My first job out of college was with IBM in the Human Resources Department. I worked in Endicott, New York—the company’s birthplace (and not too far from my own). Mostly, I worked on hiring and talent spotting for the various departments and business areas. I also developed training programs around the kinds of things that are good to know and develop when you are solving problems, developing products, and delivering services with people and their different styles of learning and doing. HR was housed along one hallway on a basement floor. My office was small, but it was mine. There was even a window, which was just right for watching feet pitter and patter past. When I met new people in my building, I’d look them in the eye but then I’d look down at their shoes. Most people put names with faces. I’d put shoes with them.
My desk faced a large whiteboard that I used to scribble and splatter ideas and plans and deadlines across. Someone had left behind one of the small iconic IBM “THINK” signs and so I propped it on the whiteboard marker tray. “THINK” was the first thing I saw, eye-level, when I glanced up from my work. It reminded me—young, romantic, ambitious—that I worked at a great company and not to forget it. It also reminded me to think. I loved that sign. I still love that sign. Wikipedia tells of its origination like this:
At an uninspiring sales meeting Watson interrupted, saying The trouble with every one of us is that we don't think enough. We don't get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads. Watson then wrote THINK on the easel.
My little office with the little “THINK” sign was located directly across from the large conference room that we often got pulled into as managers and specialists of the human resources. It didn’t take long for me to observe that our time there was often spent solving an urgent problem, planning for a longer-term solution, fixing a snag, making it work.
But the conference room wasn’t just where problems were solved and ideas were developed and implemented. It was where we individually and as a team helped to build in each other those things that are good to know and do when you have problems to solve, products to build, and services to deliver. And there is an expectation that you will be the best at doing both.
And sometimes it was hard and frustrating and complex. Sometimes it was even sad. But it was usually, almost always, an experience where you could feel the elastic stretching further; knew you were learning something you maybe couldn’t name; softening a bit on something you’d always believed was firm. All this, because someone pulled you out of your office and put you in a room with other people to figure out how to be the best at what you do, together and apart.
And so it went with another great, first-class organization that I worked for after I left IBM (which is a great company and I didn’t forget that). It’s just that I was hired by two of THE BEST leaders in education that lived and breathed the THINK philosophy without ever having worked for the THINK company. There were also whiteboards and windows and really really high expectations to be the best at what you do and how you do it in this rural, upstate New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). But the problems were different and the services, too. But the opportunities for what we could accomplish—for kids, for teachers, for families—where resources (and not just human—all of them) were scarce, scarce, scarce.
There was a conference room there, too.
We pulled in students and teachers and researchers and parents to look hard at data and come up with an answer to problems like this perpetual one: why do we lose so many kids between 8th and 10th grade? What was that “V” shaped performance curve telling us? What will we do about it?
We brought in teachers from different counties but teaching the same grade level and conducted our own project-based learning session about “rigor”. Using their own, actual student work they talked about what they looked for in X school versus Y and Z school—and why was what they looked for different? How were these difference reflected in the student work?
In the midst of these discussions you’d pull yourself away only to peek back in again. You recognized what you were seeing: the elastic stretching a bit further; something learned that can’t be named; softening on ideas and behaviors once held firm.
Except this time, it was happening among stewards of a very very important human resource: our children, their teachers, everyone’s learning, and to be dramatic, the future—of education, of medicine, of trades, even of IBM.
I’m not as young now as I was then but I’m just as romantic. I’m not ambitious about my career but I’m ten times more so in what I know we can accomplish as teachers and leaders and educators for children.
It starts with space. You pull people out of their offices and classrooms and you put them in that space. They have ideas. They have solutions. You ask them what they believe your school can be and do and how they THINK you can be the best at doing it.
You let them THINK together. And you will hear the hum and feel the tremor and know that it is happening. You might even pull yourself away to peek back in and you will recognize it. You will recognize that something is happening with those people in that room that cannot happen when they are alone.
They are solving problems and building ideas. But even more importantly, they are building in each other all of those things that are good to know and do when you have children to help and to grow and to teach. And because there is an expectation that they be the best at it.
There may not be a "THINK" sign, but there is space and time and opportunity to do important work and get better together. They will know they work at a great place that lets them do great things. And they will not forget it.