Five Lessons for Leaders from Montessori

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Employee engagement in the US has just hit a new all-time low.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 30% of workers are “engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.”  The other 70% have checked out or are actively disengaged.  The cost of this loss of potential is estimated at $550 billion annually.  What can you do about it?  Here are five lessons for leaders, borrowed from Montessori, a revolutionary method of education which achieves notably higher levels of engagement amongst students.

  1. Make work harder.  The massive underpinning of Montessori is intrinsic motivation.  People are wired to want to solve problems and tackle challenges.  Everyone loses interest if work is too easy.  Are your employees spending a majority of time doing repetitive tasks that could be automated or eliminated altogether?  Challenge your team to find ways to stop the madness and use their time to take on bigger problems.
  2. Ask questions rather than providing answers.  Rich Sheridan, co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, tells a great story about the time his eight-year-old daughter came to work for the day. Her observation?  You tell people what to do all day.  Rich’s revelation was that he was a bottleneck.  Rich changed his approach, and you can too.  Get out of the way.  Challenge your team by asking questions and offering resources rather than giving the answers.
  3. Create an environment where people want to be.  As part of a client engagement to improve workplace culture, I toured a pharmaceutical plant where workers toiled in dingy grey cubes and tiny offices without windows.  Meanwhile, the cafeteria had big glass windows overlooking the scenic surrounding hillsides.  Employees spent seven hours in the dingy part, and one hour in the nice part.  I suggested relocating everyone to the cafeteria.  What shifts could you make to make your space make inviting?
  4. Take time to see.  Montessori teachers are keen observers.  Most of their time in the classroom is spent listening, not talking.  Teachers intervene when necessary, offer new opportunities when appropriate, and remark on progress made.  Are you truly aware of what’s going on with your team?  Do you know who needs a new challenge?  Do you comment on the good things you see?
  5. Be an advocate for resources.  Montessori schools lack textbooks, offering instead a wide range of materials and real-world resources in the community as the tools of learning and growth.  Does your team have what it needs to succeed?  Ask.  Find out what it would take for your team to unleash its potential, and then figure out a way to provide it.

Pam Daniels is an innovator, designer, and writer based in Chicago.  She has held leadership positions at Leo Burnett, Starcom MediaVest Group, and IDEO.  Her upcoming book, Designed to Thrive: How Montessori methods are transforming the workplace tells the story of innovative organizations who are leading the way.


It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder


I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked-about book, Lean In.  When I was part of a collective of leaders at IDEO grappling with issues related to people & culture, one particular struggle was coming up with an alternate metaphor to replace the notion of a career ladder.   We never quite figured it out, but I’m delighted to report that someone has.  Sheryl credits Pattie Sellers, a senior editor at Fortune, with having conceived of the notion of careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder.  Sounds about right to me.  A few quotes I love discussing this concept:

“Ladders are limiting– people can move up or down, on or off.  Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.  There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.”

“Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.  On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”

Which better describes your work life? Has your career been a vertical ladder (perhaps with a great rear view), or more like a playful and challenging jungle gym?

The Art of Facilitating

Good facilitating is an art.  A skilled, well-prepared facilitator will bring the best out of a crowd of people and lead the way to dynamic and interesting dialogue. From what I have seen, the common pitfalls of poor facilitators tend to fall in one of two camps.  The first is the mousy facilitator who just sort of stands there and never intervenes– yammering people go on too long, the conversation drifts way off topic, and the facilitator is a wallflower who just watches it happen.  At the other end of the spectrum is the facilitator who has way too much to say and acts as a super-participant, chiming in and adding his or her opinion as a flavoring to anything which is said.  Neither is appropriate.  What is?  I’m so glad you asked.  Here are my tips on effective facilitating.

fa·cil·i·tate /fəˈsiliˌtāt/

to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.)

The work of a facilitator is to guide a group’s conversation forward.  This involves balancing the voices in the room—drawing out the more reluctant participants and preventing outspoken people from dominating the dialogue .  It also typically includes having a prepared list of thought-starter questions and/or exercises to engage the participants and gently re-centering on the topic when things go off course.  Effective facilitators are not generally participants in the conversation; they are the hosts who strive to get the most productive conversation to happen.

[room preparation]

Round tables are always better for conversation than rectangular ones if they are available.  Having markers and folded card stock on the tables for people to create name cards can be helpful.  It may be useful to have large easels with paper to summarize key points as people contribute.  A visual record of the conversation helps people feel they have been heard and allows dialog to move forward once a point has been made.


Welcome participants to the room.  Invite people to sit down and write their names on folded card stock so it is visible to others.  Once everyone is gathered, introduce yourself and invite others to do the same.  You may choose to ask people to share a fun or interesting fact about themselves (which may or may not be related to topic of conversation) to get people warmed up. Use names whenever possible throughout the session.


Here are a few useful phrases for managing the conversation.

