Dr. Joe Sanfelippo: Changing the Narrative

In this conversation with SchoolCEO, Dr. Sanfelippo discusses how he changed the conversation inside and outside of the schools he led, keys to developing a culture that actively shares the best stories, and how to lead authentically.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: October 30, 2023


Dr. Joe Sanfelippo is a frequent keynote speaker at education conferences around the country. His passion, energy, and experience for his school district and for changing the narrative around public schools is palpable. In this conversation with SchoolCEO, Dr. Sanfelippo discusses how he changed the conversation inside and outside of the schools he led, keys to developing a culture that actively shares the best stories, and how to lead authentically.


In this conversation with SchoolCEO, Dr. Sanfelippo discusses how he changed the narrative within his school district, keys to culture, and how to lead authentically. 

Dr. Joe Sanfelippo is a frequent keynote speaker at education conferences around the country because of his passion, energy, and experience. He spent the last 12 years as the Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District in Fall Creek, WI. The Fall Creek School District was named an Innovative District in 2016 and 2017 by the International Center for Leadership in Education. 

He co-authored The Power of Branding-Telling Your School's StoryPrincipal Professional Development: Leading Learning in a Digital Age and Hacking Leadership: 10 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Learning That Teachers, Students and Parents Love.

As mentioned in the interview, you can watch Dr. Sanfelippo’s 1 Minute Walk to Work on YouTube.

Dr. Sanfelippo was selected as 1 of 117 Future Ready Superintendents in 2014 and 1 of 50 Superintendents as a Personalized Learning Leader in 2016 by the US Department of Education. He attended summits at the White House for both distinctions. Education Dive named Joe 1 of 5 K-12 administrators to watch in 2018 and their National Superintendent of the Year in 2019. He has been a featured speaker in multiple states in the areas of Advancing the Use of Social Media for School Leaders, Telling Your School Story, Creating a Culture of Yes, and Personalized Professional Growth for Staff.  Go Crickets!!

Joe holds a BA in Elementary and Early Childhood Education from St. Norbert College, a MS in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a MS in Educational Leadership, and a PhD in Leadership, Learning, and Service from Cardinal Stritch University.  Joe is also an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Viterbo University. Joe has taught Kindergarten, 2nd Grade, and 5th Grade.  He was also a school counselor and high school coach prior to taking on an elementary principal position in 2005.  He has served as a principal in suburban and rural Wisconsin.  
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Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, Joe Sanfilippo, thanks so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.

Joe Sanfelippo (Guest): Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, I have seen you from a distance at a number of conferences. I know you're on the speaking circuit quite a bit, but it's a real honor to have you join us and to be able to talk to you face to face here.

Joe Sanfelippo (Guest): I appreciate the time. It's been super fun to get out and talk about some of the cool things that are happening specifically in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, but just across the country and trying to help people just think about things just a little bit differently. And hopefully today gives another opportunity.

Tyler Vawser: That's right. Yeah. Really good. Well, I'd love for you just to start by talking about your journey to becoming a superintendent and just give a little bit of background on who you are, and then we'll jump into some of the ideas around branding and culture and all of those really key things that you focused on and that SchoolCEO’s focused on as well.

Joe Sanfelippo: Okay, so I taught kindergarten. I taught second grade. I taught fifth grade. I was a school counselor. I coached at the high school. So we kind of got around to a lot of different spots. And I think the idea that I try to keep in mind every time I think about where we've come from is how many people are we able to help think about things a little bit differently? And I just made so many mistakes that every time that I could get in front of a group of people and say, here's how you can do it better than I did, because I really messed it up. It's almost like a redo for me to help other people in that spot. So I love teaching kindergarten. I love teaching second grade, I love teaching fifth grade. I love being a counselor. There's not a lot of jobs that I've had that I haven't really enjoyed at all. All of them have had their challenges, obviously, but I've just enjoyed every part of it. And a lot of times it's just because of the connection that you can make with the people that you serve. And that's been fun to watch. It's been fun to watch our group continue to grow and watch them do things that I don't think they even thought possible, and they always had that in them. 

It was just a question of can we focus on getting it there anyway? I've been at that level, and in terms of the classroom level, the school level, the district level, for the last, what, ends up being about 26 years over the course of the career. So now we're trying to help people as much as we can and just, again, give some voice to people who may not feel like they have a voice, but when they think about it, they really do.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a really good place to start. There's this phrase in K12 Education that everyone uses, right? We've got to change the narrative. We're going to change the narrative. And I'd be curious to kind of hear from you. I know you've talked about that, and I think we sometimes that's such a nice, pithy phrase, changing the narrative, but it's not easy, right? So I'd be curious to hear from you when you talk about this, what do you mean by that? And then what do you see in leaders that are actually changing the narrative? What are they doing different than someone who's just talking about doing it?

