Category Archives: Leadership

Rational compassion is a competitive advantage

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Paul Bloom recently wrote a book called Against Empathy.

The thesis of the book is: rational compassion > empathy.

In other words: empathy (caring how someone feels at the moment) is poor guide for moral decision making when compared to rational compassion (which is more utilitarian in nature).

The difference is easiest to see when it comes to parenting: an overly empathetic parent might respond to a child’s failure by giving the child a cookie (thereby immediately decreasing the child’s suffering), while a parent utilizing rational compassion might help the child process her emotions (thereby reducing the probability of future instances of suffering).

While the idea is rather intuitive, we’re so hardwired for empathy that practicing rational compassion, especially at work, is very difficult.

Because it’s so hard to practice, and because most people are not good at it, the consistent use of rational compassion can be a competitive advantage for doing good in both the for-profit and non-profit sector.

List of Areas Where Rational Compassion > Empathy at the Work Place

Executing strategies that cause short-term harm for long-term gain: Tough decisions (such as school closures) cause short-term pain to others but can provide significant long-term outcomes. Being guided by rational compassion can help you get through this pain.

Pivoting and cannibalizing: Similarly, at times an organization needs to destroy existing program lines and harm existing beneficiaries of their work in order to pivot to a more productive model which will eventually add move value to more people (think Netflix going from mailbox to streaming). Empathy for existing employees and customers can blind one from the rationally compassionate act of eventually serving more people better.

Performance feedback: Rational compassion will lead you to give very direct and practical feedback so a colleague can improve her performance and achieve her and the organization’s goals. Having empathy for underperformance will lead to the avoidance of direct conversations, which in the short term causes more pain.

Firing people: Too much empathy for an individual who needs to be let go can cause immense harm to the people you are trying to serve. Especially in philanthropic work, firing a relatively privileged person in order to better serve people in extreme need is the rationally compassionate thing to do.

Accepting flaws of ambitious people: Sometimes ambitious people have a lot of flaws, which can lead you to empathize with all the people they are negatively impacting. However, these flawed people can also change the world for the better. Analyzing their actions through a rational compassion lens will help you understand if it’s worth supporting or partnering with people who are flawed but who can help the world become amazingly better. It will also help you avoid working deeply with nice people who are not effective.

The Risk of Rational Compassion 

One of the hardest parts of rational compassion is that it often involves overriding the legitimate short-term needs of others.

In other words: you’re saying you know what’s better for someone than she does.

While this is less of a tension in managerial situations (it’s your job to make feedback, coaching, firing decisions) and for-profit work (the customer will ultimately hold you accountable), in philanthropy (where it’s your job to help others) this can be a deadly sin.

It’s a blurry line between rational compassion and technocratic hubris.

There’s no easy way around this, though research and accountability can help.

In education, test scores, attainment, and parent demand can provide medium term feedback loops to provide a check on incorrect rational compassionate assumptions.

But while there are risks with rational compassion, most of society is so tilted toward empathy (especially in the education sector!) that an increase in the practice of rational compassion would be a welcome turn.

 

Applying portfolio reforms to postsecondary problems

I just got back from a trip to New Orleans, which continues to be a well of friendship and inspiration.

I. Where should you spend the next philanthropic dollar? 

In a few conversations, the following questions came up:

  1. Are the kids we serve going to succeed in life after high school? What will their lives be like when they are 30? Will they be living meaningful and happy lives?
  2. Is the marginal dollar of philanthropy best spent on making the K-12 system better (after 10 years of improvements) or trying to overhaul the post-secondary landscape?
  3. If you wanted to radically improve post-secondary, what would you do?

II. Post-Secondy portfolio 

The K-12 portfolio mindset entails viewing an educational system in terms of operators (running schools) and seats (how many students are served).

This mindset could also be applied to post-secondary.

By 2020 or so, New Orleans will be graduating around 3,000 students a year.

Let’s say that about 1,500 of them will be prepared to succeed in a four year college; 1,000 of them will be prepared to succeed in a 1 to 2 year credentialing program; and 500 of them will need deep support to enter the workforce and exit crisis situations.

Of the four year college students, you might need 500 to 1,000 “KIPP to College” type supports to ensure students make it through.

For the credentialing programs, you’d need 1,000 seats that can reliably produce students with employable credentials.

