Bring Your Whole Self to Work, and Others Will Too

As school leaders face another summer of employee “churn,” it is essential to ensure everyone feels comfortable in the school community to improve their chances of retention.

Jul 12, 2022  |  By Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

A few weeks ago, I led a leadership session at the NBOA Business Officer Institute that focused on two key messages: the importance of authenticity and empathy as fundamental leadership traits. It is imperative for leaders, and frankly, everyone within an independent school or association, to have the opportunity to present their most authentic selves each day they show up to work. If we need to further the business case for our investment in diversity, equity and inclusion, look no further than understanding the outcomes of an environment that cultivates authenticity: individuals will contribute their best work to the organization, and they’ll be less likely to leave.

A recent article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “More Authentic Workplaces Lead to Better Retention, Productivity,” shares evidence that backs this up. Author Katie Navarra points to the ramifications of a workplace where people cannot feel valued as themselves: “Low performers will grip their chairs and cling to the job, whether they feel [valued] in the workplace or not. But high performers can find new positions elsewhere, and they know it.” In the current employment environment, no independent school can afford to lose the highest quality teachers who deliver the missions of our schools in the classroom every day.

Equity, where everyone receives the resources they need to succeed, and consistency, where everyone knows what to expect and feels they are treated fairly, are both key to our work, but can be at odds.

The article outlines five strategies to create a culture that supports authenticity, which are on point for independent schools at this time.

  1. Remain fair and consistent. Equity, where everyone receives the resources they need to succeed, and consistency, where everyone knows what to expect and feels they are treated fairly, are both key to our work, but can be at odds. The author cites the words of Gregory & Appel insurance consultant Karl Ahlrichs: “Consistency is a relatively rigid set of patterns… while fairness often means being adaptable.” This balance requires schools to apply clear and transparent policies across the board, but also understand nuances regarding each individual’s situation that may require flexibility. The goal is to create an environment of trust and openness whereby faculty and staff will be seen and heard for who they are.
  2. Lead the way. As with many cultural issues in our schools, the tone for authenticity is set at the top by the leadership team. In an authentic culture, leaders speak openly not only about their successes but even more importantly, their failures. The vernacular we use at NBOA is “fabulous failures.” We learn as much from initiatives that did not meet our goals as from those that do. Also important is modelling work/life balance by taking time off and tending to important family and personal matters. This is critical to our continued health and wellness.
  3. Provide civility training. Candid and constructive feedback is essential to a healthy and authentic work environment. Dedicated training can make that feedback easier to deliver and to hear. In the supercharged and often hyperbolic political and media environment we live in today, our schools have the potential to be an oasis for idea sharing and constructive disagreement that advances our schools and values the ideas of everyone.
  4. Support active listening. A culture that values listening, even when there’s a lot of “noise” and it is hard to hear, is one that grows trust and produces results. I have found myself saying, “I heard what you had to say, and I want to tell you how it landed with me.” This language helps me open dialogue that fosters trust and clarifies the difference between someone’s words and their intentions. Again, word choice in the current environment can be easily and quickly misunderstood, even triggering, but assuming good intentions and asking for clarification can be liberating and far more productive.
  5. Focus on inclusion. With this final tip, we have come full circle. An authentic environment allows individuals to participate and connect with each other, not necessarily at the same depth, but at everyone’s optimum level of comfort. Creating that space, and, yes, inviting individuals into the conversation when appropriate, can help build connectedness across the team, knowing everyone’s full self is valued.

As we start a new fiscal year, I’m grateful for the opportunity this CEO Notebook blog affords, to share insights and readings that I find valuable to my work as a lifelong learner and leader. This latest article certainly resonated with me, and I hope you find it useful and supportive of your work at your schools. Here’s to bringing our whole selves to our schools and allowing others to do the same! Our mission, faculty, staff and students will certainly benefit from the ability to truly be themselves.


Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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