What Exercising 6000 Miles Taught Us About Strategic Planning, Leadership, and Habits
I released my body weight and fell to the ground. My aching shoulders wouldn't let me complete one more rep, but as I looked over at my workout partner, who would have to complete every rep that I did not, I felt a surge of energy and picked myself up once more. In that moment, inspiration struck me. What we do will only give us so much momentum, but a community invested in why we do it will help us accomplish things that previously seemed impossible. This reminded me of the work districts engage in to achieve their own strategic direction: no one person can do it alone. How could we apply this concept to a greater philosophy of change management? It became my mission to find out!
Since we are in the business of building strong responsive habits in schools and districts, we practice habit-building through company-wide monthly challenges. In the past, we have challenged ourselves to go plant-based, meditate daily, and practice moments of gratitude. We have learned a lot about how we operate based on the success and participation in each challenge. This seemed like the perfect venue to try a new, ambitious experiment: virtually travel from our headquarters in San Carlos, CA to our DC office (with a few stops to some remote teammates on the way)! Our goal? Collectively travel a total of 3,070 miles.
When we see successes like the recent U.S. Women's National Soccer Team’s World Cup win, we often arrive at the conclusion that their accomplishments are based mostly on talent. In actuality, research has taught us that we can create conditions to elevate all skill levels. To that end, we applied some best practices of strategic planning in our approach to this challenge. We wanted to create buy-in, smash our collective goal, and empower everyone to own and invest in the challenge and meet their personal goals as well. It was important to succeed so that the challenge was motivating rather than discouraging, and the team was energized instead of drained – so we created a plan for success. Here are 3 things we learned from our challenge.
Lesson 1: Make your goal accessible to all.
What I observed: Our overall goal was simple: travel from coast to coast by “moving” in ways accessible to each individual. This was a tangible goal that was universally accepted. We did not labor over the language but we knew that movement and health were values shared at Education Elements. The locations were also meaningful to us because they are home to our teammates and we love to stay connected. We had a clear purpose which is a key competency for an innovative leader.
What I learned: Set goals that are ambitious and exciting, then help your team see their place in the goal. This is a practice we know from our work with managing change in schools to a more student-centered environment. Everyone needs to see their place in the overall goals and vision which is why in every implementation we begin with a visioning activity that connects every individual their own “why” that will keep them connected to the organizational vision.
In our challenge, everyone got to choose their mode of movement. For some, this was running, biking, or swimming and for others, it was walking, sailing or paddle boarding. Based on each person’s preference, they set goals both numerical and qualitative. With the number of miles pledged plus the personal goals of each of our teammates, we were equipped with tangible ways of meeting our goal and the personal information we needed to motivate our peers. What resulted was new pledges for more miles than we needed, which led us to increase our goal to 4,070 miles to include more stops to visit our remote teammates.
Many teammates went on vacation during the challenge and found that it fit into their lifestyles wherever they were.
Lesson 2: It takes all kinds of people to build a movement
What I observed: I knew that our company consisted of people from many different walks of life, specialties and strengths. I knew it was important to get as many people involved as possible because, frankly, we needed more than the five or six people who consistently complete our challenges to log some major miles. I looked to motivate our team in a few different ways. What emerged is the stuff of business school case studies; a true tale of gaining critical mass. The momentum grew as follows.
- The “Don’t get started, stay started” participant: They tend to be vocal about their excitement and are generally positive about most challenges, approaching them with a “why not?” attitude. This group tends to also be competitive and driven by the desire to beat someone to the finish line. I had to make minimal efforts to get them involved as the challenge, the tracker, and their peers were motivators already.
- The “I’ll have what they’re having” participant: This is the key group because this is where you can begin to intrigue your skeptics. They need to see people they trust get excited and they need to see how this goal can work in alignment with their personal goals and lifestyle. Some folks are also motivated by their fear of missing out. For this group, I hit different avenues to get them motivated but the theme was communication: Slack instant messages, texts, individual reach outs, asking them for advice and support. After I got this group I knew we were about to get our untapped talent next!
- The “I’m on the guestlist” participant: These are our shyer team members who like to observe and need to be invited in. They might not feel comfortable being externally enthusiastic and might need the encouragement of someone they trust. For this group, I reached out personally or had others do outreach. I also worked to highlight some of the benefits of the challenge and the ways I thought they could contribute.
- The “I’m doing this for me“ participant: This is where I had the most surprises. These folks are motivated by the goal but didn’t need the validation or motivation of others. They were in this because it connects to their personal goals and they won’t make a big deal about it; the challenge just let them do it faster or more efficiently. Keep an eye out for them because these were some of our biggest contributors of miles! The vision and goal spoke for themselves and no additional outreach was needed, although I never really anticipated their participation.
