Building Organizational Culture by Remembering Names and Making Authentic Connections - (Ep 3)

An interview with Kevin Greeley of Denver Public Schools

By David Worley



Show Notes


6:27 Helping people feel they matter to you is critical in leadership. Remembering their name is central in building rapport.

10:01 Organizational culture originates, in part, from the way people feel in their grouping.

11:20 When people feel ownership for the endeavor it helps with alignment and creativity.

13:12 Knowing people’s names helps to enable the leader to change course by providing relational equity with followers.

14:08 Strategies to learn and retain people’s names: (1) Directly own that you forgot their name but indicate that you do know who you are talking to (you remember them). And 16:39 & 20:10 (2) Fake it until you make it by offering your name in conversation first. 

18:35 The ultimate point is to be present with the person and make the interaction about them.

21:22 Remember that it’s not about you as a leader. You and your systems have to serve others and the mission of the organization.

23:49 The importance of creating a climate to do real work together.

Groler Interview Transcript

David Worley interviews Kevin Greeley, Senior Manager of Principal Development and Career Pathways at Denver Public Schools

David:              00:02          Welcome to the Groler Podcast. This is David Worley. One of the key elements of building organizational culture is building rapport with people. In order to have rapport with people, it's really helpful to remember their name and remember elements of their life. This week we tackle that task and skillset head-on the topic, remembering people's names to build organizational culture.

David:          00:46              On this episode, I'm pleased to welcome Kevin Greeley to the Groler Podcast. Kevin is the Senior Manager for Principal Development and Career Pathways at DPS. This means that Kevin is responsible for working with top assistants and first year principals to develop their best selves and to become the best leaders they can be for Denver Public Schools. As you may know, Denver Public Schools is a massive school district with over 200 schools, over 92,000 students and more than 11,000 staff. So please welcome Kevin Greeley to the show. Kevin, thank you for being with us. It's my pleasure.

Kevin:              01:22          Thanks for having me David.

David:              01:24          Kevin, can you tell us a little bit about your role and the key elements that you fulfill for the district?

Kevin:              01:31          Absolutely. So, my role is really exciting. I get to work with, leaders early in their leadership career and really in a crux moment where they're transitioning from an assistant principal leadership role to the principal leadership role. And like we know anyone who's had a really good boss or an average boss or a not so good boss, the leaders in our buildings matters tremendously to the growth that students get to do to the growth that staff gets to do. I think what's really unique about DPS, and you highlighted in your intro, is that we're a pretty diverse district. We have different needs throughout the city. So, I really get to build relationships with our burgeoning leaders and try to develop programs within the programs I run to meet their needs and to really help them find their own voice so that they can be confident in who they are as leaders and that they can lead in a way that best meets their needs and best meets the needs of their community.

David:              02:36          That's fantastic. I'm so pleased to live in a city that is taking their school district principal leadership seriously. And so it's wonderful that they have this position and I'm glad you're in it.

Kevin:              02:51          Thank you. It's, it is a really unique role to DPS. I've spoken to people in Chicago, in Newark. One of the programs I run is called Learn to Lead and that is a residency program for our top level assistant principals who are looking to become a principal in the next year or two. I've talked to people literally throughout the nation about the work we do, and so much of it is driven by senior leadership's acknowledgement that leadership matters and that we're going to put resources and time to developing our leaders as best we can. So it's, it's pretty unique to Denver public schools, but it's also setting a little bit of a trend, I would say, or starting to develop a trend throughout other areas, especially some other large urban school districts in the country.

David:              03:41          So for listeners to the podcast, being a relatively new podcast, one of the things I'm trying to do is to bring together both the best theories and practices of leadership with also really practical and on the ground elements of leadership. And one of the key reasons why Kevin is on this podcast is that I had the pleasure of watching you, Kevin lead as the principal of my daughter's elementary school over the years that she was there. And in that time I watched you dramatically improve the culture of the school and I'm sure that there was a lot of that went into you developing the culture. But the one thing that stood out to me that was so profound and so noticeable about your leadership style was your extraordinary ability to engage people in informal situations. And let me describe this a bit. So when you would arrive, if you were a parent or student arriving at this particular elementary school, it just always seemed like Kevin was the first person that you would encounter when you got there for the morning. And he was there, he was at the door, he was making eye contact, he was shaking hands and, most notably, he was greeting every single person by their first name. Uh, It didn't matter whether you are a student, whether you were a parent or a staff member, a teacher, it seemed like you, Kevin, were able to engage every person in a unique and directive way. And as a little kind of litmus test, I actually asked my daughter in retrospect recently about your leadership style and she doesn't remember a single time ever passing you in the hallway in which you were not like, "Hey Hayden, how you doing?" And so I, I think that what is so interesting to me about this is that that connection, and/or the correlation between you engaging in those transitionary moments that are just normal in a day, I think directly contributed to what I observed more broadly in the school, which was more engaged students, more engaged parents, a more engaged staff. And so, I kind of wanted to focus on that particular aspect of your leadership because it was just so profound and so noticeable to me. So I guess my key question is, have you always been great at engaging people interpersonally or is this a skill that you have intentionally developed and cultivated?

