Just a Minute of Your Time
Guest Writer Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, Superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, shares his unique approach to staying connected with his community and challenging others to lead.
Ten years ago I sat in the Fall Creek School District boardroom interviewing to be their next superintendent. The district had been through five leaders in just six years. I don’t remember everything about the interview, but one interaction will be forever ingrained in my mind. As we were nearing the end of our conversation, I asked the board what their expectations were for me as a leader. After a few seconds of silence—which felt more like hours—one board member looked at me and said, “We have a lot of really good things happening here, but nobody knows about them.” Well, I took a deep sigh of relief and I simply told them, “I may not be the best superintendent you could hire, but I am the loudest person in the world. If there are great things happening here everyone will know about them.” That’s where it started. All of it.
Here in Fall Creek—population 1,365—you enter our one school building as a Fall Creek Cricket, and you walk across the stage 13 years later with that same unique mascot adorning the wall behind you. The image of a cricket may not strike fear into the hearts of our opponents at basketball games, but it’s who we are and who we’ve always been—it’s our identity. Crickets have become our brand. Memorabilia at our village museum is emblazoned with Go Crickets. It’s on posters, pins, pennants, you name it. We’ve even made it modern by adding a hashtag, so now #GoCrickets has become our social call to everyone who will listen. It’s on hats, T-shirts, stress balls, water bottles, and even ice scrapers.
We also put up a digital Where in the World is Fall Creek? pride board at the school’s entrance. It streams pictures of folks in Go Cricket gear from all 50 states and 15 other countries. So everyone who walks into our building knows immediately that we have people cheering for us all over the world.
Our school district brand is simply what people say about us when we can’t be there to say it for ourselves. It evokes emotion and provides everyone in the space a sense of unity. It gives us a color to wear and a reason to scream. Our brand tells the story of championships and struggles, but most importantly, it reflects the relationships between those who walked these halls years ago and those who are entering for the first time. The brand gives us pride. It’s who we are.
#1minwalk2work Leadership Challenge
When I moved into the village, I bought the house across the street from the school. Literally. It’s exactly 120 steps and 52 seconds from my garage to the door that sits outside our kindergarten classrooms. People thought I was crazy to live directly “in the middle of the fishbowl.” I think they were afraid people would randomly show up at my house, need things 24/7, or maybe do something to the yard if they didn’t like a decision I’d made. But the most controversial thing that’s ever happened in 10 years was my own kids misbehaving in the yard—something I found out about from a teacher whose classroom window faces my house. “How is your behavior management program working at home?” she texted me.
Living in the village and leading a school that is the hub of our community means I’m always on stage. It means that every interaction I have with people matters, because every interaction could be the one they talk about for the rest of their lives. There are times that I don’t love that concept, but when I acknowledge that it is real, I can walk into those conversations differently, because I know it doesn’t end when I walk out. That mindset has afforded me the opportunity to lead as transparently as I possibly can and, in doing so, it’s given me the confidence to put my leadership journey out there for anyone to see. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have few of them. Having said that, the best learning for me has come from adjusting after I fail at something. If there’s a way to help others by sharing our failures and what we’ve learned from them, then I believe it’s incumbent upon us to do so.
The #1minwalk2work Leadership Challenge has been the platform for that journey over the course of the last three years. Saturday mornings in the Sanfelippo house are filled with five people waking up at completely different times and in different moods. I am always the first to get up. As I mentioned earlier, being the loudest person in the world is great when you’re shouting the incredible things happening in the district. It’s not great when your family wants to sleep. Consequently, I started using Saturday mornings as a time to get into the office and not wake up my family. Sometimes I would work on school stuff; other times I would write or read or jump on a Twitter chat. I got into a routine of always using the time to learn something new about leadership. In doing so, I started to realize all the mistakes I had made as a teacher leader, an administrator, and, quite frankly, as a dad and husband. Reflecting on those things wasn’t always easy, but it became the leverage point for me to decide I’d help others avoid falling by the same wayside.
