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School leadership that “sticks”

By July 9, 2009June 16th, 20162 Comments

Last week I spoke to a principal who shared an interesting dilemma with me – actually a good news/bad news type of scenario. This principal had just learned by way of an e-mail message from the district office that her high school was to be the recipient of a grant for innovative instructional practices that incorporate technology. Her largest problem was the fact that she never was aware this grant was written by her district, so obviously she was surprised by this news.

Digging further into the requirements of the grant, the principal learned the grant would provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for the purchase of technology, which was desperately needed in her school. Her biggest problem was her concern that her staff lacked the capacity necessary to effectively implement and utilize the technology that was to be provided including Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas.

This principal asked me to help her brainstorm about how to best roll out this information to her staff. In advising her, I relied on a resource that I have found useful in finding strategies for making messages simple and memorable. Knowing that it will be critical for this principal to approach this situation armed with information about the grant and a firm understanding of the needs of her staff, I advised her to use the SUCCESs model presented in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick (2008). The model uses the acronym SUCCESs to outline the key components. Messages that are “sticky” are: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and illustrate points through Stories. At the school level, leaders can enhance their success in leading difficult change initiatives by using this model.

Let’s apply this model to the dilemma of utilizing the technology grant and gaining support for this from the teaching staff:

  • Simple – We have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology integration for high schools and can serve as a model for many others.
  • Unexpected – We have just been awarded a large amount of money that will bring our school into the 21st Century.
  • Concrete – We will be receiving a great deal of high-tech equipment that will enhance our instruction including: Smart Boards, ceiling mounted and integrated projectors, new laptop computers for every teacher, wiring the school for high-speed Wi-Fi, and the purchase of 250 student wireless laptops to be utilized in all subject areas. Shortly, I will have a specific plan for you that shows a building map and timeline and schedule for installation of the new equipment.
  • Credible – This allocation of money from the grant is based on a solid research base and the district entered into this application with the support of the school board, state department of education, and the grant is sourced from federal funds for the specific purpose of enhancing technology in high schools.
  • Emotional – I know this is a lot of information, and this message is unexpected, and as the principal I have mixed feelings about this unexpected change as well. I am however, very excited at this opportunity that has been given to our school and will do everything I can to support the integration of technology into our school for the benefit of our students.
  • Stories – After learning of this opportunity, I did some investigating regarding other high schools who have been awarded this grant and was fortunate to make contact with a high school principal who received this grant and implemented this initiative two years ago. According to him, it was difficult at first for the school to scale-up to meet the needs of technology integration, but through working as a team and supporting one another, the school is now very successful and a national model for this grant. We can do this too by working together and supporting each other.

Using the SUCCESs model, and framing her message in a way that is thoughtful and specific, this principal is more likely to build a cohesive and connected school culture that has the capacity to sustain efforts through difficult challenges.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Learner says:

    How do we make a message stick within an organization? Often times I believe we, as a district, tend to have messages we want to stick that are superficial. Sticky messages need to be supported by the true beliefs and values of the organization, not just what the public wants to hear. We, as educators, have many beliefs the community is not aware of. We need to be able to communicate that we believe All students can learn and that we, as teachers, can cause learning. In my opinion that is the sticky message that leads us to meeting the mission of all schools.
    In addition, the research and work of McREl, provide us ways to meet and achieve our sticky message of all students can learn.

  • Learner, you make a very important point in stating that educators need to truly believe their messages. So many times we hear rhetoric in education and other fields that rings hollow with constituents and become desensitized to the true meaning of being an educator. Truly believing in our mission as educators shows in actions and results — we must walk our talk.
    When we become intentionally focused on making changes that matter, and build this into our educational systems using leadership as the vehicle, along with McREL’s solid research base (along with others), we greatly increase our chances of success.
    I can think of two school systems I am currently working with that exemplify this concept, and in both cases the intentional focus and true belief that differences can be made – even for the most challenging student popluations. In these instances, it starts at the top. Both school systems have superintendents who “walk their talk” — literally — every single day in all that they do. These leaders are visible and involved at all levels of the system — not to micro-manage, but as learners right alongside other staff in their respective districts. This is contagious and central office leadership and principals follow suit in not only supporting the focus, but living the beliefs as well.
    Bottom line – sticky messages are the beginning to so much more when effective leaders bring these messages to life through their actions and deeds.

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