017 Shifting Culture and Getting Big Things Done – Josh Bell of Teach for America

Aug 1, 2017

Too Often Putting Out Fires

Josh Bell is the Executive Director of Teach for America – South Carolina. In this episode of Concord Leaders, Josh shares about how his views of leadership have changed over the years, going from being the only employee to being a leader of a team. He shares about working on changing the culture after realizing, “I wouldn’t want to go to work here.”

You can find more about Teach for America at https://teachforamerica.org/

The Concord Leaders episode with Daniel McCormack referenced in this conversation can be found at: https://concordleadershipgroup.com/podcast/004-creating-line-sight/

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CLP017 Josh Bell – Shifting Culture and Getting Big Stuff Done (PDF)
Marc Pitman: Welcome to the Conquered Leaders podcast. I’m Marc Pitman, the CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today, I am thrilled to have Josh Bell, the executive director of Teach for America in South Carolina on the line with us. Josh and I met a few months ago at a conference here in Greenville, South Carolina, and I just loved his perspective and his insight into leadership and leading in today’s non-profit. So, Josh, thanks so much for being here.

Josh Bell: Yeah, Marc, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for asking me.

Marc Pitman: And I’m really glad we’ve had some good … Pursued this. This is a good case study and follow up for both of us to get our calendars together. So, this is great. One of the things that I love asking guests is what do you love about leadership or being in a position of leadership?

Josh Bell: I love almost everything about leadership, and that answer’s probably changed a lot over time, because the more I realize about what it takes to get big and hard things done, the more I realize that everybody plays such a crucial role in it, and I think in our society we sort of conflate the importance of the head of the organization, which is the role that I have right now. But what I love is seeing talented, brilliant, diverse people on our team, and working together, get really big things done, and I’ve got a unique role to play, right. It’s helping people dream maybe a little bit differently or a little bigger.

It’s thinking creatively about bringing the resources to get the big things done, and I’ve tried to take more and more of a backseat because I really want to create leaders who are ready to step in and step up. So, it’s evolved a lot, but I really do … I enjoy figuring out what is my role, and what is my unique and most valuable contribution, which is pretty freeing, because I used to think that leaders had to do it all and worry about it all, and that’s just not the way I think about it anymore.

Marc Pitman: That’s a really cool growth process as you’ve been in leadership. One of the things when you were saying the giving them, helping them dream bigger, thinking creatively, I think getting the resources to support their work. Part of what I heard implicitly, and I’d love your response on this, is it almost sounds like you’re … As a leader, you’re giving people permission.

Josh Bell: Yeah, but I even think part of what I’ve realized is that it wouldn’t get done well or at all without them. So, it’s not even … I think permission or empowerment or whatever is like a false … It’s like a false construct, because I was employed, number one, for Teach for America South Carolina. So, I actually have been the person doing it all, and I know for sure balls get dropped, follow throughs not good, things aren’t … There’s just a limit on what you can get done, so many hours in the day. I actually now come to see it differently, which is we cannot accomplish great things unless you own it, right.

Unless you are leading, unless you are doing the things which only you can do and bringing your strengths and skills and stuff to this. So, with that, it has created a lot of humility in me, because I realized that not only can I not take credit, it’s my responsibility to help them realize their greatness, their potential. It’s been a real growth process, though, you’re right about that.

Marc Pitman: That’s interesting. I love helping the idea of helping them realize their greatness and their growth. That’s really neat. As you’ve indicated, and so often, we know, with leadership, it doesn’t always go perfectly. So, when’s a time when something didn’t go according to your plan or what you’d expected, and how did you deal with it?

Josh Bell: So many times. I really think that for me, the kind of crucible moment in my leadership … And I’m still pretty early in my career, so I know I’ll have more. We had a team of really smart, talented people. If you talked to any of them individually about their work or about their talents, I mean, they were so impressive. But collectively, something was not clicking, and I sort of kept my head in the sand for a while about it until I reached sort of a point where it was so obvious that our culture was just not healthy. It was not defined, right, so it was not like I wasn’t leading, or our leadership team hadn’t really defined and set expectations around how we would do the work that we do.

So, there were just some really negative tendencies about our work culture and about how it felt to come to work for people, and so taking that on and being pretty vulnerable about the fact that first of all, I don’t know how to transform a culture. That’s a big undertaking. So, relying on the team, relying on the leadership, engaging with some consultants from Teach for American nationally to come and help us think about that. It was a month long process, but I think the first step was just admitting that this isn’t the kind of place that I want to work either, and I kept my head in the sand about that for too long. It was a pretty defining moment in my leadership, for sure.