Kevin:              06:37          First, thanks for all the compliments David. My head might not fit out the room I'm in right now. It really, it really does mean a lot and I appreciate it. And to answer your question, probably a combination of both. People are often shocked to find that I'm actually a little bit shy and sometimes it's tough for me to go and actually engage in situations where I don't know the parameters of the situation. I also though, do thrive on relationships and I appreciate when people reach out to me and I thrive. I thrive throughout my life with bosses or teachers who made me feel like I mattered to them. So, through research, through my own personal experience, I know that that is really important for people to be able to feel safe and to be able to engage in the work they're doing. I've had a lot of different jobs before I came to education. Not a lot of different ones, but a couple of neat ones. One of them was, I worked on a tree farm when I was in an Undergrad student in college and so this was in Pennsylvania. We would trim, harvest Christmas trees basically and became friends with the family and I remember talking to the owner's son one time and he was, he was complaining about his dad a little bit and he said, you know, the problem my dad is, he can't remember anyone's name. And he goes, it's shocking because the most, the simplest thing to do to make someone feel good about themselves is to remember their name and the simplest thing to do to make someone feel crappy about themselves is forget their name. I was twenty at the time, but that struck me as so profound and it's something that I've always kind of worked on. So in terms of remembering kid's names, remembering parent's names, I did a lot of cheating. I would during parent conferences, I would always have my computer up in my office and I would have it on Infinite Campus. So like with our students, I would spend the first month of the school really intentionally trying to learn all of our kid's names and some I had to bluff on some I had to look at their papers a lot or the name on their desk, you know, but I did my best to just really learn their names as much as possible. And then if I saw a Kiddo with a parent that I didn't know or forgot their name, I'd run back to my office, type in the student's name real quick, see their parent's name, go out and engage with them. So I was specifically practicing using their name and a conversation before I could forget it again. So, I think in terms of like the name piece, it's, I have a pretty good memory, but it's also something that I'm very intentional about. And it goes back to that time on a tree farm, sitting around, throwing Christmas trees around. I also was a bartender for some years and it's amazing how much more fun your job is and how much more money you make when you engage with people. And you make them feel comfortable. When I first started teaching, I did see some similarities to bartending and teaching. Sometimes you had unruly customers, sometimes you had students who weren't doing exactly what you wanted them to do, but, when you built relationships with them it was one, the work was a lot more enjoyable and two is a lot easier and effective to do the work.

David:              09:55          So that's sort of a profound point, Kevin, that you're bringing up here that I think is so interesting. You know in organizational studies, leadership studies, management studies, there's a lot of discussion around organizational culture. I don't think anybody disputes that Organizational culture does indeed exist. I think there's a lot of interesting debate about what it is and how it functions. But on the ground you just nailed something that I've observed. And that is that culture originates, at least in part, from the way people feel in the grouping. And so you said just a moment ago that one of the simplest ways to make people feel valuable is to remember their name. And so I wonder as you step back and kind of move up to like a 5,000 foot level of looking at your own work and leadership in an individual school, how have you seen what I was describing earlier in that, just the remembering names and having good transitions in and out of the school and before and after meetings. How have you seen that build the team, build the culture, build the kind of, the vibe of the school or organization that you've been apart?

Kevin:              11:23          Sure, in thinking about those organizational structures. We know that, that one of them is when, when everyone feels involved and has a stake in the school, the business, whatever, it's more successful because everyone feels some ownership. And so when, when you know everyone's name and everyone feels comfortable, when everyone feels like they can speak their truth, then you get more. I don't want to say buy in. I actually want to say ownership because when people feel ownership over the process, that's when it really takes on a life of its own. I think that can be scary for leaders because we have to give up a certain amount of control when we do that. And I know that's gotten in my way before, in terms of releasing some of the responsibility to folks, but that really is, that relational piece is, is the foundation for how much am I going to buy into the work that we're doing? How much am I going to be, how vulnerable am I going to be in a meeting if, if I know Kevin or this team cares about me, then I'll be, I'll be willing to put myself on the line with an idea that maybe goes against the grain. And that idea might be better than anything else that's out there on the table. So I think that hits that next layer of it in that how do you, keep the team kind of aligned with the vision that you've got for your school or organization moving forward. And how do you enable them to think outside of your box because they might bring a lot more to it. And what's even harder I think is how do you support folks when they have an idea that you just don't see fitting right now and you've got to make them feel valued and still maybe move in a different direction.

