Conversation Transcript:

Suzie: Cory, you had mentioned something about your leadership team and how you spend time with them. Tell me again what your first step was with the FISH! Philosophy.

Cory: So we really wanted a heavy reinforcement with the leadership team, really thinking about the investments starting with the top. Really going back to building those relationships and we talked about how I frequently meet with the leadership team. We’re together every Wednesday morning for an hour or two and we’re reflecting, we’re building. But we weren’t really intentionally building relationships. And I think that’s another word: intentional. Really intentionally building those relationships and we were amazed just about how little we knew about each other. So thanks to the FISH! Philosophy and the engagement and the passion, we were really able to build those relationships and we learned things about each other that we really didn’t know beforehand.

Suzie: Great! That’s such a great foundation for starting anything or any relationship. You have to actually get to know each other. So how did FISH! help you do that?

Cory: So through some of the videos, we kept on revisiting some of the videos and then we were doing Ice Breakers or team builders. So every week we did a little bit of a different scenario and we always reinforce the “fun” element. We always reinforce the fun because we’re having a lot of, again I use the word “heavy”, a lot of heavy conversations: opioid misuse, domestic violence. And I know we need to have those conversations but being in early education, I said, “I wanna have fun! These kids wanna have fun, and teachers wanna have fun!” So really thinking about the passion we really want to have fun and we just started playing games and going back to play – the element of play.

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Suzie: So great! You meet weekly with the leaders, right? I’d love to hear what some of those examples of “Play” are because I think in an organization or in a work environment, play can seem a little overwhelming or difficult, you know. It’s interesting how we separated work from fun and work should be fun right?

Cory: Absolutely.

Suzie: So what are some of those other things that you do?

Cory: Give me a second, please.

Suzie: Sure.

Cory: So this (hoberman sphere) has become one of my favorite – OH! Of course! I should have known you had one! So this has been helpful. I’m very fidgety and we’ve been talking about our nuances, even working with adults and children. We’ve also been doing a lot of mindfulness. We’ve been doing a lot of wellness and mindfulness with the staff. We’ve been listening to them, and our philosophy has really been “putting on your own oxygen mask first”. How can you take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself? So we’re really investing in staff wellness, going back to that fun element. So we can sit there during meetings and we’re doing breathing: breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. So it’s a nice visual. We did an activity we’ve been reinforcing and sometimes we try to align it with some of the curriculum that we’re doing. So I gave everybody some Legos and I said, “Make a duck”. There was no way to make a duck, it doesn’t have to look like my duck, but we all played with Legos and we all made our variation of ducks. Play-Doh has been a big hit. We’ve been playing with Play-Doh and then also the reflective piece. Sometimes we’ll watch a FISH! video or some type of engagement piece and we’ll watch the video. And then we’ll reflect upon it. We’ll talk about best practices and what changes can be made.

Suzie: So great! I mean this information is really helpful because it is that reflective practice and also the discussion that happens along with those things. I think that would also help you get to know each other based on what they bring to the table. So that’s with your leaders. Have you rolled out FISH! to your staff?

Cory: Slowly, but surely. I say slowly because we’ve been in the hybrid world so a lot of our get togethers have been virtual. Typically, we get together for Professional Development days. Thanks to FISH! and the employee engagement, our Professional Development days are now “Wellness” days. We’re doing training and I’m referring to this as I say to the trainers, “I wanna give the staff tools for their toolbox”, so to speak. So this is a training. Take a tool for your toolbox. But a lot of just with the trainings, it’s now Wellness. How are you taking care of yourself? We are doing arts and crafts during Professional Development Wellness Days. Now we’re doing more of the fun things. So again, we’re having those heavy conversations for outcomes for PD outcomes, but we’re going back to the fun element of building relationships and really just going back and having a good time; going back to the simplicity of it.

Suzie: Oh, it is so simple. It’s simple but it’s hard.

Cory: The virtual world made it a little bit challenging but I think it gave us a perspective to put on a new lens. You know, let’s see things differently because I think in the future we may have a little bit of a hybrid model. If we ever had to go back to this virtual world or we could use it as a back up, we still have some tools and some activities we can still utilize.

Suzie: Yes. You said “use a different lens” and I like to rephrase that as “Choose Your Attitude” because that hybrid situation was sort of forced upon us, and that was out of our control.
And so we just need to figure out how we’re gonna move forward in that situation and now you’re better equipped if it should (God willing it doesn’t) but if it should happen again. I think with your experience, you know that your team can help bring ideas to the table.

Cory: Exactly.

Suzie: You create that fun along with it. I’m imagining what they’re doing behind the screens with their Play-doh in front of them and what kinds of great things that they’re creating there, too.

Cory: Exactly.

Suzie: So what’s next for you on your FISH! journey?