Joe Sanfelippo: One of the things Tyler, I think, is really important to really kind of bring to the forefront is that, like you said, everybody talks about it, but how many people actually do it? And I wrote a book with my friend Tony about gosh, it must have been at least ten years ago. At least ten years ago. It's called telling the story. The power of branding. Telling your school story. This ten years ago. Right. And we're still talking about it today. Like, it's important to tell your story. Well, yeah, of course. It's like you're telling me that it's important to exercise. I'm still going to crush a pizza. That's what I'm going to do. It's important that you eat, right? Well, yeah, I know that it's important, but until I start feeling some leverage points, I'm not going to do it. And that's what happens. Everybody says it. It starts to kind of drive you nuts, because I think you want to be helpful, but at the same time, it's just saying something out loud that we're not doing anything with, and I started talking about it like that too. I'm like, you got to tell your story. You got to tell your story. I mean, ten years ago, but still I was still doing it. I was just saying, hey, don't forget to tell your story. Well, come on, give me some tools. 

So when I started thinking about it differently, everything changed because it wasn't just about telling the story. It was about leveraging the connection. Because we all have stories. The question becomes, are we willing to leverage those stories to get us to a place that we can all be talked about differently? And a lot of times we don't because we're afraid of the response, right? So people don't tell the story of their school because they're afraid of the response to that story. And this isn't just an outside story in it's inside out, right? People in schools are often what I find, and it happened in our building, too, were afraid to talk about the great things that they were doing in their classroom because they were afraid of the response from the person next door, right? Like if they go next door and they say, hey, how many times does somebody go next door to have a conversation about a schedule change or something logistic something they're upset about? Versus how often do they go next door and say, I just taught this really great lesson. They don't do it. And the reason they don't do it is they're afraid of the response. Not that the response is going to be, well, that's not a big deal, we all do that. That's not the response. The response is where'd you find time for that. Or the response is please don't tell anybody about that because if you do that, then I'm going to have to do that and I don't want to do that, so don't tell anybody about that. 

And then the people doing great stuff either go back to their room and do great stuff and don't talk about it, or they stop doing the great stuff because they're afraid of what their colleague is going to say. And a lot of times the colleague says it because they've been put through so much change that they just don't want to change again. And there's nothing wrong with that person. You feel sorry for them because the reason that they don't want to respond with, oh my gosh, that's incredible, is they feel like it's going to take away from the work that they're doing that they really like. And so there's nothing wrong with that. We just got to make sure that we value everybody's position on some level. And I think changing the narrative really starts inside out, but a lot of times we don't do it because we're afraid of the response for the people inside. And so the other thing that we have to keep in mind is that 80% of the voting public don't have kids in school. So that's an uphill battle because 80% of the people who are talking about your school have no affiliation with your school. And a second grade kid can walk home after school and tell mom a great story about what happened in class, and Mom's really excited, but they can't tell the neighbor three doors down about it, or they're not going to, or they probably shouldn't be walking to the neighbor's house three doors down. Like, let's be honest. Right. 

But at the same time, that means that the neighbor three doors down is still reflecting on that school from what happened to them when they're in school or to their kids when their kids were in school. And that ends up being the biggest issue. So changing the narrative for me has really come down to, are we leveraging the story in a way that changes the construct of how we can change about what we do?

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like what you said about it starting from the inside. Right. There's always such a push to you got to tell the story outside, which is important.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: There's no doubt. But still, it starts with culture. Right.

Joe Sanfelippo: That impact.

Tyler Vawser: Absolutely.

Joe Sanfelippo: And that's another thing, though, Tyler. That's another thing when people say, well, we just want to live in a great culture. Yeah. Tell me somebody who doesn't, right?

Tyler Vawser: Yeah.

Joe Sanfelippo: So when we started talking, we asked our group, like, what does that actually mean? And the term trust came up a ton. So then you dive deeper into trust. Okay, so what does trust mean to you? And honestly, it really came down to creating a culture of storytellers. And the reason is that when you live in a world where you feel like your story has value, you're willing to talk about your story. If you don't feel like what you do has value, that's when you isolate. And that's when the cultures really start to implode because they don't feel like they can trust each other because they don't know each other. 

So how are we creating an environment where everybody's story has value and not just people in classrooms? We're talking about people behind the wheel on a bus and behind the counter in the kitchen and all the custodians and people on the playground. All of that stuff needs to be talked about and told, and a lot of times it hasn't been. And that gives you a better chance to do so down the road.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I hadn't thought about it in the way that you put it, where people are afraid internally to share their successes and their stories and the positive things. Right. I can imagine that externally, but internally, you would hope that that's not the case. There's something you've said in some of the talks that I've watched from you, and you said, we have to move from being in a place where we are defending our work in K12 to being in a place where we are proud of the work. And I think it goes exactly to what you said both internally and externally, where instead of worrying about how someone's going to respond, we can confidently go forward with the stories that we already have, the experiences, the realities that we're already creating.

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah. The idea that we try to keep in mind every time I go and talk to a group is there's a distinct difference between being proud of something and defending something. Right. The stuff that you're proud of, you'll talk about all the time. And if you look at your phone, I can tell you exactly what you're proud of. Right. And you'll talk about that stuff all day because, you know, you walk out of that conversation feeling better than when you walked in, you see people you haven't seen in a long time, and you show pictures of your kids or your grandkids, and the immediate response from them is, like, look at how big they're getting. Look at them. Look at how look at all them. Look at how big they're getting. They're so big, right? You're like, yeah, it's all me right there. Right? And you fall walk out feeling better than when you walked in.

