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Inside Public Service: Managing competing interests

Between now and August 1st, I’m practicing what I preach by making space to be with the people I love most in the world. I have a vacation responder in place for emails and limited access to Internet and cell reception. And instead of new blog posts, I’ve lined up several great articles from my column on Shasta Scout to share with you.

This story was originally published as part of my monthly Inside Public Service column on Shasta Scout. Would you like to receive free, nonprofit, independent and non-partisan news about Shasta County and beyond? Sign up here.

Here's wishing you spaciousness in your life, however you can find it this summer.

Now... onto managing competing interests.


Sunlight streamed into the office of local public school board member, Janette Tralskey (not her real name). Her bright, welcoming manner matched the lovely fall day. It was instantly clear that Janette’s warm heart called her to serve the kids in her community.

After some initial conversation, I asked her what particular challenges she was facing right now and settled in for her response.

“I became a school board member because I want to do the right thing,” Janette said slowly.

“I felt like I had something to offer,” she continued, sharing examples of how she and other board members have responded to public safety power outages and COVID over the last two years.

“You’re trying to balance satisfying teachers, and satisfying parents, with doing the right thing. Everyone has different agendas, but as a school board leader, you’re looking at the whole big picture. How do I do the right thing within the boundaries that the State’s giving you, and satisfy all these other stakeholders too? Suddenly it becomes a negotiation. It’s not just what’s the right thing for kids anymore.”

Janette is not alone. Managing competing interests is one of the central challenges of every organization. I’ve been there myself time and time again. I too was a school leader who struggled throughout that first pandemic summer of 2020. Should we reopen? When? How? With what safety measures? One group of parents insisted we open. A different group demanded we stay closed.There were teachers, budgets, unions, and lawyers to consider. And at the heart of it all: kids. Oh, and did I mention the mountain of State and Federal regulations that boxed schools in? And how those rules were constantly changing? It was maddening!

Situations like these are especially challenging for heart-driven leaders like both Janette and I who truly empathize with each side. Every perspective has a valid point, and often the right move forward isn’t obvious. Maybe you’ve been there too. Personally or professionally, it’s like experiencing a tug-of-war, with you as the rope.

These kinds of challenges put our values to the test. Values are those beliefs and ways of being that are most important to a person or organization. As I worked with Janette to identify and name her top values she told me: “The number one most important stakeholder is children and their safety and education. Second on that list is probably the longevity and reputation of the district, because if you don’t have that, you can’t provide number one. I don’t think it’s possible to have one without the other.”

A different school board member or different district might hold different top values like athletics, hands-on learning, cultural diversity, or family involvement. While all of these values may be important to you, there are always two or three that will surface as the most important. As Janette said, “I’d love to have it be about education and about the kids, less than it’s about the money.”

I agreed. “There’s always going to be tension between money and the kids. There’s not enough money to do everything. Same thing with time. Resources are limited, so how do you make choices?”

This is why it’s important to narrow your values down to the top two or three. Everyone would agree budgets are important. But, money is a constraint, not a value. In times of great uncertainty and change, like the pandemic, an organization’s mission and values serve as a lighthouse in a stormy sea. They guide decision-making by helping evaluate choices and keeping what’s most important front and center.

For Janette, that’s the kids’ safety, their education, and the district’s longevity. Fortunately, these values were shared by the vast majority of the board which was also committed to the same mission throughout the pandemic: keeping kids in school.

But what happens when the mission and values can’t all be met? Or what if major stakeholders don’t share the same values? For instance, the legal team of Janette’s school posed a very serious thought experiment while they considered reopening. What if a child contracts COVID at school, brings it home to an elderly grandparent, and the grandparent dies? The family could sue the school. At that time, there was no case law or protection for the district. Their risk-averse lawyers cautioned that the longevity of the school could be in danger. A single lawsuit could bankrupt their district. No matter how committed the school board might be to their mission, it wouldn’t matter if there were no school to go to.