Cory: So we’ve been looking at the data. You know a big piece of my work is the data reinforcement, quality improvement piece, which includes the Professional Development. So listening and, again, actively listening to the Staff, saying what can we do for you, how can we take better care of each other? So our action plan for the next year: we’re really excited for our pre-service come this fall. We are going to have an in-person celebration and it’s going to be all the FISH! all over again. So we’re going to do lots of FISH! activities and we’re going to have our big first celebration altogether. But also with the data right now, with the employee engagement piece and staff Wellness right now they have a water challenge that they’re doing with each other. We just started Zumba, we have a mindfulness club, we have a book club going on. And this is all happening on work time. We’re really investing in staff Wellness so that they can do this on work time. Again, going back to building those relationships. So we heard from them. We asked, “What do you want to do?” How can we better take care of each other. Yoga is happening quite frequently, there’s walking groups right now, so a lot of the staff wellness that they want to do and really piggybacking off of that.

Suzie: Are you seeing anyone taking advantage of this time and using it by taking two hours off to do the mindfulness?

Cory: You know that’s what we’re doing and what’s nice is that, you know, we tell them make sure you take your lunch break. If you’re going to have a challenging morning, make sure you take some time for yourself in the afternoon. So it’s nice that we’re really scheduling this time, but nobody has taken advantage of it beyond the means of work time.

Suzie: I ask that sort of facetiously because nobody does, right? When you give them that opportunity, they’re grateful for it and they don’t want it to be taken away from them.

Cory: Exactly.

Suzie: I’m glad you trusted them enough to give that to them because that just creates a sense of belonging and a better sense of loyalty. I also loved how you asked them what they wanted versus just saying, “Here’s what Cory Santos would think these people would like.” Were some of their suggestions surprising to you?

Cory: Yes. It’s interesting you bring that up, to be transparent with you. I think at the beginning of this journey we were making it difficult for ourselves because we’re thinking, “what do they want? Let’s plan this, let’s plan that. And then we really just had to stop ourselves and say, “Wait. We’re planning all this work for them. What do they want?” So really, it’s nice because you talk about ownership and belonging. We’ve created these committees or clubs that they take the lead on. So we have a Wellness committee. They’re all involved with it. We have a mindfulness club. One of the staff members run that club. They wanted a book club. One of the members run the book club. So they taken some leadership and then that’s also been my intent with that – we’re doing a lot of leadership development with these clubs and committees.

Suzie: Right, and that’s one of the things that Gallup shows that people really want: that opportunity to lead and to grow and that’s a great way to do it. I mean it’s simple. Did that cost you anything?

Cory: No. Nothing. I mean, other than time and that’s what we realized. When you commit the time, you get twice back. You really do, so it’s very effective.

Suzie: Very good. Now you had mentioned data. That’s something that I hear a lot. How can we prove that this is working, what’s the ROI, is this going to work? What data are you looking at, did you start with something at the beginning?

Cory: So we typically utilize our staff surveys and we have the SurveyMonkey so it’s anonymous. We did go away or stepped away from the paper versions. Some folks were just concerned about knowing their writing and some of that, so we went back to thinking about the virtual piece and the anonymous piece. We’ve been utilizing SurveyMonkey. One of the areas of improvement from that is that we realized we weren’t doing it enough. So we had done a one time or an annual staff survey but then we realized we weren’t revisiting it frequently enough. If they did a survey in January their thought process or the mindset may be different come August September. So now we’re doing it two times a year and I think next year we’re going to do it three times.

Suzie: It’s sort of like, you know, the annual reviews. Nothing should be a surprise. You should be revisiting that more than annually so that you can fix things along the way.

Cory: Exactly.

Suzie: Has anything surprising come out of the data?

Cory: I would think about one of the questions that comes up is …. I’m trying to think of the right wording of this question. “Do the leaders set positive examples?” is one question and we were a little bit taken back by that because we thought, Wow. Here we are promoting Play, promoting FISH! and employee engagement. The score was not awful, just not as high as we had hoped it to be. And to be transparent with you, I think some of us took it personally because we’re like, “What did we do wrong? They don’t like us.” It really made us evaluate and reflect on our delivery. So that was eye opening for us. And again, back to some training, we’ve implemented some customer service training, some professionalism. So that was a little bit surprising for us. Again we thought, “Oh they love the leadership team.” I think they still love us, but when you see that in black and white it was an area for improvement.

Suzie: It’s always hard to ask the question, because you don’t necessarily want to know the answer. You can’t get better unless you have that feedback from people. It’s great that you put yourself out there you and your leaders and were vulnerable. To share with everybody what your learnings are and how you’re looking to improve, that says so much to every employee that you’re willing to improve and that you’re not perfect.

Cory: Absolutely. One of the things that we changed just recently is that we were reviewing that data with them. At one point we were collecting the data and we reviewed it with just the leadership team. Then just recently I thought, “Well why don’t we share what we can out of that data? First of all, to let them know that we’re reviewing it, and then also, we have action plans to correct some of the areas for improvement. So we’ve been now taking it a step further and sharing that data with them.

Suzie: Wow that’s got to be so powerful. Do you allow them a chance to elaborate on some of that data?