But if you're always defending the work, you know, you walk out of that conversation feeling more intense, maybe even worse than when you walked in. So if you're always defending the work to the same person or the same group of people, it starts to become really easy to avoid conversations with that person or that group of people, because why would you want to walk into that conversation feeling worse when you walked out?

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Absolutely. Some of the guests we've had in this season of the podcast, like Neil Doshi, Margaret Heffernan, who we just published last week, a lot of it is about that, right? That social capital, that trust that you have with other people, people treating you with respect. The ideas are valued. Even if the ideas mean change, those ideas are still valued in the right cultures. Right. The right culture is not afraid of change. They're actually afraid of inertia and stagnation, and they want to know what the ideas are. And everybody's treating each other as professionals, and there's actually an expectation of change and that each person is helping drive that change.

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah. And when they feel like there's ownership with that, they're absolutely willing to talk about it.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Well, you mentioned it earlier, 80% of our communities don't have kids connected to the school system. Right. Or they don't have a direct connection from their household to the school. And so that obviously creates a number of challenges. One is just communication. But the other, and I've heard you talk about this as well, is that people in a community think they know how schools were run and are run because they were once in school, whether that was 50 or 60 years ago or even just ten years ago. They kind of have this idea that they know how things ought to be or how they were, and those are continuing to this day. So I'd love for you to talk about that piece because that perception of how a school is run is such a strong narrative and that's the narrative we're often trying to change is what people imagine to be true, but isn't connected to reality.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right? Yeah. The idea really kind of comes back to when people don't know what you do, they make up what you do. And that's not even just a school thing. That's an everybody thing. And it's not like they're bad people. It's just that when you fill in the gaps, you fill in the gaps based on the experience that you had. And if that experience is 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, that experience really isn't like at the forefront of your mind at that point. And it's from one perspective at one time in life. And even if it was a bad interaction, that could have been the worst interaction that the person that you were with had at that time. And now we're going to judge all schools on that interaction. Right. That is a ton of pressure on people with the idea that every interaction matters because every interaction could be the one that they talk about for the rest of their lives. 

Now, I tell our group, and I tell every group that I do not love that. I don't love that every time I have a conversation with somebody that might be the one thing that they talk about in 25 years. I don't love it. But I acknowledge that it's real. And if I acknowledge that it's real, I treat that conversation a little bit differently because I know and understand that that might be the one thing that they talk about in 25 years. I don't have to love it. I just have to acknowledge that it's real. And if we treat every conversation like that, we give ourselves a better chance to be talked about differently in 510, 1520 years, because we're just giving ourselves a better chance along the way. We don't know which interaction that they're going to talk about. And to be honest, you can't leverage every one of them. You just can't. You can just give yourself the best chance. And if we're all giving ourselves a better chance, then the whole system has a better chance to move forward. I think that's been a big deal with us because we have a very proud community. 

But there are times that they'll walk into a gym and it's not like it's not always bad. It's good too. They walk into a gym and they look at a banner from 1992 and they're like, well, why can't we win those anymore? That was pretty fun. It seemed like we didn't have any problem winning in 92. Well, yeah, you did. And guess what? You got a couple of lucky bounces. Honestly, that's kind of what happens. You didn't dominate everybody. I would have loved to type it. Sometimes you get a lucky bounce. It wasn't like everything came easy. My goodness. And then all of a sudden, they start yelling and screaming about that.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that is a weird twist. Here's a moment you should be proud of. Instead, we're complaining about how it's not like it used to be.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right. Why can't we do it like this? It's almost like flipping the script on the whole thing, but the concept is exactly the same. Right. It's like before, they got mad because they didn't get a second chicken sandwich at lunch. So every time they're in school, they're reminded about that second chicken sandwich, and then the other side is just as true. Why can't we win championships? There's one right there. I mean, come on. That was super fun. We should do it again. Well, yeah. Yes, I agree. Come volunteer, help out. That's the kind of stuff that gets me every time. So it puts us in a really tough situation. But at the same time, again, I don't love it, but it is an opportunity, and if you treat every conversation like that, that they're going to talk about you in 25 years, it's just a better chance, that's all.

Tyler Vawser: Slow down and think through things a little bit more.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: What are some tactics or strategies, Joe, that you've used in a situation like that? Somebody's walking into the gym, why can't things be the way they used to be.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: Why can't we be proud the way we used to be 30, 40 years ago? What are some tactics or strategies you've used to kind of make them think a little bit more in the moment. Right. Not to kind of score a point on them, but to get them to actually think about what they're saying and what they are implying by that.

