Clearing the bar

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on February 1, 2006
Managers are too often encouraged to “raise the bar.” Like we have high-jump pits in our offices! I sometimes wonder, however, if we first need to fully clear the bar at its current height. Don’t you have to be good before you can be great?

That is, are we doing as good a job as we should be? Are we meeting and often exceeding the needs of the position and the transportation program? Or are we merely in a holding pattern, circling the school bus yard at a comfortable altitude and hoping that we won’t have to get our hands dirty by coming back to earth?

These questions are difficult to answer. They require a clear distinction between what is “good enough” versus what is exemplary. And they can lead to awkward conclusions about the quality of our work.

Best that you can be?
I think the most hazardous attitude we can have is that we’re doing the best we can, that we’ve reached the limit of our potential and need only to protect the status quo. This type of attitude is like a motorist who refuses to acknowledge that there’s a blind spot in his mirror system and, consequently, refuses to look over his shoulder when he changes lanes.

For the manager of a school bus operation, having a blind spot can be extremely dangerous. While it’s generally true that an operation can function satisfactorily without great leadership, it will be more vulnerable to break down under duress. Unfortunately, a breakdown in a school transportation operation can have dire consequences.

That’s why it’s important for managers to be able to get an accurate assessment of their abilities and performance. The problem is that their managers — often assistant superintendents or business managers — are too busy or stressed out to provide them with fully researched and thus valuable and insightful reviews.

What happens, then, is that transportation managers receive a quick pat on the back and a hearty “keep up the good work” and are sent back into the front lines without any insight into their strengths or weaknesses. This is not a recipe for change, positive or otherwise. Managers come away from such a meeting thinking that they must be doing all the right things.

In some cases, that’s probably true. But in most cases, the reality is quite different. For example, how many of you have met someone who’s convinced he’s a wonderful “people person,” when the truth is that he’s renowned for being difficult to work with? Or how about the manager who considers herself a great motivator, when, in fact, she’s famous for being unfairly critical and demeaning?

Getting weak all over
We all have weaknesses and strengths. But the strengths don’t cancel out the weaknesses. In some ways, they magnify them. Every year, it’s a good idea to make a list of your managerial strengths and weaknesses — and to ignore the strengths and address the weaknesses.

Identifying your weaknesses is a sobering process. It’s almost easier to ignore them. If you ignore them long enough, you can almost deny their existence. Almost.

Facing your weaknesses is tougher. It means admitting that you need to change, which is frightening. But the alternative is, as I mentioned earlier, to remain in a holding pattern. And as long as you’re up in the air, and your operation is on the ground, you’ll never get from good to great. Or be able to raise the bar.

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