Nine Professional Conversations to Change Our Schools

Nine Professional Conversations to Change our Schools:

A Dashboard of Options


William Sommers, Ph.D. Diane P. Zimmerman, Ph.D.

 As authors, when we first started having these kinds of conversations almost 40 years ago. We draw from our rich repertoire of experience with coaching and facilitating to describe frameworks that can be utilized as conversational anchor points. Time in schools is a limited resource and not to be wasted. So by making the conversational patterns explicit, as this book does, and working together to accelerate learning, educators will not only learn new ways of conversing, but how to make collaboration and professional learning more efficient, satisfying, and beneficial to student learning.

Each conversation has a specific structure that promotes effective communication on an arc—the Dashboard–from least directive to the most directive. On the left side, the process is more open and reflective.  At the highest point is Stakeholder Centered Coaching by Marshall Goldsmith, the premier executive coach and author of many books and articles.  This process involves getting data directly from those who are affected by their leaders.

As catalytic leaders, we have found that by believing that all “can and will” change, we always begin with listening and reflecting with the group.  Note these words are on the bottom left side of the arc.  On opposite side, note the words “can’t and won’t.”  As we learn more about the group and celebrate successes, we also become aware of dysfunctional responses. Over time, we begin to discover that a few “can’t or won’t” make the changes necessary to support the collaborative learning.

 All nine of the professional conversations listed on the outside of the arc promote collective efficacy in that they ask the participants to author and transform to create a best collective future.  Ultimately, it is the leaders of our systems that must step up to the plate and create cultures that set the context for these conversations to succeed. Small groups can easily adopt these conversational patterns and can influence others. Excellence promotes excellence. To transform a culture, however, the leaders must be able to initiate, participate, and model the productive behaviors. In sum, they must demonstrate “can and will” as well.

In the center of the Dashboard above the reader will see the goal of this book “Accelerating Collective Efficacy.” Under this title are some smaller arcs that show that stress pulls groups away from success. We draw from the adult development literature to assert that the antidote to this is to reduce stress by creating environments that bring forth the professional voice. The purpose of these conversations is to build collective efficacy, which we believe is done when groups learn to self-author their own future and to transform their thinking in the face of discrepant information.

“Organizations are made of conversations”—Ernesto Gore

A Crisis in Our Midst.  In our profession, a simmering crisis has been building; and yet, most educators do not even know what the crisis is and how dire the situation has become. The crisis is, as a profession, education has no consensus knowledge base about standards for excellence. Paraphrasing from Hargreaves and O’Connor, how we collaborate in a profession is about creating this deeper collaboration which advances our knowledge, skills, and our commitment to increasing learning.

The Knowing-Doing Gap, identified by Pfeffer and Sutton (1999) of Stanford, recognized that as knowledge has expanded, the leadership challenge had become one of how to turn knowledge into action. All professions require on the job learning and the gap between knowledge and doing continues to be problematic in all professions.  The “gap” identifies the paradox of inaction; even with knowledge, people will not act to change behaviors.

Pfeffer and Sutton found four problems that contributed to the know-doing gap, which apply to schools. First, when “talk substitutes for action,” schools tend to have the same conversations over and over. Second, “memory is substituted for thinking” when schools continue to plan for rituals that are no longer important, such as carnivals, spelling bees, or awards assemblies based on past history. The third cause of gaps is “fear that prevents acting on knowledge.”  In the introduction, we describe teachers who were afraid to speak up for fear of reprisals from peers. Yes, teachers can be our own worst critics.  A final cause of gaps is when “measurement obstructs good judgment.” Nowhere is this more evident than with high stakes testing.

From Knowing-Doing to Knowing-Doing-Learning Gap. Closing the knowing-doing-learning gap is not an event, but rather a process of continuous learning and reflection. Learning is an adaptive act requiring ongoing reflection about what we are coming to know and the impact on doing. For this reason, we prefer to use the term knowing-doing-learning gap.  Joyce and Showers (2002), in their book Student Achievement through Staff Development, studied the impact of professional development—specifically imparting knowledge, demonstration, and coaching—and found that coaching conversations led to 95% increase in learning. In other words, professional conversations have the power to close the gap, and that this happens through professional learning.  By adding learning to this term we signal to the intention which is to improve professional learning.  For this reason, we have added a fifth impediment to closing the knowing-doing-learning gap and that is the belief that “adult learning is private.”  It should be collective.  (See the WISE report on Collaborative Professionalism by Hargreaves and O’Connor).

  • The lack of collective learning shows up in schools that reward competition, and hence teachers do not share or see the value of working with colleagues. We would rather have examples of learning from everyone involved in schools.
  • You can see samples of other book summaries at and Sommers Summaries on Chris Coffey’s website.

Self-Authoring—The Critical Stage for Maturing Adults. Drago-Severson and her colleague, Blum-DeStefano, in their book, Tell Me So I Can Hear You (2016) use these stages diagnostically as part of the leadership-supervision process.  They provide a guide for structured conversations in which the coach or supervisor works with that person by matching language to the developmental levels.  They identify growth edges for each stage of development and honor both what is and the potential for growth. While we do not include those conversations in our dashboard, we want to point out that her work is a valuable contribution for coaches and supervisors, especially as they try to diagnose that critical juncture of moving from reflecting to directing. We refer those people to the books cited above.