David:              13:04          Huh? Wow. There is so much, just an amazing amount of good stuff that comment. So one thing I heard you say is that names help increase people's willingness to engage vulnerably and engaging vulnerably helps with people's ownership of the actual endeavor it itself. But also an important part of that is it buys you equity with an individual when you need to go in a direction that is not their preference. Is that an accurate summary of your thought there?

Kevin:              13:44          Yeah. We could have saved a lot of time. I could've just said it that way. We could have moved forward. That's perfect David. A really very perfect summary.

David:              13:53          I couldn't have come up with it without saying, so I'm glad that we have some stereo sound here. So Kevin, let me kinda go back down to the ground here for a second and ask you about strategies that have occurred for you with regards to remembering people's names. So, you know, full disclosure from me, one of my greatest social fears is forgetting people's names and I have a good memory for most things, but names are really hard for me. And even people that I know pretty well when they come in the room, if I don't see them on an everyday basis, sometimes I have this little inkling of doubt about whether or not I remember their name or not and that doubt kind of takes on a life of its own and I end up kind of being probably, at least it feels awkward to me interacting with them. It may not, it may not come out that way, but I definitely feel that. And so in the last few years, what I've begun to try to do is to just own that, to just say, Hey, I'm really sorry. I know I've asked you twice what your name is. It's embarrassing for me to do so, but can you just remind me one more time? In fact, this literally happened to me in my organization yesterday and I have found that to a certain degree that has diffused, at least my own sense of feeling kind of like a schmuck for not remembering somebody's name, but I wonder can you think back to times where you've forgotten the name and how have you approached that? What, what tips would you give for our listeners when that scenario happens?

Kevin:              15:43          Oh yeah. I mean, thinking about, you know, my reputation at Steele was that I knew every student and every parent's name and I can tell you with the students it was mostly true. With the parents it was definitely not. And I know that exact feeling you're talking about when you know you should know someone's name, when you know, they expect you to know their name and you don't know it. And it's, I've found myself ineffectively. I wouldn't recommend doing this saying their name quietly, hoping they'll either correct me or they just won't catch it, but they'll hear like the first beginning of the first consonant of their name come out. That's not been a good strategy. It makes me feel, it goes down that spiral of "Oh crap, how's this gonna go." So to be honest, I approached it two ways and some of it would depend on how long the conversation would be, kind of what I felt like the realistic expectation of me knowing the name was. So a lot of times I would just say, hey, at Steele, it was really nice because I would just say, "I know Hayden's your daughter, can you remind me your name again?" I forget, you know? And so I made a connection with the parents and a lot of times they go "I couldn't care less if you know my name, I'm so glad you know my kid's name. Thank you." So that was one for principals out there. That's one strategy you can use. I think your tactic of just asking people and owning it, it shows a level of respect. The third one for short conversations or if it's going to be short, you can find their name out later, you know, sometimes you just fake it till you make it, put a big smile on your face, act really happy to see the person because you are and um, and don't worry about knowing their name, worry about fully engaging with them and being present in that moment. And kind of appreciate them for that and make it more about them than about you not knowing their name because I think that's when it, when I have that feeling about not knowing someone's name, I'm making the conversation about me so I'm not really present with that person. So if I can just put that to the side and be like, I'm going to be with this person on, I forgot their name, the least I can is give them 100 percent of my attention right now. And that seems to kind of to work well too.

David:              17:55          That's really interesting about presence. To me. And I'm sure a cognitive scientists could, could tell us why this is the case, but for years and years I did a lot of prospective student interviews and prospective students "get to know you" sessions in an enrollment process. And it was interesting to me Kevin, you know, years later I would remember that this person went to Taylor College in Kansas and studied accounting. These really kind of intimate details of our conversation from two years ago, but I couldn't remember their name. And so one of the things that you just said there that's interesting to me is if you can acknowledge that you didn't know who you're talking to, you just can't remember their name. It seems to me that most people are pretty gracious on that. But more importantly at a higher level, what you're talking about is exactly what you said, which is you're trying to be present, honor the person, and make the conversation about them; or at least predominantly about them. And that to me seems to maybe smooth over some of the initial awkwardness of forgetting people's name. Because I do think that most people are pretty empathetic on this in the sense of, it seems like a lot of people have the same problem of, of remembering a particular, you know, name, especially if it's, if it's a run of the mill name that a lot of people have.