To add to the complexity, some stakeholders are very insistent or very angry but just like there is never going to be enough money and time to do it all, there is never going to be a way to make everyone happy.

“The minority is vocal and that’s what we hear,” Janette said. “I don’t ever want to feel like the loudest, most vocal, most fringe are the voice of the majority. But that’s what you hear as these decisions are being made. It’s not the most reasonable thoughts of the attorney. It’s the most fearful thoughts.”

Situations like these are similar to that old cartoon of three blind men examining an elephant. One feels the elephant’s trunk and thinks it must be a snake. One touches the elephant’s flank and thinks it’s a wall. And one wraps his arms around a leg and thinks it’s a tree. Each from their own perspective only gets part of the picture. Janette’s job is to see the whole elephant.

Janette lamented, “I’m always surprised when someone is so willing to be so one sided. I’m always trying to come up with the solution that works for everybody, versus someone that’s willing to only accept this one single solution. I wish that the general population could be a little less biased and realize that almost all the time, most people have their best interests at heart. And I don’t say that naively. We really are trying to do the right thing. But the vehicle to getting there might be different.”

Despite that frustration, Janette felt a deep sense of pride for the way she, the school superintendent, teachers, and the rest of the board navigated those confusing, difficult times. Their success resulted from a combination of deeply listening to all stakeholders to understand all perspectives, using reason instead of emotion, and clearly communicating to rally the entire community around the common ground they all shared: keep kids in school. Having a shared mission and values was essential to their success.

Janette noticed in the process that their organization had never had explicit conversations around school-wide shared values.“We don’t as a board, or as a school even, have our values listed,” she said, explaining how the Brown Act, the public meeting rules that all public governing bodies must follow, makes it hard for the board to come together to develop values.

It certainly helps if a board can find the time to do the hard work to create shared values with an experienced facilitator, but inspired visioning is really hard to do in a public meeting and I raised the possibility that formally adopted values aren’t required. A shift of perspective to see the big picture is possible at any time. It’s stepping back in the context of a normal meeting to redirect people’s attention to the larger mission or values. It’s helping everyone see the whole elephant. If the conversation in the boardroom is caught up in the weeds, any board member can pause the conversation and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re getting so caught up in the nitty gritty. Are we still on the same page? What’s most important here is keeping kids in school and making sure that we still have a school 100 years into the future.”

That idea turned out to be one of Janette’s most important insights from our coaching session. When a conversation is getting off course, finding a way to pause and redirect the conversation towards common ground is a powerful process move that she says she’ll be keeping in her back pocket from now on.

She said our conversation also helped her feel better about what she and the rest of the board have were able to accomplish during the pandemic: keeping most of the staff and student body intact and bringing everyone back to school as quickly as possible.

“It was good for me to reflect on the process we’ve gone through. It was kind of like a little pat on the back for all of us that were involved. I haven’t really looked back to see that I’m proud of what we accomplished.”

Read More

Would you like to name your own values? If so, head to the bottom of this blog post on How to Come Alive to get started.

School boards need active, engaged, service-minded board members more than ever right now. Here's a great article from ThoughtCo on how to join your local school board.

Going Further

It really is essential to make space for yourself, especially as a people, passion, and purpose driven leader. If slowing down this summer feels challenging, consider setting aside the last weekend in September to join me, Tutti, and other female leaders in gorgeous Mendocino, CA for a truly unforgettable leadership retreat. Apply today.

Applications for my next group coaching program are open and it’s going to be incredible. First, you'll get not just one, but TWO executive coaches to mentor you. Second, we will be focusing on sustaining all 5 aspects of integrated leadership (spaciousness, flow, connection, inner wisdom, outer presence) while helping each member achieve a big goal. Best of all, it ends with a four-day, three-night retreat in Hawaii. Join us.

Finally, you don’t want to miss the summer series of blog posts which take you inside a coaching session with me. Subscribe or share with a friend.

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