Stakeholder Centered Coaching  – Expanding Consciousness. The major challenge of most executives is not understanding the practice of leadership—it is practicing their understanding of leadership. –Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith (2007) has worked with businesses all over the world to build reciprocal processes to help leaders learn what their constituents think about their actions through Stakeholder Centered Coaching.  Not only do leaders need honest feedback, they need to learn how to be ready to receive this feedback as well.  The problem with feedback, as we learned through Humble Inquiry, is that it is often not received as intended.  The challenge is that feedback is not always what was wanted. Even willing receivers are not always receptive to the feedback they receive. We have all had the experience of receiving unwanted feedback. A well-meaning friend gives us feedback and our internal voice responds, “Well that is not what I wanted to know.”  Yet, external feedback is often necessary as it exposes “blind spots” that need to be overcome if the leader is to grow.

Initially, Bill has used Stakeholder Centered Coaching to assist good leaders in becoming even better. Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There (2007), describes how to close the discrepancy between how direct reports view the leader and how the leader views him or herself.  The focus is on improving one or two leadership behaviors that may be getting in the way of accelerated performance for the leader and the organization.  Getting real feedback from those who report to the leader is critical in enhancing and sustaining capacity.

Stakeholder Centered Coaching breaks down the barriers by providing multiple data points.  Goldsmith found that the best way to bring about change was through data collected from stakeholders. Professionals need to realize that they have blind spots, which can include habitual mindsets that can keep them from seeing or understanding new information or how they are perceived.

 Goldsmith views it as a waste of valuable time and resources to coach someone who is unwilling to change and commit to improving their skills. As Marshall says, “I work with good people who want to get better.” Marshall Goldsmith is so committed to assuring that change happens that his firm will not take payment unless a final rating scale shows improvement. It should be noted that early in the process, when a person is not open to the feedback and change, the Goldsmith’s consultant will terminate the process.

Success can shut down thinking. Goldsmith writes,  “The trouble with success, it prevents us from achieving more success.” Once an answer that works is found, many quit looking for new answers.

Learning from our successes is as important as learning from our failures. The goal is to be more conscious of how our behaviors impact others both our successes and our failures. When professionals solicit this kind of data, engage in this kind of reflection, and then change accordingly, they model open, honest appraisals of behavior. By developing a culture that believes in continuous improvements, the conversations easily move towards the reflective posture.

Feedforward—An Open Habit of Mind. As Goldsmith (2007) points out:  “Getting feedback is the easy part. Dealing with it is hard.” Volumes have been written about feedback, and yet, it continues to be one of the least understood parts of the change process. Treat every piece of advice as a gift or a compliment and simply say, ‘Thank you.” No one expects you to act on every piece of advice; many are satisfied to know that you listened and taken the information seriously.  When leaders also use this feedback to shape behaviors, stakeholders notice. Ed Koch,


“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”   Ron Edmonds

Unrealized dreams come back to haunt us. Ron Edmonds said the above words in 1979, almost 40 years ago; and they are still germane. Bill and others continue to use this quote to challenge us to think about what it means.  Bill is direct, the question is no longer “Can we?” but rather “Will we?”

Our answer is unequivocally, “Yes, we will.” Let’s get started.  First and foremost, quality conversations matter, and this book is your launching pad to start authentic practice-based learning conversations. The hard work is left to you, the dedicated educators who will make a difference in how our teachers think about teaching and learning to create knowledge legacies.

This book is about LEARNING—both that simple and that difficult.  Learning is a dynamic process with continual cycles of re-engagement at deeper and deeper levels. The job of all—leaders and participants alike—is to serve as a catalyst to provoke this profound way of learning.  Purposeful attention to how we learn is even more important as the knowledge bases of our world both explode and implode.

Kegan and Lahey (2016) state “That the single biggest cause of work burnout is not work overload, but working too long without experiencing your own personal development.” In their book, An Everyone Culture, they chronicle how three businesses sustained the cultural focus on learning and progress.  They argue for a radical idea; the culture that stakeholders create, is the strategy. This is so important that we yell it out here. THE CULTURE WE CREATE IS THE STRATEGY.  Drucker (1990) also reminds us, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Paraphrasing from a poem by William Stafford, there is a thread we follow towards collective efficacy as we learn that anything is possible. Indeed, the possibilities often exceed expectations; others wonder how we did it. Collective efficacy is hard for others to see or even understand.  Our strength is in knowing that when we hold that thread we will never lose our path, despite it all, we always come back to our own capacity to adapt and learn.

In the end, strategies that do not change culture become fixed and non-adaptive. Adaptive strategies always expand. Look around your own situation.  Who are the ‘learning omnivores’ at your site? Who do you hang with–people who sap your energy or people who zap and energize you? Where you place your attention sends major signals about what you find important.

To change cultures takes courage.  In an interview with Dr. Dennis Peterson, Superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools said, when asked what do you look for in principals, he responded, “They have to be willing to have the hard conversations if they want to work for me.”  Dr. Peterson holds his leaders to the same high standard he holds himself.  That is why, although not used very much, there is a directive side to our dashboard to use when needed.  There are times when the school or district just isn’t working as effectively as needed.  Leadership has the responsibility to find out what is going on and take necessary action.

Culture affects the leaders.  Leaders affect the culture.  Everyone is responsible. Finally, we are optimistic because we were given the great gift of being part of many diverse learning-centered communities. Through these experiences, we learned new ways to think and act to find alignment and coherence; when this happens we experience joy—the joy of working with those who care and who make all the difference. Who are your most treasured learning omnivores that increase your learning?  When was the last time you thanked them?

We close with a quote from Angeles Arrien, a dear friend who passed away several years ago.  “If your job is to wake up the dead, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORK DAY.”  Namasté.