The most common goal of executives who hire me for time management coaching is to free up time to invest in their teams and to spend with their families. Intuitively, they know that time spent with people forms crucial bonds, enables personal development and reduces fire drills. Yet, daily urgencies frequently preempt time reserved for weekly 1:1’s, for “walking the halls” to stay visible and getting home in time for dinner.
Protecting time for others requires a willful shift from being reactive (to every distraction and mini-emergency) to being proactive about long term priorities. Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes. To inspire us all, I can think of no better role model than my beloved elementary school Principal, Martin. K. Brown.
I met Mr. Brown on my first day of 6th grade. My family had just moved to Center City, Philadelphia, and I was nervous about entering a new school where all the kids had been friends since kindergarten.
Wearing my coolest pleather jumper and a burgundy pullover, I took a deep breath and walked in the front door of Greenfield Elementary School. And there, waiting at the top of the steps, was Mr. Brown, my new principal. “Hello Julie,” he said. “Welcome to your first day!”
The warmth of that greeting is emblazoned on my memory. I was stunned; not only was the Principal stationed at the entrance, but he knew my name! I felt safe, I felt important, and I felt that I belonged. My time at Greenfield ended up being the most formative of my life— a defining era that even now, I can go to in my mind to connect to my most authentic, capable self.
Not too long ago, Mr. Brown surfaced alive and well on Facebook. His profile became a super-magnet to students from around the globe. Within months, hundreds descended upon Philadelphia for an elementary school reunion.
As I reconnected with friends who looked exactly the same as when we were ten years old (I swear), and alumni from across the decades, one thing was apparent: Mr. Brown had made a similar lifelong impression on every single student who passed through that school. The accolades revealed that it wasn’t just because Mr. Brown was such a wonderful, wise person…it was because of how you felt in his presence.
"When Mr. Brown was around, you just knew everything was going to be alright”
"He created an environment that allowed us to soar."
“Mr. Brown represented high ideals, and inspired us to do our best”
I sat down with Mr. Brown recently, and asked him how he approached his job, to see what we could learn from him. His primary goal, he said, was to create a positive environment -- a place that kids (and parents) would remember and feel good about. To make that happen, he spent his time and attention in three very particular ways.
- He invested time getting to know each student personally. He learned our interests, personalities, strengths and dreams. And because our leader recognized us, we felt we could be ourselves. Even 40 years later, at the reunion, we marveled that he not only knew each of us by name, he remembered the names of our siblings and parents. He made us feel like we mattered.
- He organized his day around “being there.” No matter what else was on his plate, Mr. Brown did not want students to see him only when they got into trouble. He stopped by classrooms and made sure we saw him in the hallways and lunchroom and at recess. We felt safe, seen and taken care of, because someone was visible and present.
- He promptly resolved issues with love. Because he had taken the time to establish a good rapport, when kids acted out, he didn't need to yell or threaten. Instead, he'd say (with a glint in his eye), "I know you can do better." He meant it, and we listened. Conflicts were resolved quickly, with everyone’s dignity intact.
Certainly, Mr. Brown had a rare gift for understanding human behavior and what people need. But his vision and grace translates to three concrete behaviors we can all practice, whether we are leaders, managers, parents or friends. No matter how demanding our jobs, it's important to remember that devoting time and attention to people is the best investment you can make. It inspires everyone to be the greatest version of themselves, and leaves a lasting legacy.