Joe Sanfelippo: Well, I just try to fill in the gaps. Right. If they say negative, positively or negatively, let's say the positive piece. Why can't we win championships like we used to? Well, everybody's good. Let's be honest about that. And at the same time, what did you like the most about that run? Well, we were really successful. Okay. Tell me more about that. Well, we had a lot of kids out. All right, so maybe we don't have a lot of kids out at this point. How can we get more kids involved? What would that look like for you? Well, the kids are just different today. Okay. All right. Tell me more about that. What does that look like? Yeah. They're just really much more difficult to deal with. Okay. All right. Well, let's talk about what that looks like. Okay. And then they start to like, wow, maybe it is harder. Right. And whatever. That's a made up scenario, but that's the kind of the road that you go down in that you just try to fill in the gaps for them because they're still making judgments on what happened to them when they were in school.

From one perspective, which is not fair, but it's real, and you have to value that. Otherwise, if you don't value their position in that conversation, they'll never talk to you again, and then you're not getting anywhere. So if you value where they're at in that spot, at least acknowledge that their experience was their experience, then you can move them forward a little bit. And you're not going to like, we're not talking about shifting the whole thing. If they come in and they're screaming and yelling about things that happened 25 years ago and I'm a taxpayer and I pay your salary. Right. You're not going to get them to walk out donating $25,000 to the new track. That's not what you're there for. Maybe you're trying to help them not talk poorly about the school when they leave, and that's a win. You're not going to flip them to the place where they want their name on a building.

Tyler Vawser: Two things come to mind as you responded to that. One was how naturally you went to curiosity, which is such a good anecdote for cynicism. Right. I don't even know if you realized how quickly you did that, but for those that are listening, this is just such a key tactic when someone is just dropping negative comments and these kinds of things, that sense of curiosity and like, oh, tell me more, what do you mean by that? Or what's the alternative? Obviously done in a kind, respectful, truly curious way, is such a great antidote to that type of negativity or cynicism. And the second thing that you said there was just that realism. You're not going to have one conversation that changes someone's entire ideological outlook on public education in five minutes. Right. And I think that takes that pressure off. You mentioned earlier.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: It can feel like every conversation has some pressure on it, but you're also saying that there's no one conversation that can make or break that experience.

Joe Sanfelippo: No, I just think you have to lean into all of them to give yourself the best chance. And I do acknowledge that if you never see that person again, it could absolutely form the opinion of everybody in that space. But the number of people that you only see once and if that means that I have a good experience with 95% of the people, it's better than 60, and it's just given us a better chance.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. What are some of the memorable experiences you can share when you just felt really proud of the work you and others were doing at Fall Creek?

Joe Sanfelippo: Oh, man. When I went to conferences when I was still the superintendent, I would write into the contract that I was speaking at. If I was keynoting an event or if I was speaking at, I would write into the contract that the conference is going to pay for some of our people to come and present, or some of the people are going, like, free registration or something like that, and they get a chance to do a session or whatever. And so when I would go out and talk about the great things that are happening in Fall Creek or they would get a chance to talk about them, you would have thought that these people had a tour bus because everybody at these conferences wanted a piece of them. They wanted to talk to them, they wanted pictures with them, they wanted to go to their sessions. It was awesome. And I kept telling our group that the only thing I want from this whole experience of speaking and still being here and everything, the only thing I want is I want you to feel the way that I feel when I talk about you. Because if you feel the way that I feel when I talk about you, you are going to feel incredible about the work that you do. 

So when they would go to these places and people would just stop them and ask them questions about Fall Creek and is it really like that? Is he really that loud? Is he really that loud? Like that's the one that they got the most, which is true. I am. They'd always say yes, but the most important one was, is it really like that? Is it really like what he's talking about? And they always said yes. And that was cool because it wasn't anything that I created. It was a mentality. It was a culture that they built and they wanted to be part of it. And so that was awesome. I think that was the one thing from a speaking standpoint that I'm the most proud of. The other thing is that we completely changed how we did professional development, which was really based around these passion projects that we do with our staff. And it was at a really difficult time in the state of Wisconsin where unions had been essentially taken away. 

Everybody was worried about since there was no contract anymore, what were the handbooks going to look like, and everybody was worried. And so when we started talking about the passion projects and there was a new evaluation system coming in through the state that nobody knew what it was going to look like. And so we started these passion projects and I took the whole process and what we were going to do with it and how we were going to utilize it. And before the state came out with what was the mandated process, we sent it to them and we got it approved before they came out with something. So when we got it approved, I just went to our staff and said, hey, what we're doing? They love it. Not only do they love it. They want to come see it. And that put everybody at ease, because all of the unknowns were now taken away and they got a chance to really invest in what they had built and not worried that somebody was going to take it away from them. So those are the two things that really come to head when I think about what I'm most proud of, outside of the fact that we have people choosing our district at a rate that's unheard of in this area. And one in eight kids that goes to school in Fall Creek doesn't live in Fall Creek. They just choose to come out, which is crazy, if you think about it. And I think a lot of that has to do with not only the environment that we've created as a group, but the fact that people hear about the work that we're doing. 

So when they don't know what you do, they make up what you do, but when they see what you do, they want to come see more of it. And let's be really honest, I love our school. We have a great school, but there are a lot of schools in this area that are doing really great stuff. The difference is we talk about it, and when we talk about it, it changes the way that people talk about us.

Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. I like that comment that your staff got. The question, Is it really like that? Which I think what they're asking is, I hope it's really like that. Can you please tell me that something like that does exist? Right.

