For me the new year is always an exciting time. I love Christmas for one as it’s a time of hope and reflection on the goodness in humanity. It also helps us move on from mistakes of the past and look forward to the future possibilities in life. However, as I mentioned around this time last year, it’s got nothing to do with shallow New Years’ resolutions that barely last till sunset on 1st January. It’s far deeper and far more important than that.
The end of the year is instead a time to think big! If you look at the story of Christmas, a simple baby clothed in nothing more than a collection of rags in a barn, surrounded by farm animals brings a message of hope, the likes of which the world has never seen before. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s completely unassuming and it’s shaped the world for millennia. That simple message of hope has brought people together, healed wounded relationships and helped generations to imagine a better world.
Our world is far from perfect and the reality is that it’s filled with inequality, despair, hatred, greed and fear. However, with massive problems, come great opportunities. Whether it’s through food aid, clean water projects, affordable shelter or education, as global citizens living in Western democracies we can make a difference.
If you take a quick look for example at the World Food Program - www.wfp.org. They’re fighting famine and starvation across 80 countries and helping feed approximately 80 Million people each year. What’s the cost of a single meal to keep someone alive? 39¢ which equates to $1.17 per person, per day! When you think how much we spend on a coffee, this puts into perspective the extent of the inequality in the world and how even going one day without a latte could feed someone for half the week!
Back in 2010, Josette Sheeran set out 10 Ways To Feed The World and whilst hunger is still a major issue, the core principles of how individuals and groups can help address this major problem remain the same. It’s about taking real action and this is what makes the difference in any situation. If you do nothing, nothing will change. If you take real action, then you can change the lives of others for the better.
In a world where people believe they’re making a difference by changing their Facebook image overlay or liking an image after another tragic bombing, shooting or vile act, we need to avoid such shallow sentiments and look for real ways to make a difference. Even if it’s just making a difference to one person, one family or your local community, this will have more of a lasting impact than the pointless liking of a digital image that will disappear as quickly as it appeared. Armchair activists that think they’re doing something by clicking a button, are as useful as fly screens on submarines and should be avoided at all costs.
Hence, what can you do? On one level, you could donate to an organisation that helps feed countless people across the world. On a much more pro-active level, you could join a community service group, help out a disadvantaged school (sadly in Australia we have many disadvantaged schools despite our overall national wealth) or you could even help out with meals on wheels for elderly members of the community. There are so many opportunities to make a difference and once you break down the problem into smaller parts and take some action to do something about it, you can start to make a real difference.
Despite this, as just one example, you don’t have to focus on hunger. There are countless other social, economic, health and well-being issues throughout the world that need to be addressed. From clean water, to education, to poverty, to slavery and freedom of expression, the world needs your help. Even if it’s only a small contribution, it’s still important and far more effective than doing nothing at all.
In 2018, don’t let enormity of the human condition overwhelm you or stop you from looking at the opportunities to make a difference. As my old friend said, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ I replied, ‘Why the hell do you want to eat an elephant?!! That’s kind of weird and upsetting!’ He then told me it was a metaphor and he really didn’t like to eat elephant (or so he says…). But seriously, how do we take on massive problems? We approach them one step at a time. If everyone took on even just a small community service project, or helped someone out in just a little way, with each step, we move closer to a better world and one in which inequality, violence, hatred and fear is a thing of the past.
As this year comes to an end, think about the importance of the Christmas message that remains so strong and important after 2,000 years and from this, consider what positive impact can you have on the world as we know it, throughout the year ahead.
When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.
If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!
There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.
A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.
This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.
So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or brining the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.
There’s a phenomenon in Education that’s a strange thing to see and experience but when you look at it in more detail, it makes perfect sense. Often schools are quite dysfunctional places from a managerial point of view and you have people who are promoted into management positions who are often inexperienced and totally unsuited for the positions.
A good teacher doesn't necessarily make a good administrator. As a result, if the wrong people get promoted into positions of influence, you risk ending up with what can be a toxic culture. When this happens, you find incompetent managers surrounding themselves with more incompetent managers to try and hide the fact that they’re useless. This is common practice in any organisation, which results in higher staff turnover and lowers productivity.
If this is the case, why do schools keep functioning for longer when a comparable business or organisation would be falling apart at the seams? Why do schools keep rolling along and producing reasonable outcomes? Unfortunately, it comes down to the ability of a school to blackmail its teachers. This might seem to be an extreme statement. However, it's quite an apt analysis of a dysfunctional school.
