Leaders: 4 Tips for “Grocery Store Conversations”

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“In calm waters many captains are able.  It is in a tempest when true leadership emerges.”  — Thomas Kohntopp


When you work in education, it is common to run into people in the community when you don’t expect it.  More often than not, these chance meetings are positive and give leaders a chance to showcase the great things going on in their schools.  For me, it’s the grocery store.  I know when I go the store, I see students, teachers, former teachers, parents of students and community members.  Conversations always end up touching on school.  Nothing wrong with that.  Comes with the territory of being a school leader.  As I said before, almost all of these conversations are positive and a great way to communicate our message.     

But there are also times when you encounter conversations that need to be more informative.  In these situations, the conversations center around smalltalk or addressing the “rumor mill” with questions and answers.  In either case, leaders need to prepare for these conversations.  What will you say?  Think about your body language.  How will you appear?  Will your tone be approachable?  We don’t usually think about these things when we head to the grocery store, but we need to as leaders.

As a leader, focus on painting the school, your staff and yourself in a positive light.  While you can’t predict questions or are aware of every rumor, you should always take precautionary steps when approaching the “grocery store conversations”:

Confidentiality and Transparency
  • Focus on confidentiality, but also transparency.  It’s important to answer questions and address rumors delicately.  Don’t breach confidentiality of students or staff.  Clearly explain the situation and where the school and administration stands on an issue.  Hopefully the party you are engaging will disseminate your message to others in a way that benefits you and the school and also clear up misunderstandings and rumors in the community.
    • When addressing questions or rumors, include statements such as, “I had not heard that, but I will definitely look into it and get back with you” or “Thanks for sharing that with me.  As an administrator, that is not what I want communicated to others.  From the school perspective,  here is what  we are doing…”  Let the other party know you were listening by being an active listener and address their question and/or rumor with confidentiality.  Get their information so you can get back to them if necessary.
    • There are also conversations with parents or other parties who want to know consequences a student received for his or her actions (especially if that parent’s student was involved in a situation).  It is important to not share this information but to also explain to parties why you can’t share the information regarding another student.  Communicate this message consistently throughout your career.

Remain Respectful of Your Team
  • Always remember you are a leader of a team and need to have a positive team culture.  Even if you feel a staff member didn’t handle a situation the best way possible, do not speak ill of them.  Listen and let the party know you are going to address the situation.  When you return to work, contact the staff member you need to speak with to get more information regarding the situation.  Inform the staff member regarding your conversation with the specific stakeholder and create a plan to rectify the situation if necessary.

Stay Calm and Carry On
  • Keep your emotions in check.  No matter how the conversation goes, always remain calm and keep your composure.  The minute you lose your composure, others will find out.  Remaining calm in public will help how others perceive you in your community.

You Can’t Know It All
  • It is fine if you need more information to address topic or situation.  As a leader, you are not going to know everything going on in your building every minute of the day.  Take the time to listen and inform the stakeholder you will get back with them when you have more information.  This will give you more time to get all of the information and provide more clarity for the stakeholder when you speak with them again.          

“Grocery Store Conversations” can make or break your leadership position if you don’t handle them the right way.  As James Humes once said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”  Share information and communicate your message.  Let your demeanor and ability to communicate with stakeholders be the flagship of your leadership.

This post is an excerpt from The Model Leader chapter in my new book Educational Leadership: The Rise coming soon.