“Tell me more about that” // the essential facilitator phrase to encourage dialog without introducing any judgment.  (often effective with teenage kids too—try it!)

“What did you notice (about the film, exercise, etc.)?” // way to get people to respond to something without getting stuck on likes/dislikes

“Good discussion.  Let’s refocus.” // a way to redirect dialog from a tangent to main topic

“Who haven’t we heard from yet?” // elegant way to invite new voices into the conversation and quiet the dominators

“One more comment on this, then we have to move on.” // respectfully keeps things moving

“Great question.  Let’s talk about that.”  // a way to shift topic

“It seems like X and Y have two different opinions on this.  Let’s capture them both.”  // validates opposing views and ensures both feel heard

“OK, let’s talk about this as a larger group.”  or “Let me gather you back in if I could.” // way to quiet side conversations and draw them back into the group dialog.  Most effective if you walk over to where the side conversation is taking place in the room.

“I appreciate that feedback.  Others have found this useful so let’s give it a try.” // a great alternative to apologizing if a participant is less-than-enthusiastic about any of your approaches or exercises.


“We have about ten more minutes for conversation.  Are there any final areas we should explore together today/tonight?”  // As the closing time nears, let people know that you are aware of the time so people don’t get anxious about being delayed past the stated end time.

“There has been a lot of great participation today.  Thank you for coming.” // gracious hosting 101 and a signal to your participants that you are wrapping up

 “We encourage you to…” OR “You can engage more with this issue at [next event].” // Consider closing with a call to action.  Are you hoping people will take next steps?  What are they?

“I’d invite you to share contact information with one another so you can continue to work on these issues together.” //  If you are hoping people will stay in contact with one another to take action, invite participants to trade contact information with one another.

“Thanks again everyone.”  //  pat yourself on the back and smile– well done!

{click to download PDF of Effective Facilitating Tips}

© October 2012 by Pam Daniels. All rights reserved.

Reflections on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, mom, and former Director of Policy at the U.S. State Department, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (click link to read the article).  Many of my friends shared the article with me, and it has struck such a chord that it is being brought up in my circles of conversation as simply The Atlantic article.   As in: have you seen the Atlantic article?  What do you think?  So here, dear reader, is what I think.  I think I am lucky to have had my two children while I was in my late twenties.  I had enough professional experience to be considered an asset at work, and was not so well paid that I had much to lose in asking for what I wanted, which was a three-day work week.  At that age, I was still naïve enough to think the world would have an interest in bending to my needs and had the nerve to ask for what I wanted, and not apologetically either. Conventional wisdom at the company at that time was that you could work a reduced schedule if you were willing to step back in responsibility (i.e. give up a management role).  I approached the department head, said I didn’t think that the policy made a lot of sense since the company probably wants people to contribute to the highest levels of their ability, and to continue to develop that ability over time.  Why would you want people who are good at leading to stop leading?  And with that, I asked for what I wanted, which was this:  A three-day workweek.  Compensation in line with work schedule (60% time = 60% pay).  Full benefits.  Retention of current title and role (with a narrowed client list).  Consideration for future promotions.  Full eligibility for annual bonus.  And guess what?  I got it.  It made total sense to me then, as it does now.  Except that now I know how utterly unusual it is for such a proposal to be accepted.  But it was accepted, and not by a touchy-feely leader, either.  He was the kind of guy who had the ability to distill everything down to its raw essence– a person who inspired admiration and fear in equal measure.  His reply to my request was this: “You’re telling me I have a choice between three days a week and zero?  [to which I sheepishly nodded yes] Then I’ll take three.”  It was clear-cut and simple, as he later explained at an all-company meeting.  Given a choice between losing a strong performer and retaining one, he would choose keeping one.  An easy decision to make.

I worked a three-day schedule for a dozen years, and quite often, people outside the organization would comment on how lucky I was.  I was always quick to point out that the company was lucky too:  I was a bargain at 60% salary, and the arrangement benefitted us both.  What pleased me greatly was that my work arrangement did not remain a one-off special case.  Though I pioneered the concept which became known as “part-time professional,” many others, men and women, also opted for reduced schedules.  Some devoted time to raising children, others to graduate school or other pursuits.  It became possible to continue to perform a challenging role at work and to participate significantly in life outside of the office too.

Making work a part of my life portfolio but not my whole pie gave me time to invest in my community.  I participated in boards and committees, got to know my neighbors, and spent long hours seeing the world anew through the eyes of my young children.  Often this involved examining small rocks and marveling at them like treasured jewels or watching highways of ants busily marching from one side of the sidewalk to another.  Later it became answering awkward questions about “family living” (our town’s euphemism for sex ed) while driving the kids to activities after school.   The ability to be engaged in so many ways with so much of life made me show up joyfully wherever I was.  I would like to think that this was ultimately a very good thing for everyone involved: happy woman, happy work team, happy family.