For the crisis students, you’d need employment and social service operators that could transition students into jobs.

III. Post-Secondary investment intermediaries 

Instead of assuming this will naturally happen in New Orleans (or any other city), you could capitalize a new or existing non-profit intermediary to launch, recruit, and support post-secondary providers.

At the outset, the intermediary would create a business plan where it laid out how money it would need to get X% coverage on the aforementioned 3,000 seats.

High-Quality existing local providers (like the coding bootcamp Operation Spark) could cover some of the seats, and national providers like Match Beyond could be recruited in.

Overtime, you’d expand what was working, close what wasn’t, and support new entrepreneurs to keep innovation going.

IV. Getting funding streams right

Most states subsidize mediocre public universities; the federal government tops this off with Pell grants.

To make the 3,000 seat post-secondary strategy viable, you’d need to blend a mixture of public support and tuition to make providers sustainable.

Louisiana’s course choice provides a revenue stream for programs that started working with kids while they’re in high school.

Creating a new university that housed many of these programs could allow for the accessing of Pell grants.

Wage contigent loan programs could also be an option for programs that were consistently placing graduates in high-performing jobs.

V. Who are the entrepreneurs that will seek out the 10x play?

The early New Orleans K12 entrepreneurs felt that they could deliver something to students that was significantly better than the existing system.

They were right.

A post-secondary transformation won’t happen on its own.

It will take a set of entrepreneurs to put forth a plan, galvanize funding, and spend a decade building the new system.

Is this the right play? If so, who will step up?

What I Learned from Watching Kaya Henderson Lead

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After nearly 10 years working in the district, Kaya Henderson is stepping down from her post as the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

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As the chancellor, Kaya consistently made the case that it is vital that the district thrive and provide a high-quality neighborhood option for students across the city.

As an outsider looking in, I did not agree. In Education Next, I made the case that D.C. should transition to an all charter school system. And, in the Washington Post, I argued that maintaining neighborhood schools in their most exclusionary form would increase historical inequities.

But you can learn a lot from people you disagree with.

And Kaya taught me much about how a superintendent can effectively execute an ambitious agenda.

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If I had to sum up what I learned from Kaya, it would be this: communicate a clear agenda of apple pie and spinach, and make it clear that getting the apple pie is tied to eating the spinach.

Too often, reform superintendents lead with all spinach: teacher evaluations, school closures, budget cuts, accountability systems, etc.

They say: “the system needs to be fixed.”

Rarely do the put forth a crystal clear vision of what schooling should look like; rarely do they describe the rich educational opportunities that all children deserve.

They give families little to believe in.

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Kaya consistently put forth a compelling vision of what DCPS could be.

Moreover, even when she had to make incredibly difficult decisions – such as when she closed 10% of schools in the entire city – she tied these decisions to providing broader educational experiences to children.

As the Washington Post detailed:

Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.

The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.

About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.

Most superintendents avoid closing schools, or if they do close schools they do so in a manner that alienates communities.

But Kaya rightfully connected these hard decisions to a better future, and most importantly, she followed through on expanding educational programming.

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The best superintendents are populists, not technocrats.

They put forth a compelling educational vision that inspires the public.

But populists are not all the same. Some put forth a beautiful vision that is grounded in pragmatism, while others put forth a beautiful vision that is pure fantasy.

Kaya, I think, was a pragmatic populist.

And she taught me that this is likely the most effective way in which to lead a school system.

I don’t think I could every lead a public system as effectively as she did; but if I ever find myself in this position, I will strive to live out the lessons that I learned from her.

Is No Excuses or Personalized Learning the Low Hanging Fruit of School Improvement?

On average, I visit a school every other week or so. For the most part, these schools are equal to or better performing than the median urban district school.

During these visits, one question I usually mull over is this: if I was leading the school, what would I focus on to drive the next phase of improvement?

Often times, what the school leader is focusing on and what I would focus on are at odds.

I don’t have extremely high confidence in my analysis, so consider the below speculative.

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Here are the things I most often here school leaders saying they need to improve on: personalization, student ownership, and critical thinking. Tactically speaking, this often leads them to experiment with new models of instruction and technology.

All good things.