Marc Pitman: Well, that’s interesting, because I run into that, surprisingly, a lot, and I think that’s probably one of the impotences for starting this podcast is that many leaders that I work with under coaching capacity are almost blindsided that they don’t like the place that they work, and there isn’t an element of feeling like the [inaudible 00:06:03] for them, but there’s not a sense of I don’t know how to change this, and sometimes it’s a rogue board that can be really toxic.

But what were some … You mentioned your own role and then the team’s role and consultant’s role, your own role as saying there’s an issue here, and being vulnerable to that, and then turning to the team and then having some outside help too. But I’m wondering, what were some of the things that you … How did you bring this up to the team? That kind of vulnerability isn’t always easy in the way our culture organizes leadership.

Josh Bell: It’s true, and I didn’t bring it up. I mean, I think that’s what so interesting. When I finally realized that there was such challenge, it was because my manager, our leadership team, members of our staff who had the courage to share that with me, it was them, right, and I think that’s what’s so interesting about it, is everybody else could see it. So, that is interesting that you’ve seen that too in other leaders, because there is a feeling of some failure or humiliation about that, because the worst parts of our culture, I didn’t actually feel like were tendencies that I had in my leadership.

So, that what’s what was so confusing about it, is that I felt like I actually modeled a lot of the way that you would want team members to operate, and I realized that that’s not the most important part. The most important things that I needed to do were to set out how will we operate? What are our values? What are the ways in which we’re going to do the work and celebrate the people who are already doing it that way? I think we spend our time as leaders not only putting out fires, but with staff members or problematic people, and even if that’s only 10% of your team and then you give that 90% of your energy instead, I just … We started celebrating the things that were going really well, holding that up, calling them out as models. In some ways, that often meant exiting those problematic folks over time, but without a clear set of cultural values that we’re operating against, there’s no bar to say you’re not meaning it, right. That process was where we made the most progress, I think.

Marc Pitman: When you say exiting, you mean helping them find that their home wasn’t there in the organization?

Josh Bell: Yeah, not right now, because it changes. I think that’s the other thing. Some of those folks … That really helped me think differently about, you’ve probably seen before, like a values and performance matrix. You can have a top performer, but if they are culture neutral or culture distractors, you got to help them find somewhere else. Often, if the culture needs to shift, it’s a question of whether they want to contribute to the forward progress and not what they’ve done in the past, but what they’re going to do going forward.

Marc Pitman: Well, that is excellent. Really good reminder for everybody listening. I know in an earlier episode with Daniel McCormick, from the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis foundation in Illinois, he has a whole episode on helping … Well, not a whole episode, but it’s called Creating a Line of Sight, and part of it is having that tough conversation with people, and just like you said, about the culture. His reflection has been over the years. They know it’s coming before he does, and they’ve likely already been searching too, before he is able to say look, you’re … This isn’t a good fit, and I have to go through all the HR things to do that too.

But wow. Josh, I knew it was going to happen this way, but we’ve already filled up our time. I know we could talk for hours and hours because there’s so much more that I love about your perspective on leadership. With this, I just want to say thank you so much for contributing to this episode of Concord Leaders. I know people are going to want to listen to this again, and we can do that at https://concordleadershipgroup.com/podcasts/, but as we kind of round out this episode, is there anything that you’d recommend people do immediately, right now, once they’ve stopped listening?

Josh Bell: Draw the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, I think it’s called, from President Eisenhower, and map out important on one axis, and urgent on the other, and figure out the things that you’re doing that are not important and not urgent, and stop doing those, and spend more of your time on the things that are important, but not urgent. I find that that is the best use of my time as a leader, and those are the things that just … They’re not the most urgent, they’re not … You’re not getting red exclamation emails without them, but it’s a long term strategy. It’s the planning, it’s the relationship building, it’s the thinking time that is just where we can make the most traction as leaders, I think, and we don’t give ourselves the space to do that enough. So, find important, not urgent things, and do those.

Marc Pitman: Well, thank you, Josh, because most of the time after this podcast for me is wrestling with an inbox that has the angry exclamation marks and what I know is important but not urgent. So, thank you. I know I’m going to be putting your recommendation into practice immediately today. Thank you so much. Where can people find out more about Teach for America South Carolina?

Josh Bell: Yeah. On our Teach for America website, and you can learn about the organization nationally, which works across the country, developing leaders to commit to educational equity, and find out about everywhere we work, including here in South Carolina on that website, teachforamerica.org.

Marc Pitman: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Josh. Until next time, everyone, remember that healthy non-profits start with healthy leaders.

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