“They just don’t listen!” If there’s one consistent complaint from parents, politicians, teachers, taxpayers, senior citizens, realtors, and other public school stakeholders about how we manage our business, that’s it.

And it’s an issue we simply cannot afford to dodge anymore, especially with teachers—the backbone of our system—feeling the most ignored. According to a recent survey by Public Agenda, 70 percent of all United States teachers say they feel left out of the decision-making process, while school board members express frustration that all they hear from the public are complaints.

Such statistics aren’t news to Roger Pawley, chief executive officer of Leadership Technology Group Inc. That’s why he’s created an institute devoted to improving the “strategic listening” skills of leaders in schools and other organizations.

Research conducted by Pawley’s organization shows that when people are asked for advice, 63 percent say they feel complimented and 25 percent feel the person is showing good judgment. Interestingly, the numbers flip when people are asked about taking part in a survey.

Both methods involve asking questions. The difference, Pawley says, is how the request is communicated and whether the focus is on building relationships or just getting input.

“Strategic listening helps people feel important and included, and it encourages them to participate,” says Pawley. “When people feel valued, they develop more loyalty and commitment to the organization.”

They also contribute better ideas and are more likely to focus on solutions and problem-solving, rather than points of conflict, according to Pawley. This is good news for school leaders, who must struggle to find the common ground in an increasingly diverse and often divided community.

Technology plays a pivotal role in strategic listening by helping school leaders reach out to a large number of people on an ongoing basis in an efficient and effective manner.

Rather than simply rely on a public hearing that brings out the most passionate voices on the extreme ends of most issues, Pawley recommends going to where your stakeholders already are and then using technology to gather and compile their input automatically.

“The best form of engagement is one-on-one with individual people, but it’s just not practical for most school systems,” says Pawley, whose firm works with more than 100 school districts across the nation. “Technology is an aid to that process and a way to bring people in and participate in meaningful ways that are easier for school systems to manage.”

Using voice server technology, parents and teachers can use their touch tone phones at home or at work to participate in monthly automated questionnaires on issues ranging from a proposed character education curriculum or school uniform policy to school boundary changes, new facilities, and upcoming bond referendums.

Portable key pads and a laptop computer, on the other hand, can be brought into grocery stores, public libraries, health clinics, churches, and shopping malls to capture feedback from a wide range of citizens, many of whom might not respond to more traditional survey methods.

In either approach, anonymity is assured and results are available instantly. If connected to the organization’s computer system, results also can be posted simultaneously on the school district’s web site, eliminating any concern that the data is being manipulated in any way—an added benefit for school leaders struggling to rebuild fractured relationships and trust.

Even traditional public engagement approaches, such as focus groups and town hall meetings, become more meaningful when group feedback technology is employed to get the “silent middle” and the “quieter voices” in the room not only on the table, but up on the video screen for all to see.

The cost is surprisingly affordable, even for smaller school systems. Leadership Technology Group’s strategic listening initiatives include training, consulting services, technology, software, and technical assistance and range from $10,000 to $100,000, The technology can be rented or purchased.

The combination of cutting-edge technology, research, group facilitation, and communications can be powerful and poignant. One of Pawley’s clients, for example, was struggling to engage a group of native Cambodian parents in a dialogue about the school their children were attending.

However, when a session was set up in a neighborhood center that the parents were comfortable with, and a translator and translation software were provided, the once-reluctant parents responded enthusiastically. The anonymity of the process, and the district’s commitment to reaching out to them, made a once-distant group feel valued and important.

Engaging the public means more than just getting people’s ideas and making them feel welcomed and appreciated, however. School leaders are often criticized, and rightly so, for asking for input when they really want a “stamp of approval” on a predetermined strategy, plan, or idea.

“You have to close the loop and let them know how you’re using the information to improve the organization,” says Pawley. “You don’t have to tell them how you are using specific ideas, but you do need to be able to show that their input matters, that something has changed because of it.”

Not surprisingly, one of the growing criticisms of public engagement is that it is too focused on process and involvement, rather than results.

“Public engagement is essential and critically important, and technology is the only thing that makes it manageable,” says Eric Smith, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the nation’s 27th largest school system. “However, process alone won’t get you where you need to be.”

When CMS built its new student assignment plan, it gathered input from more than 7,000 parents, teachers, and community stakeholders—including some 1,000 who corresponded via eMail and the web.

Smith cautions that for strategic listening to be effective, it has to help the organization achieve its strategic objectives.

“You have to focus on results,” says Smith. “All the engagement in the world isn’t going to matter if it doesn’t [lead to] better results for children.”


Leadership Technology Group Inc.