Joe Sanfelippo: That's very loved. I loved watching them. We took three teachers last year to Michigan to go to McCall, and I'm up there doing my thing and whatever, and this thing and whatever. And after, these people wanted some books, and I'm like, oh, yeah, I've got some books. And I gave them a copy of the book that I written, and they didn't even come to me for an autograph. They went right to our staff. They went right to the three women that were there. They're like, we want you to sign this. I'm like, come on, I'm right here. Like, I wrote the thing and what is that all about? But no, they wanted their autograph, not mine. And that was awesome. I got pictures of it. It was super fun.

Tyler Vawser: That's very cool. I think they'll probably remember that their entire career. That's fantastic.

Joe Sanfelippo: I hope so. They earned it. They should. They're the ones that were doing the great stuff. I'm just super loud, that's all.

Tyler Vawser: Back in 2020, you wrote for SchoolCEO and you talked about your experience as a superintendent, and you kind of recount this moment when you're applying for this superintendency, and you say, I might not be the best superintendent you could hire, but I am the loudest person in the world. And if there are great things happening here, everyone will know. About them. That's where it all started. So I'd love for you to kind of take us back to that moment because I think it's really smart, right? You don't necessarily have to be the best at a job, but if you can be the loudest and if you can let people know about the great things that others are doing in their jobs, that is so much of leadership and what it means to be a great superintendent.

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah, I said it in my interview, and I wouldn't advise anybody say that in their interview, but it was who I am. I had never done this job before. I mean, my goodness, how old was I? I was 36 years old. And I'm like, you know what, here we are. We just found a great spot. And I had been the principal for a year in the spot, and I just said, because I have no idea if I'm going to be good at this thing at all. But when you can put people at the center of what you do and really lean in on making sure that other people know about it, I think it changes the way I think. The last 1 minute Walk to Work video that I did, it was this summer. It was on my last day, and I was number 100. We had 100 of these Walk to Work videos about just talking about school and everything. And in that video in particular, I just said I kind of recounted that experience in the interview, but then I said, how lucky was I to be in a situation where I could help more people see how incredible the people in this building are? How lucky was I to be able to do that? I mean, being a superintendent, it's not like super fun, but it was really fun here. I don't know if I'd want to do it in a ton of other places, but at the same time, I think every place has it. There's something special about every place, and so maybe if I got to another place, I'd feel that. But these people are just incredible. And every chance that we have to celebrate them, we were going to do. We keep going back to that whole concept of never giving up the opportunity to say something great about your school that has been an absolute must every single time. And I think it's really helped when things haven't gone the way that we wanted them to go. We've had a number of things that have happened here over the course of twelve years that haven't been awesome. I mean, it's not fantastic to get sued in federal court. I don't like that. It's not fantastic to look at the Washington Post and see your school district on the main page of the Washington Post or CNN. Like, that's not like I'm not signing up for that if there's an option. But all of the social capital that we built up prior to those things happening really helped and what could have been a disaster ended up being a leverage point for our community, which is unheard of, to be really honest.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's so interesting. I would Love for you to tell the audience I know about 1 minute Walk to Work Challenge, but I don't know that everyone does. Do you want to just give them a kind of recap on what that was and why you did it?

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah, absolutely. So I live right across the street from school. I bought the house directly across the street from school, which has been really good for the most part, except for the one time that my fifth grader tied my four year old to a tree and a kindergarten teacher took a picture from a classroom and sent it to me and said, how's your behavior management program working at home? I was fine. Anyway, outside of that it's been really awesome because I can get to and from school in like in less than a minute and in the dead of winter where it's -30 I don't have to worry about starting a car and driving 20 minutes like I was in and out. It was awesome. Anyway, so I started walking to work on Saturdays. And not because I wanted to work on Saturdays, but because I got up really early and my family was still sleeping. And like we had mentioned before, I'm super loud and I would have just woken everybody up. And that's honestly the reason I started walking to school early in the morning on Saturday. So when I was walking to School, I just started to think about Leadership a little bit and it only took me a minute to get there, so I didn't have a lot of things to say about it. 

So I just started recording myself walking to school talking about leadership and people started to like it and then they liked it some more and then they liked it even more. And then when I didn't do it, they got mad that I didn't do it. And so we just started doing them as many times as we could. And like I said, there's been 100 of them over the course of what ended up being about three years. And I only did them when I felt like I had something to say. I didn't feel like I needed to make like we got to get this out by every other week has got to be one, which is probably if you're thinking about analytics, you probably want to do that with consistency. But I didn't. I just wanted people to hear what we had to say and some of the Stories that we had to tell and It's been super fun. I loved it. I really Loved it and I loved the response because It was just stories about the people that I cared the most about.

Tyler Vawser: Did you find that the audience was the community that you were working in with the school, or was it people beyond your community on the other side of the country or the world?

Joe Sanfelippo: It was definitely people outside of the community. That's interesting, because I never once sent any of those videos to actually, that's not true. Two of them. Of the 100, I sent two videos to our staff. Just two, and one of them because it was referencing something that happened in the community that I knew they were upset about, and I wanted to tell them how I felt about it, and I wanted to make sure that everybody knew about that one. And then another one was just I think it was the end of the year, the last one that I ever did, just to tell them thank you and that I loved them. 