- The “Count me out” participant: These are the folks who aren’t going to get jazzed about a new challenge and they don’t really care to participate. We actually had very few of these people and if they did exist, they weren’t detractors because we had already reached critical mass.
What I learned: Do any of these personas remind you of people in your organization? As you probably know from experience, each person is motivated differently. As a leader, it is important to consider how you will intentionally invite and include all of your stakeholders because you need them! In a school setting, this may mean a mix of Tweet chats with students and parents, community forums for constituents or a survey for teachers and staff. As leaders, it is important to consider the communication styles, motivations, and working styles of a greater audience which require stepping outside of our own preferences.
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Teammates shared ways they employed self-care during the challenge.
Lesson 3: Monitoring your goals and celebrating success is key!
What I observed: In our challenge, there was a lot of excitement as we kicked off. As the challenge leader, it was my responsibility to harness that energy and ensure it persisted for the whole month. This led us to incorporate mini-challenges and celebrations throughout. We made “stops” along the way to visit our remote employees which became milestones in our journey. We celebrated accomplishments through awards and shout outs. Lastly, I enlisted “hype-people” to lead mini-challenges each week related to themes: momentum, self-care, teamwork, encouragement and celebration. This was cited as the most valuable motivator by many participants as it kept the challenge fresh and exciting. Our “hype-people” challenged us to motivate a teammate anonymously, snap pictures of teammates moving together and we even held an award ceremony on our Slack channel.
What I learned: Passion and/or joy are key ingredients to successfully meeting goals. Just because work is hard doesn’t mean it can’t be joyful, passionate or silly. It is incumbent upon leaders to harness the mood of the group and provide inspiration when it is needed, encouragement where it will make a difference, and light-heartedness when the pressure is high. This is way easier to do when the stakes are low, (i.e. we don’t meet our mileage goal) but the same can be said for high stakes endeavors such as setting the direction for your school or district for the next five years.
I won’t belabor the importance of data but tracking our progress and following up on this was huge in our ability to sustain momentum. This was the difference between setting a goal and following through. Similarly, the members of our communities need accountability to stay motivated, although it’s important to note that no one followed up to punish anyone. In fact, we reached out and asked “What can I do to help you reach your goal?” or “Have you forgotten to track your miles?” Tracking progress and encouraging people along is a best practice I will hold myself to as I guide districts through large change.
We tapped into our networks to recruit friends, family, and pets to rake in the miles! These are some of the magazine covers our teammates created as awards, to recognize participants in the challenge.
I had a yoga teacher who used to say, “Not taking savasana is like earning your paycheck and not cashing it in.” Sometimes, I am so intent on being productive that I forget to take pause and express gratitude to myself and others. Ending the challenge without a proper celebration would be just like not cashing that check. We ensured the last week of the challenge gave us each time to celebrate our personal accomplishments and those of the collective. We honored the work and even added a few extra miles as we wound down. Here are some of the accomplishments our teammates shared:
“I was more intentional about getting outside even if I couldn’t do a formal run, and it was just to walk a bit.”
“Running 15 times in a month - have not done that since 2003 when I stopped coaching football and soccer.”
“Went from total couch potato to actually wanting to get out and get moving. Also getting started with meal prepping again.”
“Ran 31 days in a row, averaging about 3 mi/day.”
In the end, we collectively moved 6447.42 miles and exceeded our goal by 131%. I could not be more proud of my team.
Leading big shifts across an organization requires planning, pivots and the finesse of a leader. Honing leadership skills and building your toolbox are crucial to ensuring innovation in your communities. Come learn from our Education Elements team and leaders across the country in our upcoming Leadership Institutes!
About Andrea Goetchius
Andrea Goetchius is an Associate Partner at Education Elements, working with schools and districts to best meet the needs of all learners. Andrea enjoys collaborating with and connecting clients across the country to leverage a community of innovation as schools embark on a personalized learning path. Andrea began her career as a Special Education Teacher in Glendale, Arizona. During her time in the classroom, she coached and supported student teachers and led staff development. Andrea then worked for Teach For America as a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development where she coached and supported teachers to match their strengths and skills with the needs of their students. She has coached in pre-school to twelfth-grade classrooms with a focus on implementing Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in the classroom. In her current role, Andrea specializes in projects that bring personalized learning to scale across districts, regional centers, and state entities. She is passionate about the development of innovative leaders.