Enter the #1minwalk2work Leadership Challenge. The concept was simple: walk to school, tell a story, talk about leadership, record it, and challenge yourself and others to do things differently for those we all serve. Some weeks I make a video; others I don’t. But the one thing I keep at the forefront of my mind is to be authentic and real in all my messages.
There are a few things I keep at the core of every leadership challenge video I post—give actionable challenges, use consistency in my messaging and timing, and force engagement with our brand.
Make it Actionable
Sometimes people tell me that it’s the thought that counts. I’m not a big fan of that statement, because though the thought does count, the action on the thought counts more. How many times have you said, I wish I had…followed by something you never took action on? I wish I had said something. I wish I had gotten up earlier to run. I wish I’d sent him a note to tell him he did something great. All of the positive thoughts we have to improve our lives are great, but until we take action on them, the day-to-day operations of the world take over, and we never get a chance to move ourselves forward as leaders. So I always give an actionable challenge—not to add something to your plate, but to get you excited enough to actually do something.
Consistency in Messaging and Timing
All right, everybody. Saturday morning. Fall Creek, Wisconsin. One-minute walk to work, and here’s what I’m thinking about today. All my videos start like that. They all end the same way, too: Just gotta take care of each other. We’re all in this thing together, man. Have a great week, everybody. Go Crickets! That consistency of messaging and length comes up often when I talk to people about the posts. I love the videos, texts, and tweets I get from people on social media that say, We’re all in this together, man, or, Just gotta take care of each other. It’s humbling and wasn’t planned, but with that momentum, it’s been a fun way to open and close the videos.
Though the walk from home to school could technically be done in less than a minute, I’ve tried to keep the messages consistent in terms of time. They always seem to fall from 90-100 seconds, and I think this has been helpful for both me and anyone watching. They know they are not in for a 10-minute rant on how education needs to change or a tweet that takes eight seconds to read. The timing has given me the opportunity to tell a story and bring real people into these scenarios.
One of my favorite pieces of the #1minwalk2work challenge is the way it can force engagement when it comes to sharing our story and impacting the narrative of our district. I actually force the audience to engage with the Go Crickets message six times in the 100 seconds of the walk videos.
- I always open by telling everyone we are in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.
- I walk past my car with the GOCRKTS license plate.
- I walk by a green Fall Creek welcome sign on my front door.
- I continue past a 30-foot #GoCrickets sign on my fence.
- We round the corner of the school building with a Welcome to Cricket Country sign on the wall.
- Each video ends with me saying, “Have a great week, everybody. Go Crickets!”
The walks have become not only a way to share my leadership journey but also to spread the word about the great things happening in Fall Creek. Wisconsin is an open enrollment state, so you can attend any school you care to if you can get there. When we started the process of sharing the great things about our district in 2012, we only had 15 more students attending our school than we had choosing to leave it. But in 2018, our open enrollment numbers had grown—we had 90 more students choosing to enroll in our district compared to those who left. Great things were happening here before we ever posted and tweeted—we just got really loud about it, and the data certainly supports that effort.
We’re all in this thing together.
To date, I’ve posted over 50 #1minwalk2work videos on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Vimeo. All of them end the same way: We’re all in this thing together, man.It isn’t just about when it’s convenient for us, either. When we take care of one another, at all times, in all places, our leadership capacity will grow. That mindset also grows those around us. We lead learning organizations. Therefore, we need to lead the learning in those organizations. Whatever your method, whatever your platform, whatever your process, the one thing that has to be at the forefront of who we are as school leaders is modeling the learning process to those we lead. Understanding that we don’t have all the answers and being willing to grow helps us when times get tough and leadership is needed most.
Just gotta take care of each other. All right everybody, that’s all I got. We’re all in this thing together, man. Have a great week, everybody. Go Crickets!
To view Dr. Joe Sanfelippo's #1minwalk2work Leadership Challenge videos, visit www.jsanfelippo.com
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