But, yeah, it was mostly from people all across the country. And the funniest part was when people in the community knew I was doing it, they'd like, drive by. Like, I'm walking, they'll drive by. One of the local police officers came by. He knew I was doing it. He slowed his car down and waved. I mean, just like that kind of stuff when they see out there. Or I had a couple of teachers that they'd drive by and beep the horn, so I'd had to do it over. They thought they were so funny doing it or screaming at me or whatever, but they're just such good people. I loved it. I love it here. It's such a wonderful place.

Tyler Vawser: That's awesome. Two things that you were talking about, right? That and then your interview. So much of what you do is authentic. We'll add some of these minute walks to work in the show notes, but I've watched a number of them, and I think it's very casual. But like you said, you didn't have to fill 30 minutes just to fill 30 minutes. It's just what's top of mind. I would call it like this little and often strategy where it's short and sweet, and because of that, it's actually more memorable than a 30 minutes keynote that you just have to fill the time. And I thought that was really important, just in how you delivered. It just felt very easy to listen to and to get to know you.

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: I don't know you well, but I feel like I know you better because I watched a handful of those videos.

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah, that was the hope. And the only thing that really took long with those things was captioning them. Because when I started doing them, there was not an auto caption. I didn't have any auto caption software. But the last six months I found one and I'm like, oh, my goodness, I could have saved myself hours every Saturday by just dumping it in here. I can't believe the only thing that took time was that's. Right.

Tyler Vawser: The ADA compliance. It matters.

Joe Sanfelippo: It's important. Exactly. But I always wanted it there, but man, that took a while. That's awesome.

Tyler Vawser: Well, SchoolCEO is focused on two topics more than any other brand and culture. And we talked about this earlier, right? When you're talking about those conversations, those moments inside of a school district where a teacher wants to tell another teacher about what they're doing, right? That's that cultural side of things, like how people experience the school, how it operates internally and sometimes externally too. Right. But we also think about brand a little bit different, right? It's not the logos or the slogans that's part of it, but really it's that reputation of the school, how people think and how they feel about the schoolceo that are in their community. So I'd love for you just to talk about that. I know you've written books, I know you're an author, you're a speaker, and these are two topics that you're very passionate about, and that's why you're here talking with me today. So do you want to start with culture or brand? What sounds good to you?

Joe Sanfelippo: Let's start with brand first because I think we've kind of touched on culture in terms of what that looks like, but we can kind of connect it to the two. Because one of the things that we talked about way back when was the brand promise versus the brand experience, right? So when you start internally with it, the brand promise, that who you espouse to be better be who you are for the people in your space, because when you're not and they go out and talk, you lose all your credibility. So whatever that brand is, however we put ourselves in a situation where we talk about the work that we do, it's got to be done in a way that's real and authentic. And I appreciate you saying that about the walks, because that was the biggest thing about the walks, was, are they real? Are they authentic? Are they coming from the right place? They weren't about the click. It was about making sure that the authenticity that came with it and just amplifying the voice a little bit. 

So when it comes down to the brand piece of that, if you can find something that's simple, unique, and repeatable just from a brand perspective, simple, unique and repeatable, then you put yourself in a situation where you can be talked about differently than somebody outside in a different spot. And we were very lucky on one level. We were very lucky to have a unique mascot. So we are the only cricket mascot in the country. So that gives us at least unique, right? And it's simple, I guess, but it doesn't get repeatable until you repeat it. And so the gold crickets thing just was an opportunity for us to make sure that every time that we had the opportunity to say something great about the school, we were going to say something great about the school, it actually ended up being one of the board norms, right? So we have three board norms, school board norms. When it came to the district. The first one was the answer is always we. Second one was we always keep our dirty laundry in house. And the third one was we never give up the opportunity to say something great about our school. So if we as a school board lived by those three, then we're all going to be better for it. Because being a school board member ain't easy. It's not easy at all. And if all the school board members get from the community is about all the troubles or all the bad stuff, they're going to be like, what did I even do this for at all? But they're still going to get the bad stuff. But if you can help them see the joy in that mess, then they're all going to talk about it a little bit differently. 

So we really kind of come back to simple, unique and repeatable, and everybody can. It happens across the board. And if you can give yourself an opportunity to have other people talk about it that way, that's how you change the narrative, right? When people think about social media, I think honestly, the problem with social media is that they use it as a bulletin board, not a conversation starter. And that ends up being the bigger problem. We run a lot of contests on our social media pages, and a lot of times what that does is it creates conversation around what you want to create conversation around. If our logo or our vision statement is we're a community that works, learns and succeeds together. And you can get people to talk and talk about that at any age. And you're running contests like the first five people who find me at the football game and tell me what the vision of Fall Creek schools are. Get a T-shirt. Now they're going to start talking about it. And now people who don't go to school are going to talk about school because they want free gear. Is it worth a $7.50 cent T-shirt to have people running at you at 1000 miles an hour and talking about you? Yeah. Yes, it is. 100 times yes it is. I will take that. That's the hill. That's my hill, right? Like every chance. Is it worth it? Absolutely is. Because I want to make sure that people are talking about us the right way. They're talking about you anyway. But make sure that give them something on the good side because they're going to talk about the nasty stuff too.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I want to go back to something you said about the board norms because I actually am really interested in one that you were able to recall all three right away. How did those come about? Was that something that you led? Was that something that was board led? Was it collaboration? And how did you decide on those three?

