A message from Gladys Cruz

Using Data to Improve

May 26, 2017  

It is often said “what gets measured, gets done” in our public schools. Today, leaders speak about using data – from student achievement to climate/culture – to improve outcomes. But what are schools measuring and how are they really using the data? Are they using data to comply, or are they using it to be responsive or transformational?

Several years ago, Questar III decided to look more closely at our organizational culture by seeking feedback from our staff. This was particularly timely for us given the number of changes happening internally and in public education at the local, state and federal level.

In 2013, Questar III participated in Top Workplaces survey through the Albany Times Union and Philadelphia-based WorkplaceDynamics for the first time. This independent survey asked staff to rate statements about organizational health. More than 70 percent of our employees completed an online survey rating the following areas:

  • CONNECTION: Employees feel appreciated; their work is meaningful
  • ALIGNMENT: Where the company is headed, its values, cooperation
  • EFFECTIVENESS: Doing things well, sharing different viewpoints, encouraging new ideas
  • MY MANAGER: Cares about concerns, helps staff learn and grow

The results placed Questar III among the top workplaces in New York’s Capital Region when comparing our employees’ feedback to other organizations of similar size. This recognition was really wonderful, but this was not why we decided to participate.

The real value came from learning what our staff thinks. The data was only the tip of the iceberg – we wanted to look beneath the surface to better understand their perceptions. After all, feedback from our employees (and clients) is critical to our continued success as an educational service agency.

In response, we asked managers to dive deeper and speak with staff about where we could build on our strengths while seeking opportunities to improve.

The executive leadership team shared departmental and building level data with the administrative team, which includes principals and directors. These leaders then reviewed data with their staff using a consistent protocol – a facilitated discussion asking four questions:

  • Do these results surprise you?
  • What seems to be going well based on the results?
  • How might we sustain our strengths?
  • What suggestions do you have to improve on the results?

These meetings were attended by senior managers. I enjoyed these conversations as they allowed those who took the survey to elaborate. Likewise, even those who did not (or were new to the organization) were able to react to the data and join the discussion.

Meeting summaries were then reported back to our administrative team of 25 – so middle managers could see themes and focus on improvement.

It became apparent that one of the areas that needed attention was execution. It was understandable – after all, we provide more than 275 services to districts across the state. Because of this, we often have a number of ideas and initiatives underway, some of which do not come to fruition for various reasons.

Senior managers and mid-level managers brainstormed ideas on how to improve in this area. Through our conversations, we learned that we needed to focus more attention on our programs, provide more relevant resources and improve communications by closing the loop – to provide context or rationale should an initiative not happen, or be delayed or modified in any way.

In a follow-up memo to staff, we detailed our perceived weaknesses and what we were going to do to improve. We also shared that we were going survey staff again in the future.

We have now completed this survey three separate times, most recently in December 2016, and have shown improvement in several areas. This includes an 18 percent increase in effectiveness, 16 percent increase in connection and 11 percent increase in the manager category since our first survey.

Today, we use two measures to rate our individual departments, schools, programs and services – how they rate to the overall Questar III results and how they rate, compared to themselves, from the previous survey. Feedback from the 2016 survey placed us in the top three of large-size employers in our region.

This learning process embodies our shift to building a healthy organization based on the work of Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage. He argues that organizational health surpasses all other disciplines as the greatest opportunity for improvement and competitive advantage.

I agree. Healthy organizations get more done in less time, identify problems earlier and solve them faster, avoid losing their best people, and outperform their competitors.

However, creating a healthy organization cannot be a one-time event or the responsibility of a few. It is everyone’s job and a continuous process perhaps best reflected in this African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

While Questar III has achieved great strides in recent years, we know that we still have work to do – and that we need our staff and districts to be actively involved. After all, our business and reputation can quickly fade if we’re perceived to be out of touch with them. Just consider the case of United Airlines. Their CEO received a “communicator of the year” award just weeks before a United passenger was violently dragged off of a flight. 

As leaders, we set the tone for our schools, from our goal-setting and priorities to how we communicate and value feedback. But when it comes to judging and nurturing our culture, there is only one audience that matters – our staff.

Our staff is the reason why Questar III is now recognized as a top workplace. More importantly, they are why we maintain a regional and statewide reputation for excellence – helping us to “change lives, realize dreams and do together what can’t be done alone.” 

Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent