Put Your People In the Game

Tim Daly and I are coming to the end of our time at TNTP. It’s making both of us a little nostalgic.

We’ve been reflecting on where this organization has been and how we’ve evolved. For example, it is a true sign of my advancing age that I can remember a time at TNTP when we had to beg to get Tim invited to education gatherings. And I don’t mean as the high profile keynote speaker—I just mean a seat at the table. Today, we regularly field calls from conference planners who tell us they can only have Tim Daly or Dan Weisberg. No other TNTP staff member will suffice.

Here’s the thing, though—and here’s what I’ve been mulling over as I look back on TNTP’s growing up and ahead toward our future: Simply saying yes to those requests isn’t our way.

We’re constantly telling our partners (and the public) that it’s critical to hold our schools and teachers to high expectations, to offer recognition to top performers, and to create opportunities for great teachers and leaders to stretch themselves and grow in their fields. So in-house, we have to live by those rules, too. This means committing to putting our up-and-comers in prominent situations so they can grow, even when it’s a stretch.   

Here’s an example. A number of years ago, a long-time staff member moved into a different role within TNTP, and we transferred an existing team member into her spot, working with one of our district clients. Our point person at the district wasn’t happy about the change; he felt he was losing a great collaborator and getting a more junior replacement. I reached out to explain that this wasn’t the case. The incoming staff member had a fantastic track record with us. As an organization, we stood by our person. We assured our client that we would support her to get strong outcomes (and that we’d hold her to a high bar, too)—just as we had supported our other team members who had worked with that district in the past. I guaranteed him he would still get excellent service from us.

He heard me out, and then told me he was going to fire us. His ultimatum: give me back the staff member who was assigned here before, or we can’t partner with you anymore.

Turned out he was bluffing. Sort of. While he didn’t end our work together, he made life fairly unpleasant at first for our team member, trying to get us to budge. But to cave into his demands would have been unfair to a staff member who’d earned the role and could nail the work. We waited it out. And ultimately, this client became a bigger fan of the new team member than he had been of the last one.

The thing is, we cannot continue to thrive if we only have a few people who can represent us or take on important projects. That’s true at TNTP and in education at large. To create sustainable career paths for talented educators—or TNTPers—we need to create opportunities for growth and put them in positions to be leaders.

Once upon a time, that’s what we did with a young Tim Daly. And it’s become a guiding principle in how we treat our family at TNTP, because we’ve seen it work again and again: Hold high standards, support our people and give folks a chance to stretch themselves. After all, it isn’t up to any external party—whether that’s a funder, a client or a peer organization—to define TNTP’s quality bar. That is our job, and if we make mistakes and give staff members roles and responsibilities they can’t hack, our reputation will suffer accordingly.

We aren’t always right. I realize that. And we won’t always be right when we continue with this strategy in the future. I feel strongly, though, that to cultivate talent, schools and organizations like ours need to set our own standards for the level of work we expect from our people. When we set the bar high, and make the standard very clear, most people rise to meet it. 

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About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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