Joe Sanfelippo: Well, my first, it's so ironic because I wanted to kind of bring everybody together after I was hired and say, what do we truly believe in and how are we going to operate to make sure that we're all on the same page? And I said to them, the more rules we have for each other, the less likely we are to remember those rules. And if we're thrown into a situation where we have to respond immediately, we should be driven by very few rules that we don't have to think about too much. Right. It's brand stuff. It's all brand. It's all marketing stuff. Right. 

So we kind of come back to that. And so we started having conversations, and one of the board members said, well, during your interview, you said it was those three things. And everybody was like, those are three things that I remembered right away. And another board member is like, yeah, when he walked out, I knew those three things, like, immediately. And so we started talking about, well, maybe that's it. Maybe we don't have to dive and do 90 surveys and start doing straw poles on what do we think and how we're going to wordsmith this. Here they are. Let's just do it. And we did, and that was it. And anytime that people would veer from those three, it was easy to bring them back because we knew what they were. And the first one was probably the most important, to be really honest. We always keep our dirty laundry in house, which meant that we can talk about nasty stuff, but we're going to talk about it here behind closed doors. Because when we walk out, the answer is always we. It doesn't mean that every vote is 50. It means that when we talk about it, we say we as a board decided X, Y or Z not. Well, I got outvoted three to two, right. It's totally different in that you can say that we voted as a board. Now we do have some concerns, and at the same time, here they are. But we as a board decided S, Y, or Z.

Tyler Vawser: There's another Wisconsin superintendent, Melissa Thompson, I'm not sure if you know her.

Joe Sanfelippo: Swallow schools with an s swallow school? Yes. She's fantastic. Yes.

Tyler Vawser: And she actually came on. She talked about how she onboards board members. And I think what you just said and what she talks about as far as kind of ramping up board members getting ready to serve, I think those two things together are really powerful. So I appreciate you walking through that.

Joe Sanfelippo: Absolutely.

Tyler Vawser: What about that connection between brand and culture? And you kind of talked about it between brand promise and brand experience. And when I present on these types of things, sometimes I think of like the brand promise is one side and then the culture is almost on the other. And the gap between those is like the credibility or the authenticity gap. And I don't know that they ever come completely flush and there's no gap, but you want that gap to be as small as possible. So I'd love to hear you talk about how you see brand and culture connecting.

Joe Sanfelippo: That's a really interesting way to put it, Tyler, because I don't know if I disagree, but I think that if you think about brand in particular, like, brands evoke emotion, right? You see a swoosh. You see like you swoosh, you feel a certain way about it, right. If you see Starbucks, half the group's like, oh my God, I got to get there, and the other half is like, seriously, $6 for coffee? They evoke an emotion. And if you know that the brand is going to evoke an emotion, what are you doing to help really guide that emotion? Right? I know that when people see Go Crickets, I want them to feel a certain way about what we do and who we are. And they may roll their eyes a little bit, like, man, that guy's loud. But the next thing they're going to think of is probably like to work there, right? That might be the idea that we.

Tyler Vawser: Have to curiosity and intrigue.

Joe Sanfelippo: Absolutely right. So I think we truly have thought about the brand in terms of using the brand to build the culture. Maybe that's the way that we do it. That's the idea that if we have that simple, unique and repeatable conversation and never give up the opportunity to say something great about our school, then all of these people know that that's the expectation when we have this conversation. And when people walk into the building, they're going to get that experience. And if they get the experience, then they're going to talk about the experience a little bit differently. And that goes back to the brand. We talk about brand being simple, unique and repeatable, right? Like, here we go. If the brand is simple, unique, and repeatable, and the experience they have when they walk in is simple in that they're greeted a certain way every time, it's unique because they don't get that everywhere they go. And it's repeatable because everywhere they walk down every hallway that they walk down, they're going to get the same thing. 

Now, you get talked about differently because that becomes the culture that you are expecting. You can figure out the culture of a building literally by walking into the office and walking down one hallway. And how the adults interact with each other is typically what that building is going to be like.

Tyler Vawser: That's just what it is really like that especially that people have the same experience with different people, right?

Joe Sanfelippo: Right.

Tyler Vawser: That's pretty hard to pull off. Right. Aside from great culture, great culture is one of the only ways to take very unique personalities, different experiences, ages, races, backgrounds, you name it. And yet there's a consistent thread in how those people act and interact and treat other people right. That's a really hard thing to pull off. And I would argue that is the reason culture is so important, because you can't pull that off any other way, and people are left to their own devices without that culture guiding them.

Joe Sanfelippo: That I agree with. I think we were talking about the same thing in different ways.