But I’m often thinking that the school really needs to get better at: instructional delivery, higher ratios of student intellectual engagement, and more effective use of small group instruction.

Most school leaders seem to believe that they have the basics down and need to go from good to great.

I tend to think that most schools are mediocre at the basics of things such as cold calling, wait time, efficient time on task, and tutoring – and the other hall marks of the no excuses model.

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So here’s some questions on my mind:

  1. Should the median charter school be focusing on getting better at the basics of the no excuses model or experimenting with deeper innovation?
  2. If it’s true that the median charter school is still mediocre at the no excuses basics, what should we take from this? That high fidelity to the no excuses basics is operationally hard to scale for either intellectual, emotional, or human capital reasons? That many leaders don’t think the no excuses basics work?
  3. Is there a progression of improvement (i.e., you need to get the basics right before you work on deeper innovation) – or does shifting to more innovative models allow you to bypass the no excuses basics and still get academic gains?

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My hunch is this: only the top tier charter organizations and the very best entrepreneurs should be working deeply on the margin of innovation.

Most charter schools should be working on the margin of better adoption of the tenets of the no excuses model.

Once new models are hammered out and refined – and get better results than the no excuses model – then the median charter school should begin adopting these new models.

But not before that.

In sum, I think better fidelity to the no excuses model is the low-hanging fruit of school improvement.

Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I’m very wrong?

The Dark Side of Leadership: the Anxiety Trilogy

In a conversation with a friend, I was recently reflecting on the following three books:

1. Harlod Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence – a book about how poets suffer from anxiety induced by their relationships with their predecessors, and how some “strong” poets achieve greatness while most simply write derivative work.

2. Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive – a book about how paranoia allows some leaders to respond to strategic inflection points in their industries, and thus survive major internal and external shocks.

3. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s The Upside of Your Dark Side – a book about how dark emotions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, and sadness can drive performance.

Taken together, they form sort of a trilogy on how harnessing anxiety (and similar dark emotions) can  lead to strong performance – and even genius.

Speaking from personal experience, I understand how dark emotions such as anxiety, need for risk taking, and status seeking can both lead to incredible breakthroughs and serious fuck-ups.

Whether it is Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Thomas Jefferson, or Elizabeth I – your heroes were always in a constant battle with their dark side; sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and sometime they harnessed their dark side for the good of others.

As a leader, the tensions are multifold: rationalization and suppression are there as poles; contentment is there in fleeting blips; and anxiety, in waves low and high, might be the closet thing to consistency.

Good luck.

MGMT Teams Should Call Your Bullsh**t

Nicholas Carlson has a book coming out on Yahoo. Yesterday he had a long piece in the NYT that is drawn from his book.

In reading the piece, there is much to consider about leadership and strategy.

I found this story to be illuminating:

One November afternoon, Mayer took the stage at URL’s as hundreds of Yahoo employees packed the cafeteria. Mayer explained that she had sifted through the various questions on the internal network, but she wanted to begin instead with something else. Mayer composed herself and began reading from a book, “Bobbie Had a Nickel,” about a little boy who gets a nickel and considers all the ways he can spend it.

“Bobbie had a nickel all his very own,” Mayer read. “Should he buy some candy or an ice cream cone?”

Mayer paused to show everyone the illustrations of a little boy in red hair and blue shorts choosing between ice cream and candy. “Should he buy a bubble pipe?” she continued. “Or a boat of wood?” At the end of the book, Bobby decides to spend his nickel on a carousel ride. Mayer would later explain that the book symbolized how much she valued her roving experiences thus far at Yahoo. But few in the room seemed to understand the connection. By the time she closed the book, URL’s had gone completely silent.

This of course sounds absolutelty ridiculous, and it’s easy to ask: what the f**k was she thinking?

But, for whatever it’s worth, I promise you that when I led NSNO I had just as many stupid ideas about how to motivate and inspire.

What I also had was a management team that I ran almost all my speeches by. And they would reject the stupid stuff and tell me how to make the mediocre stuff much better.

So when I read this story, my takeaway was that one of the following was occurring:

(1) Mayer had a good MGMT team but was not vulnerable, humble, and self-aware enough to run things by them.

(2) Mayer was vulnerable, humble, and self-aware enough to run things by her MGMT team but she got bad advice from her team.

As a CEO, either one will doom you.