Kevin:              19:29          Yeah. And especially when you see people sporadically. I mean, I think the thing that there's neighbors names, I still forget because I don't see them that often. I'm like, how can I, how can I know 400 kid's names, 450 kid's names at least that many parents. And how can I not know the neighbor down the street from me, his name? And it's, you know, the, the beauty about working in a school is it's really intimate. You see people on a daily, hourly basis. So you're constantly engaging with them. I think people understand that if you don't, if you see them once a month and it's hard to pull names out of that, you know? Sometimes I'll even just reintroduce myself to the person and go, "Hey, I'm Kevin. I don't know if you remember my name. 'Kevin.' Good to see you." And they'll reciprocate. It's kind of a polite way of reengaging the name piece again, if you haven't seen someone in a little while.

David:              20:21          That's another good tip. You're a fountain of good tips, Kevin! In the sense of when you can't remember if you offer your name as a contribution to the conversation, because chances are pretty good they don't remember your name either, you simultaneously built a relational connection there and you overcame the fact that you didn't remember their name as well. That's another good tip; thank you.

Kevin:              20:48          You're welcome. Thank you.

David:              20:50          So, Kevin, as we kind of wind down here, thinking about building culture as a leader in an organization, particularly as it relates to connecting with people in those transitionary moments in their day. Do you have anything else that you'd like to add that you think is important or that you've found to be really helpful?

Kevin:              21:15          Yes. It's something that I still work on on a daily basis and we touched on it a little bit a minute ago. But I really think remembering that it's not about you, it's about the people in your organization. And like knowing their names and being relational is just the basics of that. It's really about how can you, it's not about you, but it is about you as a leader. People look to you to create a vision, to be there for them, to create systems that make the work easier so that they can do their jobs well. And in that case it's not, it's about you building those systems, but it's not about those systems working for you. It's about those systems working for your end users. So, you know, if it doesn't feel good to you, in the case of a principal, go out and look at recess, doesn't feel good to you. Then look at the data from recess. Are kids having fun? Are they coming back to class engaged in learning? Alright, then recess is probably fine if they're doing those things. Are kids getting into minor fights outside? Are they getting hurt? Well then it's probably bad whether it feels good or not, you need to make changes. So, I think just really as you're developing your organizational culture, remembering the purpose for why you put systems into place and remembering that it's not the end result and your end user is your most important piece of data as you move forward; and to always go back and look at that and then make changes based on that. And when you have relationships with people and you value their voices, one, you'll get better data from on the ground folks; more honest feedback; and two, when you need to make shifts, they'll engage in the process with you, they'll own the process with you, and they'll either, one, come up with better ideas which happens to me all the time or, two, they'll follow your lead and trust you. If you're asking them to do something that's out of their comfort zone.

David:              23:10          That's fantastic. The paying attention to the results of your system is something that's easy to overlook. And recognizing that the system exists to serve other people; those are on the ground, daily, leadership skills; thank you for reminding us of those. I find myself repeatedly missing them. So thank you.

Kevin:              23:41          You and I are together on that; I don't think you're alone.

David:              23:46          Kevin, it's been just a great pleasure to talk with you. I think that this interview has been chocked full of so many valuable tips and practices along with, I think a really profound element here, which is that notion of helping people own their organization by virtue of opening up the kind of space where you're fully present, allowing other people to be vulnerable, which in turn creates this really fantastic climate for people to do real work together. And so thank you for bringing that and for teaching us today. It's been a real pleasure.

Kevin:              24:32          The honor has been mine, David; thanks. I really appreciate your openness, and the compliments, and just your work here. This this is really exciting stuff. So thanks for helping leaders give us a place to share and learn from one another.

David:              24:49          So that wraps up our interview with Kevin Greeley of Denver Public Schools. I think one of the things that stood out to me in the interview was the importance of names in building organizational culture. And if you're like me, this is a place of real vulnerability for you as a leader. Everyday I walk into a room and probably my largest social fear is forgetting someone's name. But there are ways to ameliorate that; there are ways to move past that. Kevin gave us so many tips throughout this interview and I want to thank Kevin once again for being with us and for the wisdom that he shared.

David:              25:30          As always, thanks for joining us for this podcast. You can get show notes and actually a full transcript of the interview at the Groler website. That's G R O L E R dot com. Remember, Groler exists to help you continue to learn and grow as a leader. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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