Did you hear the resignation heard around the world last week? An executive director at Goldman Sachs outed the company in a scathing New York Times Op-Ed. In one fail swoop, Greg Smith resigned from and called out one of the foremost financial services firms in the world—rebuking the company for allowing its once positive culture to become destructive, even toxic.
Smith observed that, over time, Goldman lost interest in creating value for its clients, and corporate leaders “lost hold of the company’s culture on their watch.” The characterization didn’t take many by surprise, and Goldman will have more than its fair share of splainin’ to do in the weeks to come.
Of course, I was instantly intrigued by the striking parallels between the ills of the culture Smith described and the troubles that are pervasive in the cultures of many public schools.
I have written on school culture previously, most recently when the Atlanta Public Schools was engulfed in a very public cheating scandal. I argued that it was time for school culture to take center stage in the school reform debate.
School culture is typically an afterthought in education circles, rarely identified as a factor in schools’ success or failure. Rather than addressing culture, education leaders and policymakers typically focus on structural reforms such as school size, teacher evaluations, or curricular enhancements.
Culture is a complex and powerful force that research has proven to be a strong predictor of performance and productivity in business. Research has also shown culture to be one of the most important elements in a school’s success or failure in educating its students.
Culture represents the collective efforts of people in an organization to achieve a shared purpose or “to get things done.” Researchers Pam Robbins and Harvey Alvy, in The New Principal’s Fieldbook, define culture as an “inner reality” that “reflects what organizational members care about, what they are willing to spend time doing, what and how they celebrate, and what they talk about.”
Business leaders embrace the import of culture more readily than do school leaders. Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Zappos, are well known for their healthy cultures and success. The leaders of these businesses are deliberate and proactive about shaping and nurturing their companies’ cultures. They must know what school leaders don’t – If left unattended, culture, like change, can seem to “just happen.”
Culture runs like a river underneath every organization, including schools. It must be shaped by the school leader who is responsible for melding the past, present and future into a coherent tapestry and for enlisting the leadership of all who have a stake in the school’s success. These cultural stewards are constantly assessing what the culture is now and how it may need to be reshaped to prepare for future success. For real transformation to occur, school administrators, teachers, students, parents and the community must consider new ways to work collectively and cooperatively in pursuit of learning and achievement. Reforms and mandates are certainly part of the solution, but they have a better chance of succeeding in a positive culture than they do in a toxic one. Culture influences everything that happens in a school.
Goldman’s leadership’s is now fighting to dispute Smith’s accusations in the court of public opinion. Hopefully their efforts will include more than a hollow press release, but also an authentic assessment of the state of their culture and what it says about the company’s mission, values, and way of doing business. For Goldman, there’s a lot at stake as their stakeholders and clients will certainly be watching.
But for our students, and the future of our country, there’s much more at stake. The question is: who’s paying attention to the culture in our schools? Good question…but I can’t say I have the answer.