Despite layers of incompetent managers in a toxic school, you still have genuinely hard-working teachers who want the best for their students. They want good educational outcomes and they want the students to be learning now, what the other workplace pressures could be.
Unfortunately, this results in a very strange situation. On the one hand managers are driving a completely different agenda to what the school needs from an educational point of view. On the other hand, you have teachers doing their best for the students, which could be quite out of touch with what the school management sees as valuable. This odd situation can be sustained for a long period of time because the teachers on the frontline do the best they can for their students.
If you have a reliable core group of teachers, despite the incompetent management, often schools just keep rolling along without much of a noticeable problem. As long as nobody in management molests any children or runs the school into bankruptcy, incompetent managers seem to stay for years and years, because their incompetence is often covered up by the hard work and desire of other teachers to provide the best opportunities for students.
However, any sort of hardworking individual no matter how motivated, will end up being worn down by this situation. Despite the desire to help students, the longer poor management remains, the greater the decline of the school. It might be a much slower burn than in private enterprise, but once you have disengaged teachers then the entire school becomes toxic, staff turnover increases and good educational outcomes for students becomes a distant memory.
How do you address this? Firstly, you need better managerial oversight. You need better schools’ boards that actually understand the business of education, not just business. They need to look carefully at the connectivity between what teaching staff are doing and what senior management is doing.
Forget the grand strategic building plans. What are the actual educational outcomes for the students? How are they being achieved? Why not get feedback from the students on the entire organization, not just the classroom teacher? This could provide a fascinating insight into how a school is going.
Performance review should be an ongoing process initiated by senior management to ensure continuous improvement for the school. Teachers and students should be able to provide feedback for senior management on a regular basis.
This can provide a much better overview of how well the organisation is going. Is the direction being set by management translating into proactive, positive and effective educational outcomes for students? Or is there a toxic disconnect that’s eating away at the school from within? Unfortunately, due to the slow burning nature of decline within a school, it might take many years to notice the dysfunction. By then, it's too late and all your good staff will have given up and left.
However, by carefully selecting those to manage versus those who should remain in the classroom, this can help to alleviate this concern. Seeking feedback from staff and students and approaching the organisation with a view of continuous improvement, is vital in developing a positive and transparent culture.
You want to avoid the slow burn into decline and instead set a clear vision of what the school stands for and everything the school does should be focused on achieving this ultimate educational goal. As a result, you will increase staff retention and provide the best educational experience possible for your students.
A question I’d like to pose, is what is happening with the Australian economy? Every time you look around more retail shops are closing on our main streets, especially in small towns. The cost to rent anywhere is ridiculously expensive, so why bother with a shopfront? Commercial real estate owners are yet to realise supply is now outstripping demand and many shopfronts now stand ghostly empty in our streets. With the latest economic figures being a reminder that economies go forwards, sideways and backwards, what does the future hold for Australian business?
We're at a tipping point where manufacturing is dead, mining is stumbling along, agriculture is almost subsistence living for many farmers, retail is still coming to terms with the reality of eCommerce and cafés seem to be popping up everywhere! Are we becoming a nation of public servants and café owners? Hopefully not, as diversity is key to a sustainable economy!
What then is the way forward? With our cities bursting at the seams and a two hour daily commute wasting 20 whole days of your life a year, what's the answer?
Well that's simple, decentralisation. Move more services away from the main cities into regional areas. So long as regional centres have fast internet and an airport, and a couple of good cafés, this opens a world of opportunity for government, professionals and businesses at a fraction of the cost of our major cities.
Regional centres have cheaper housing, virtually no traffic, open spaces and a pace of life and lifestyle which lends itself to far better family time and opportunities to connect with others. Most employees only get twenty days of annual leave each year, yet living in the city, they’re spending the equivalent of their entire holiday break sitting in traffic.
The reality is that as communications improve, there’s no reason why you can’t run big businesses from regional centres. There’s no reason why every single government department needs to be in a city. It’s cheaper to fly senior managers in and out of Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra for meetings, than the massive cost of renting entire office blocks in the CBD. After all, how many clients who are being served actually walk into the office?
If people have access to core services in regional areas, fast internet access and fast transport options, then the opportunities for a better life style is beckoning. Whilst many a study, by those living in the city, will tell you how it makes no difference, why not give it go. Spend a few weekends in a regional town or city and get a feel for what life would be like without the horrendous congestion.
Frontline Management is a challenging role and to do it effectively, you have to be able to build professional relationships with your staff. If you have to resort to yelling at your staff as a direct supervisor, you really have lost the ability to provide any semblance of guidance.