Cory: Yes. After that, we have reflective team meetings, if they feel comfortable. We also have the annual evaluations that are one and one, so they have time for feedback afterwards.

Suzie: Has your entire staff been introduced to the FISH! Philosophy?

Cory: Except for the new hires. However, when we do have new hires I kind of pitch them pieces of FISH! and I slowly introduce it to them. Then when they get to their work environment they have the FISH! pens waiting there for them, some of the FISH! manipulatives. The “Philosophy” probably not fully yet but it doesn’t take long for them to feel the excitement.

Suzie: Especially if it’s part of your DNA!

Cory: Exactly.

Suzie: If you’re always modeling it, then it just becomes a way of life.

Cory: It’s second nature.

Suzie: Is it hard to do that?

Cory: No, not at all. Because again, all the resources are there at our fingertips. It’s getting into that mindset but it’s contagious. Once you have others who are part of that way and if by chance you don’t feel up to par, you have others to bring you up. It’s really easy to feel that enthusiasm there and if you don’t have it every day, you have others to pick you up. You have those resources there and once that feeling is there, it’s so contagious. That excitement is really rewarding.

Suzie: Yeah, it is. When you say “contagious” it’s sort of like, “Who doesn’t want to live a little more happily”?

Cory: Absolutely.

Suzie: I ask if it’s hard because I know some people struggle with what it’s going to take to transform our culture. You’re saying no. Is there anything else you can add to that?

Cory: I would say time, but even the time – it becomes second nature once it’s ingrained in our systems. That’s something we really evaluated were our systems. I have a very systematic piece. I think once it was ingrained in us and then also reflecting, making sure it’s still ingrained. Following up, how are we still doing, is that enthusiasm still there? For example, with the surveys, we waited too long to evaluate if it was still there. So we’re consistently evaluating, we’re consistently reflecting on it.

Suzie: Good. I’m trying to remember how long ago you went through the FISH! for Leaders

Cory: One year ago.

Suzie: OK, and you’re already seeing results?

Cory: Absolutely.

Suzie: Oh that just makes me so happy! I’m glad. I mean, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a one and done thing, it really is something that you have to be intentional about. Thank you so much for your commitment to making Citizens for Citizens a great place to work and working through the challenges of hybrid work and remote work, because that’s what we’re all faced with and I’m so happy that you found a way to make it a little bit easier.

Cory: Add some fun to it.

Suzie: Now Cory, you’ve talked about how you brought it to your employees. Are the people that work with Citizens for Citizens experiencing FISH! as well?

Cory: Being a Head Start program, we have a wide range of teachers. Yes, the teachers and all educators including nurses, family advocates, we had maintenance people involved. All walks of life. What was exciting about it is that we didn’t realize how much this was impacting the children. Because the staff were having more fun in the classroom, children were having more fun. And guess what: child outcomes went higher. They enhanced. Children were feeling socially, emotionally effective and fulfilled because of, in part, due to the FISH! Philosophy that there’s so much fun and a sense of belonging there. Child outcomes increased so that is huge. The next piece that we’re going to consider are our families. How are we reaching the parents? How are we getting down that road to where we impacted not just staff and the children, but now we want to pass it along to the families? The pandemic has slowed that down a little bit but now that we’re going back to in person and families are coming back on site, I think they’ll feel more of that energy and that enthusiasm. The next piece would be parents. But I have to say the FISH! Philosophy has significantly enhanced child outcomes.

Suzie: Oh, that is so so big because I know that the people coming in through Head Start, there’s a lot of issues that they’re working through and anything we can do to help them do that… I’m wondering if there were specific actions taken by the teachers or the staff, very intentional practices that they used to improve that. Do you know?

Cory: It really actually was the fun factor because I feel like, I’m going to say some of our veterans, if I could say that respectfully. Our veteran teachers didn’t feel comfortable having fun. When we went back we started having fun with each other and I see some of the FISH! posters behind you. I have FISH! galore in my office. I even have FISH! hats. Sometimes it’s those teachers who aren’t as open to being silly, so to speak, they put on that FISH! hat and they just they ride with them. They just sing and they dance and they’re doing storytelling. So really, I think when the teacher started having more fun, that was passed down.

Suzie: Well I would love to learn what that scale is of the fun factor. You know, back a year ago what they would have said with regard to fun? And now? Because I know that many teachers are feeling frustrated today and if we could only help share what fun does to the role, not only for themselves but also for their students because it makes learning and teaching easier when everybody is sort of at that fun place.

Cory: Absolutely and what we realized too was that we were having less behaviors. Children were so engrossed in the play factor, we saw left behaviors. There’s data that supports that. We saw less challenging behaviors. And also secondary data is that the parents saw less challenging behaviors. “My child came home in such a good mood today.” We hear things like that. I said, “Well the teachers are having more fun in the classroom .”

Suzie: Oh that’s just so great. I would love to see what they’re doing. I know it’s challenging work and so I’m inspired and just so hopeful that FISH! can help other organizations, too.

Cory: Oh, I believe it. Absolutely.

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