teaching from a solo effort to a collaborative effort. Ordinarily, education is an isolated job, with one adult managing thirty kids, something difficult for students as well as teachers. So Betlach put in strategies to remove the isolation. Teachers formed teams that would jointly work and develop strategies for teaching. For example, all the eighth-grade teachers formed a group; all the Math or English teachers formed a team; the front office formed a team. This way, they were never isolated and always had support.
Once again, simple strategies based on understanding the circumstances led to remarkable outcomes. Every organization can learn from this approach.
3. Manage within your reality
The most effective leaders know what they can control and do not waste energy focusing on elements outside of their control. Student achievement is largely determined by factors outside a school’s sphere of influence. Factors such as “mother’s education level” and “access to a high-quality preschool” play a far more significant role in students’ success than what they learn in school.
And while our society has created a near-permanent segment of people who will always be the “educational underclass,” great schools try and challenge these norms and work to reverse the trend.
However, they also have to operate within their own reality. High expectations in an inner-city school means something very different than a typical suburban school. When less than 5% of students operate at grade level, your metrics and goals need to reflect your reality. You set your realistic and attainable metrics, and you go out and achieve them without getting distracted by what others are doing. Then you celebrate your wins, regardless of how they may appear to others.
In Betlach’s case, he raised math grade level proficiency from 4% to 9%. While having only 9% of students reach grade-level proficiency may appear low, Betlach realizes that being able to double this metric in a year was a notable achievement and should be celebrated. It is easy to get discouraged by someone else’s reality, so it is essential to understand and operate within your circumstances. A lesson that many leaders, who are trying to emulate others, would do well to learn.
There is a lot that corporate leaders can learn from Betlach. If an inner-city principal can achieve so much with so few resources and under the harshest conditions, surely startups or larger enterprises with their near-limitless resources, lofty compensation packages, and generous perks can do the same.
It starts with knowing yourself, understanding your circumstances, living your values, and ensuring your entire team embodies them. This is how great organizations develop. What matters is not just having values but actively making time for employees to explore them, think critically, and figure out how to operationalize them.