I know how frustrating and even infuriating it can be dealing with staff at times, especially if they’re the wrong fit for the organisation. However, if you’ve been put in a managerial position, the reality is that you’re getting paid more than everyone else for a reason. It’s believed that managers have the qualities and capacity to guide others towards shared goals and objectives. (Yes, ‘believed!’)
Unfortunately, many managers are ill-prepared for the role and if they simply think that making demands of staff is the way in which they can lead them, they’re seriously mistaken and perhaps the would-be manager should find themselves another sort of role.
Leading staff is about inspiring. It’s about developing and working towards common goals. It’s often the case, however, that there’s a disconnect between the common goal and the values that the manager has versus what staff value or perceive their role to be. If this is the case, expect nothing but conflict and ineffective work practices.
I’ve worked in a number of organisations where there’s been a total disconnect between what management values and what staff members value. The reality is that the two can’t be disconnected. Everyone needs to be working towards the same goal, otherwise the workplace just ends up in a completely dysfunctional mess.
Now I also need to be clear in that even if you’re working towards a common goal, you may still experience internal conflict. After all, you’re dealing with groups of people, not machines and people love drama, especially workplace drama, as it can fill the emotional void between morning talkback radio and ‘Home & Away’ in the evening.
However, if you’re truly leading people, you need to have a common goal, a common vision of what you’re trying to achieve. If you don’t have this then it makes it extremely hard to inspire others to do anything at all.
I was working for an organisation where this problem came to the fore. The manager was seriously out of his depth. He didn’t understand what the organisation was trying to achieve. He didn’t have the experience within that organisation or within the industry to be able to provide any sort of management or any sort of guidance in this either.
This is often the case, especially in organisations and large organisations that keep adding more and more staff quite rapidly and yet they’re not really clear on what the staff need to be doing, yet at the same time, they need more staff to do something! It’s a classic public service experience but also it happens in a lot of other organisations. You end up with more layers of management than you can poke a stick at. However, none of them is really clear on what they’re actually supposed to be doing and none of them can make a decision to save their lives.
If this situation arises, then you get an even greater divide between management objectives and employee realities. Once you get this disconnect between management and employees with no clear goals, with no clear idea what the organisation is trying to achieve, you get increasing internal conflict. There’s lots of knee-jerk reactions by management due to the need for control over people in the absence of any clear vision.
When issues arise, there’s a natural fall-back for many poor managers to become defensive about any issue and instead of dealing with it head on in person, most of it now is being done via messages or email. With no direct personal contact with staff, this only exasperates the situation. This then leads to an increasing feeling of resentment and hostility within the organisation and ultimately conflict between managers and employees that goes round and round in circles and gets nowhere.
Conflict within an organisation due to bad management, then increases absenteeism and the cost of doing business. If nobody is really sure why they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s little wonder that small issues will get blown out of proportion by everyone.
The issue then becomes a growing mistrust felt between management and staff and this can go from an organisation not really working coherently, to a very toxic and detrimental workplace. You can be assured, any minor issue will suddenly blow up into a massive problem that seems to dwarf Mt. Everest in size and scope.
The sad reality is that it’s quite common in many organisations to promote people based upon years of service and not actual ability to manage. Just because someone has been there a long time doesn’t mean he or she will be any good at managing people. Managers must have other qualities and working towards clear goals is one very important one. If a potential manager can’t demonstrate why the organisation is doing what it’s doing in a genuine manner, you really don’t want that person trying to manager others.
To avoid this situation, you need front line managers that are able to understand staff, make decisions and have clear visions and goals for the organisation. If the organisation’s vision is aligned with the beliefs of the staff, then it means minor issues go away very quickly. They can be dealt with in a professional manner and don’t end up in yelling matches with people firing accusations back and forth and getting everyone nowhere but stressed.
At the end of the day, if you want your organisation to operate at around 25% of capacity just go for whatever person you like and throw him or her into a management position. It doesn’t matter. However, if you want to be operating in the 80-100% capacity range and really want to make a positive difference to what your organisation’s doing, you need to be far more careful and discerning of who you put in to your management positions.
Once you get the right mix, it’s not just about managing people. It’s about inspiring them. It’s about motivating them through common goals and a vision to be the best at whatever you’re doing. This sort of approach changes the whole dynamics of an organisation. All the daily drama and nonsense that holds people back and cripples workplaces, just disappears into the aether. Suddenly people are happier, more effective and ultimately, the organisation can grow and become far better at what it does.
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