Happy New Year! Lang may your lum reek—or, in American English, may there always be a fire in your fireplace. New Year is a big holiday in my tradition, and I wish you all the best for 2020.

This Coaching Letter is your encouragement to join with Center staff, colleagues across Connecticut and friends around the world in a conversation about the Center’s latest Reading for Leading book club selection, How to Be An Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s a good way to begin the New Year.

A year or two ago, we (The Center) decided that we would host a book group. I can’t remember the original impetus, but the idea was that we would choose a book a couple of times a year and create opportunities for friends of the Center to talk about the books’ big ideas—ideas fundamental to the ethos of the Center.

The first book was Humble Inquiry, by Edgar Schein. Schein was a professor at MIT, and so when I moved to Connecticut I decided to contact him. He did some work with one of my graduate school peers, so I had a connection. But by then he had retired and moved to Palo Alto, so to my sadness I have not yet met him. His work is important to me because it connects the work of the Center with coaching and leadership. He punctures the conceit of the expert, warns of the dangers of giving advice, and instead advocates that leaders, consultants—everyone, really—be more focused on asking good questions in service of the person or organization you are trying to help. Here’s a kind of geeky video of Professor Schein on YouTube.

That first round of book discussion was on Google+. Initially I was disappointed because only about a dozen people contributed to the online discussion, and so I assumed that not many people read the book. But I was wrong about that. It became clear over the next few months, from email, text, and f2f conversations, that lots of people did read the book, they just weren’t particularly interested in the online thing. Fair enough.

Same with the second book, Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke—not much online participation, but clearly a lot of people read the book, and I still hear people talk about it. She is a cognitive psychologist and a champion poker player and an engaging writer. She tells good stories and makes you think about your thinking—which, as we know from writers such as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow), Richard Thaler (Misbehaving) and Gary Klein (Sources of Power), is extremely lazy for very good reasons. (Under no circumstances should you read Richard Robb’s new book, it’s dreadful.) Among Duke’s many insights is that you can sharpen your thinking by, when you are ready to make a statement or a decision, asking yourself, “How much would I bet on that?” Some other links to Duke and her work: Profile of Annie Duke in the New Yorker; Annie Duke’s Talk at Google; Annie Duke’s Newsletter. You might also enjoy Liv Boeree’s TED Talk (another poker player’s take on decision-making).

Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization was the third book. By this time, Google had taken Google+ offline, which was a shame because it was a really good platform for a book discussion. This time we had the enormous good fortune of having Professor Edmondson participate in a synchronous virtual book chat via Zoom—which was great because it meant that we could host a f2f at the Center and others who couldn’t make it to Hartford could also join virtually. We also encouraged participation via Twitter, but that was definitely a flop—280 characters at a time is not conducive to a discussion about big ideas.

Professor Edmondson’s work looks at, broadly speaking, how the success of an organization is tied to the ability of the organization to learn and, more specifically, the role of teaming, failure, and psychological safety in promoting that learning. The Fearless Organization is a great book, and so is Teaming. In addition, the links that I’ve provided in The Coaching Letter to Professor Edmondson’s work are among the most popular links ever. Here are the ones that have been clicked the most: Interview of Professor Edmondson on Adam Grant’s Work And Life podcast; HBR article, “Your Strategy Should Be A Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust”; video, “Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace”; and another video, “Building Teams that Learn”.

We chose How to Be an Anti-Racist for a couple of main reasons. First, so many of the districts we are working with are focused on issues of equity right now. There are several really great books that have been published in the last few years regarding some aspect of equity. Among them are White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; Biased, by Jennifer Eberhardt; and Unconscious Bias in Schools by Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman. How to Be an Anti-Racist stands out in the way that it challenges some mainstream ideas about what we mean by racism. Second, Kendi’s language is particularly clear and striking, which was very appealing when we see organizations struggle to find clarity in an issue where language is particularly fraught.

How to Be an Anti-Racist is not specifically about education, so here is a thoughtful article about how the ideas in the book applies to schools, from KQED. There are tons of videos of Professor Kendi if you Google him: here’s a long-form interview of Professor Kendi at the Aspen Ideas Festival. His personal story is as moving as his work is compelling.

We have fallen behind the initial schedule for the book club, which is my fault—we’ve been extremely busy, and figuring out how to replace Google+ took a bit of time. We’re going to go with Goodreads, so to join the group click on this link. You’ll need to join Goodreads if you’re not already a member, but you can sign in/sign up with your Google, Twitter, or Amazon account. Let me know if you need any help navigating the process. So please start reading! I’ll send out more details about the discussion soon.

I have big hopes for 2020; I hope you do too. At the same time, I know that stress and worry are not far away, so if there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. All the very best for the New Year, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Email: istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Website: http://ctschoolchange.org/
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org

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