Wednesday, August 15, 2012

10 Principles to Principal By

Culture drives the structure and ultimately the performance of a campus.  If teams are to succeed at meeting the true mission and vision of the campus, the campus culture must be positive and united to attain the goal.  Leaders, new to a campus, make the tempting error of solidifying structural elements before cultivating the culture of the campus.  When this error occurs, the culture can turn toxic because the leader hasn't established an environment for structure to excel.

Each time I began my new role as an elementary, middle and high school principal, I spent the entire summer getting to know the staff through one on one conferences. The purpose was two-fold: learn about the culture of the campus and find out what the campus' expectations were for me and my fellow administrators.  In meeting with the staff, I made sure that I had a pad and pen and wrote down key points from each conversation. In my principal work with my first assistant principal, Donna Clark, she developed the term, 'Principles to Principal By' and ever since she introduced me to the concept, I have been committed to finding them on every campus that I have led.  These are the discussion points that I used with every staff member:

1. Tell me about yourself.

This statement communicates that I want to know more about the people on the campus and their personal lives. I am interested in hearing about family, experiences and anything that is important to the employee. From this discussion point, I want to be able to build a personal connection with each employee because it is a priority that I know my fellow staff members personally.

2. Tell me something really great about the campus that you want me to continue.

This statement helps me identify the campus work that I must honor and not change. The answers tell me what actions and traditions they are proud of and the work that the staff wants to continue doing. These answers also reveal the positive aspects of the campus culture.

3. What is one thing that you would like me to change?

This question can be difficult because it takes courage for an employee to answer this to the new principal.  Open body language, direct eye contact and empathic listening communicate a desire to know how you can help the campus. Responses will guide you to the structural problems and cultural undercurrents that exist on the campus. The more frequent that specific issues come up in the responses, the more urgent it is for you to further investigate and address the problem.

4. If you were my supervisor, what is one directive that you would give me?

This is the boldest question of the meeting, but the most important one, too. The answer to this question will tell you the most important thing that your staff wants you to do on the campus. Make sure that you write the answer down.  Every staff has one specific directive for the principal and this question will ensure that you know what your #1 priority is.

Pattern your Answers into Principles

After you finish meeting with the staff and synthesize the answers, identify reoccurring answers to your questions. Identify the most important actions that the staff wants you to continue as well as change.  Find the most important action that the staff wants you to do more than anything else from the fourth question.

Finalize your Principles

From the answers, create expectations for you and your administrative team, post them and share them with your administrators. At the beginning of the year when you meet with your staff, present your 'Principles to Principal By' to the staff and clearly state that these expectations were derived from individual conversations with every staff member. It is also important to convey that you and the administrative team are committed to following them.

By going through this process, trust will be established, the culture will be positive, and staff members will know that you are sincere about supporting and serving them. 'Principles to Principal By' in essence sets the stage for a positive and productive culture, and if leaders follow these principles, their campus will later celebrate great and amazing achievements.  This will come to be because open communication and commitment to the campus were the first two 'Principles' that you demonstrated one person at a time.


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  2. Great read. Thank you for publishing it. Leading through relational capacity is very difficult and requires immense effort but lifts the capacity of campus growth!