But as I have gotten older and experienced other workplaces, I have been less likely to ask for what I want.  I wonder how much our demons of self-doubt as women get in the way of us standing up for ourselves.  George Bernard Shaw said that the unreasonable man “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”   I think I was more brash in my twenties and figured the world should bend to my needs when I suggested a three day schedule and got it.  I was more comfortable being “unreasonable.”  As I have gotten more seasoned, I have a better sense of the long odds and risks associated with bucking convention.  Plus as I have advanced in salary and title, the stakes have gotten higher.  I have much more to lose.  So despite the expansion of my influence and status, I am less apt to use it. How unfortunate.

It seems to me that the question we should really be asking in the perennial debate about “having it all” is how we might make it easier for each of us to contribute to the very best of our abilities, and in a measure appropriate for the portfolio of activities which compose our life.  We seem to be mired in institutionalized systems and structures which fail dismally at meeting the needs of people.  If we are to change that, articulating our needs and having the nerve to be unreasonable might be precisely what is call for.  And even better if we do so with the head-held-high confidence that doing so will be a gift for everyone.

Keeping it Real

As part of Chicago Ideas Week leading up to TEDxMidwest, I had the
opportunity to visit 37 Signals,a Chicago-based software firm, and
meet co-founder Jason Fried. Jason is also co-author of the book
Rework, which was published last March and writes Inc.’s Get Real

Jason is an interesting guy, and I though others might like to hear a
bit of what he said:

37 Signals believes in staying small – they have just 9 developers and
5 designers. They typically pair 2 programmers with one designer to
create a feedback loop for broaching the inevitable tradeoffs which
occur in product development

Jason’s leadership style can be boiled down to this: get to know
people, find out what matters to them, and give them interesting
things to do. Everyone occasionally rotates through product support
to both build empathy and stay in touch with customers.

It’s consistent actions which define a culture.

It’s important that companies have a point of view… Be honest and
open about what you believe in. It’s going to turn some people off an
light up others. That’s OK.

It’s about principles and not plans.

People get hired at 37 signals by doing a week-long project for which
they are paid $1500. They also use a personality test called Caliper
to evaluate fit of candidates.

Career paths are flat. It’s not the right place for people who want
to be managers. 37 Signals values people who are good at their craft
and want to keep doing it. Salaries keep going up so people are paid
like managers, but keep doing the work they love to do.

Product roasts were recently initiated inviting all to poke fun at
current offerings. More here

His closing thoughts? Solve real problems, not imaginary ones.

© October 2011 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.

Best. Rejection. Ever.

There’s an outstanding children’s theater company in the town where we live. My kids just came home from auditions, and brought with them this fantastic note I’d like to share.

“We urge disappointed actors to remember that a cast list is not a judgment on you or a ranking of acting talent; it is just the director’s imperfect attempt to match the actors who auditioned to the roles available. Not everyone is right for every part or every show. So if you try out and don’t make it, please DON’T GIVE UP. Come back and try out for our next show. Or to heck with us—try out for shows at school or other theaters. Take an acting or improv class. Theater is for everybody, and a cast list cannot define who you are or what you can become.”

If there’s a way to bolster people through a rejection, I think this might be it. Kudos to the very talented and kind-spirited Andrew and Mike, directors at Mudlark Theater Company. If only all thanks-but-no-thanks notes were crafted with such care!

© September 2011 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.

Dandelion Chains and Such

I’ve been reflecting on a piece I read recently in The New Yorker.  In an article entitled ‘A Woman’s Place,’ the role of women in leadership is explored through the personal story of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

One of the key elements of this article and so many others on the topic of women in leadership is that women need to be more assertive.  So often that comes across to me as “be more like leaders as we know them today, i.e. be more like men.” Is that really true?  I’m all for women being assertive if that’s what they wish to be.  I am also in favor of valuing the classic feminine traits of being nurturing and helping others succeed, and find the world sorely in need of this approach to leadership.  It seems to me that the big opportunity for women is not so much to adapt to the work world as it is currently defined but rather to redefine the objectives and rules themselves.  We did this on the playground.  While boys generally ran around roughhousing and enacting zero-sum games where one side won and the other lost, girls looked on bewildered, choosing instead to initiate more collaborative games like hopscotch or jump rope, or to sit together and create something of beauty by making dandelion chains in the grass.  When we were younger, we were sure of ourselves and the superiority of our choice.  Boy games just didn’t make a lot of sense, and we would create our own games, thank you very much.  But then as life goes on we too often forget our inner girl wisdom, and come to believe we should join in the typical boy games, and play by boy rules.  We give up valuing our approach.

Perhaps the thing is not to admonish women to be more assertive.  What if we instead began to truly honor women as they are and build up one another’s confidence in having a different point of view?  What if we regained that sense of certainty that our approach is totally valid?  How might the wisdom of women help shape what leadership even looks like?  By valuing our distinct approach to life and work, we might help everyone—male and female—to bring their unique gifts to the table and remake the world for the better.

And by the way… I know boys who make darn good dandelion chains too.

© July 2011 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.