Tyler Vawser: Definitely interesting when you are speaking, because I know you're a frequent keynote speaker. Before we started recording, you told me you spoke 100 times last year.

Joe Sanfelippo: Yeah. Is that right? At 100 events.

Tyler Vawser: That's amazing. What do you hear after your talks when you're talking about brand and culture or changing the narrative or leading from where you are? What are you hearing afterwards around the challenges? Someone says, I love what you said, but or, that sounds really nice, but where I am or in our school district, and they're kind of coming up with these reasons why it won't work for them, is there a frequent kind of objection to what you're putting out there, and how do you respond to that?

Joe Sanfelippo: Well, I don't get that a lot. And the reason is, if I do get it a lot, then I really miss the boat with the audience. And honestly, because I'm not there to talk about the great things that we did. I'm there to tell them that they're incredible at what they do. And everything that's going on in our place is honestly, 70% of it's probably already happening in your place. You're just not talking about it. Right. I'm there to help them realize that they're incredible at what they do, and they should walk out feeling not only great about what they're doing, but not feel like they but feel like they can continue to move forward. And feel valued while not feeling like there's nine more things on their plate because I'm not there to. And I'll tell them when I go there, I say, hey, look, I'm here to just give you the best chance. Honestly, I'm leaving. When I leave, we can either go back to where we were or we can think about the fact that what you do is special. And here's why it's special. And when you realize that it's special, you're going to treat that conversation a little bit differently. Right. 

The whole thing that it comes down to for me is what do you do to recognize the greatness of colleagues? Acknowledge the greatness of colleagues and extend the greatness of colleagues. Okay. Recognize it, acknowledge it, extend it. Right. Simple, unique, repeatable. Tyler right. We keep coming back to it. So for me in my building, it looks like this. If I'm walking down a hallway and I see a second grade teacher doing great things, I walk into that second grade teacher's room to tell that second grade teacher that she's doing great things. I've recognized it and I've acknowledged it, and a lot of people do that. But when you do the third thing, when you extend the conversation to the 8th grade science teacher who has no business of being in the second grade hallway, and you tell the 8th grade science teacher about the great things happening in second grade. What inevitably happens is the 8th grade science teacher walks to the second grade classroom to tell the second grade teacher that she's doing great things. And the reason that he does it is because at some point, somebody did it for him and it felt good. And that's all we want to do, is live and work in a place that feels good and that's already happening in your schoolceo, right? And so what do we do? Recognize, acknowledge, extend. It's not rocket science. It just gives you a framework. And when they look at it, they're like, yeah, we do that. Yeah, we do that. Oh, well, good. Well, maybe we can feel better about it. Right? Maybe we can think about it a little bit differently because I'm not asking you to add a ton of stuff to your plate. 

People do say sometimes, man, that sounds like a really cool place. I'd love to live there. And then I tell them, well, you all say that until January. Nobody says they can't wait to live in northern Wisconsin in January. That's not a thing. That people say it's -40. Nobody's coming here. At -40. So stop. So we make fun of that a little bit.

And then we start talking about the idea that and I just ask them how many of the things that I talked about today? How many things do you see in your school right now? And inevitably they'll say half. Half? Then why are you upset? Half. My goodness, that's amazing. What if you get to 70%? If it's 70%, that's like literally three out of four. I mean, seriously, what are we talking about here? Let's not try to again, we're not taking people who are mad about school and having them put their name on a gym. Let's try to literally make them feel a little bit better. If you're okay at 50, you're going to be great at 70.

Tyler Vawser: Well, the chances are there's a lot more than 50%. That's just what they can recall in the moment. And they haven't built the muscles that Fall Creek has to see these opportunities and see the great things. And so it's actually, like it's probably 80 or 85%. But to be able to get eyes on that, you have to start with the 50% that you have now, it's.

Joe Sanfelippo: Really interesting that you say that, because I was listening to somebody talk the other day, and they didn't get mad, but I was like, I don't buy that. And they were talking about how they were talking about buzzwords in schools, right? In education, like, the education buzzwords. Like, you got to go find your why and blah. Blah, blah. And they had a bunch of them that I'm like, okay. But then they had one that I'm like. One of them was, being intentional is a buzzword. And I'm like, well, no, it's not. I said of all of them, that's a process, because being intentional, it's not a buzzword for schools. It's really a lifestyle change. Think about it.

It's that whole red car mentality. I heard this. If somebody said to you, how many red cars did you see on your way to school today? And they're like, man, a couple here and there. And I said, okay, tomorrow I'm going to give you $100 for every red car that you see on your way to school. Are you going to be intentional about finding more red cars? Well, yeah, that's not a buzzword. It's a process, man. And so you got to think about the intentionality of what we do. Otherwise, I think about how many great things I walk past, just like you're saying, how many things do I walk past to get to the next thing on my list? And the list never ends. So if you're bound by the list, the to do list, the things that you have to do, you walk by all the great stuff that could have brought you joy, because you're not being intentional about that walk.

Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. Well, that's a great place to end it. Joe Sanfilippo, thank you so much for your time and for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.

Joe Sanfelippo: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me. Go, Crickets.

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