EPISODE 12: Lily Sanabria-Hernandez on How to Master Leadership

October 16, 2017

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Today, on the Education Leader Podcast, I’m talking with Lily Sanabria-Hernandez, host of the Master Leadership Podcast, which helps leaders of all kind improve their skills and move forward when they feel stuck.

She’s also a Master Cadre Trainer for the New York State Pyramid Model, a child development framework that helps young children identify their emotions, demonstrate empathy, and improve their social-emotional skills.

In our chat, we’ll cover the fundamental leadership qualities that superintendents need, how to improve the skills you have, and how to move forward when you feel stuck.

If you’re looking for practical advice on how to be a better leader in your district, then you’re in the right place.

Topics covered:

  • Background leading up to today
    • How did you first get involved in Education?
  • Leadership fundamentals
    • What leadership qualities do superintendents and administrators need in order to be effective?
    • Where do most Superintendents go wrong with their approaches to leadership?
    • What is the most effective way for a busy Superintendent to start improving their leadership skills?
  • Leveling up
    • How can a leader best move forward when they feel stuck?
    • What are some tools that superintendents can cultivate to keep advancing their leadership skills?
  • Tying it together
    • If listeners could walk away from this interview with just one lesson about leadership what would you want that to be?
  • Where can listeners go to learn more?

Rapid-fire Questions:

  • What do you spend too much time doing?
  • What do you not spend enough time doing?
  • What do you wish more people knew about your job?
  • What emerging trends in education are you keeping an eye on?
  • What are your thoughts on the impact of technology on education moving forward?

Where to learn more:

To hear more from Lily, tune into her podcast Master Leadership, where she shares the stories of exceptional leaders to help you go from “stuck” to “extraordinary.” And if you want to contact Lily directly, listen to the episode for her email address.


Pat: Let’s go back in time. How did you first get started in education?

Lily: So Pat, I would really love to tell you an inspirational story of how this happened, but the truth is, I graduated from Fordham University with a degree in communications. At that time, I couldn’t find a good-paying job in that field. I began working in an insurance company. The pay was actually very good, but I’m a people-person, so that wasn’t really a good fit.

My motivation really began one hot summer day. I was actually looking out of the window of my office, and I thought, “I need a job where I can get the summers off.” That was my first time ever that I ever thought about teaching. So you know, I began to apply for jobs and luckily, it was a time where there was a teacher shortage. If you had a degree in anything, and you had a pulse, you could teach.

Certainly, it was a scary time to be a student, but for me, doors were opening. It turns out, I fell in love with the profession. I fell in love with the students, and I found my space. This was where I needed to be. So that’s how I started.

Pat: Thanks. Thanks for sharing the brutally honest start-up story. You’ve heard, over the years, from a lot of amazing educational leaders on your podcast. What are the leadership qualities superintendents and administrators need to have, in your opinion, to be effective?

Lily: I want to speak to being an effective leader in education in general, right? So whether you’re a superintendent, a principal, a director, an educator, or even a student, our field is actually full of very educated and experienced leaders, right? Some are effective, right? Because effective can be subjective. It depends on what you want done.

But some are effective because there’s a culture that feeds their way of being. If there’s a culture of hierarchy, then an autocratic leader will thrive, and they will be effective in that situation. In that case, they’re in a position of leadership, but they don’t necessarily know how to lead well, but their effective in that realm.

When I think of effectiveness, I think of a leader who is not only competent, but someone who values the people around them, someone who … and when I think about that, it’s someone who’s a good listener, someone who’s visionary, not just for the group or for the organization, but for individuals. So they’re compassionate. I think an important quality to have is someone who’s secure in their own skin. Sometimes that may take work. Someone who trusts, someone who’s self-aware and sees the importance of having like an inner circle of people, like coaches or mentors to speak into their lives.

So when I think of effectiveness, that to me, is an effective leader.

Pat: Value people, which is really important. Visionary, compassionate, secure. Secure, actually, that’s a whole new realm. If you’re experienced and confident in what you’re doing, makes you secure in your skins, that is awesome.

Going back to the insecurities, where do you think most superintendents are in this case, leaders who go wrong in their approaches to leadership?

Lily: I think insecurity plagues a lot of us, right? As human beings. What’s important here is that if you have insecurities and you decide to be a leader, then you need to deal with that before, because if you take that into leadership, you can hurt a lot of people. That space, being an insecure leader is very dangerous. That’s why I wanted to really stress that.

But as far as where leadership can go wrong in my experience? Most leaders in education go wrong when we choose to stop growing. Now, most of us understand how important it is to continue to grow, like cognitively, right? So we’re veracious readers, and we sometimes even become prideful about how intelligent we are, or how much we’ve learned, or what courses we’ve taken, or even the letters behind our name. I want to honor that because it takes a lot of perseverance to get there. I don’t want to diminish that at all. I think that’s incredibly important, especially as educators.

However, not a lot of time is devoted to social-emotional development. That’s what true leadership is. Unfortunately, what happens is we develop cognitively, but we don’t develop socially-emotionally. You have these adults that are like kids in a sandbox. It’s incredible to watch. You start rubbing your eyes thinking, “What the heck happened here? These are really smart people.” But that’s where we can go wrong as leaders.

Pat: I want to dig a little bit deeper here and understand. Most of our audience are principals and superintendents, right? Everybody wants to be a good leader. If you ask somebody, nobody’s going to tell you, “Hey, I don’t want to be a good leader.”

Lily: Yeah, “I want to suck at leadership.”

Pat: Yeah. So where I want to take you back, is since you’ve been there, done that course for a lot of leaders, what is the most effective way for a busy … say a superintendent or a principal … to start improving their leadership skills?

Lily: So Pat, I think what you’re doing is incredibly important, right? You’re providing a service. To me, it’s listening to podcasts on leadership like this one, right? My podcast, Master Leadership podcasts. I created it for this very reason, because it eliminates the excuse of no time. Anybody can learn to grow their leadership on their way to work, on their way from work, while you’re working out, while you’re cooking, changing diapers, you know. I mean, a lot of things you can do.

Also, read. Read about effective leaders, and if you don’t have time to read, then we can always subscribe to an audio service. On of the new things that I’m introducing to education are Mastermind groups. It’s not a book club, but we’re learning around a particular book, or information that we all want to learn about. We all kind of chime in and help each other to grow.

So a Mastermind group is a wonderful way to grow, and you can do it virtually. You can join a group that fits your schedule. One of the most important things to me is to find a coach, a coach who will speak into your life. This is fairly new in education. I know, in my educational leadership courses, we really don’t talk about coaching. But to find someone who’s on your side who can ask you the questions to move you forward, who can hold you accountable, is incredibly important.

We’ll always be busy, but not taking the time to do this will keep us spinning our wheels, right? What this does is it can have a devastating effect on the people we lead. So there’s a cost here. There’s a cost to not doing it.

Pat: You mentioned a lot of points here. Just to touch up on them, listening to podcasts, reading, Mastermind group, having a coach or a mentor. Where I see a common thread in all of this, is the first step is to acknowledge the fact that you need to grow. You need to keep learning. The desire has to come from within, that I want to improve as a leader. Once you make the first step, I think these are the resources that are available to get there, right?

Lily: Absolutely. You have to be intentional. Yes.

Pat: Every superintendent today has those moments when their usual approaches aren’t working, right? They feel like, “Hey, I’ve been trying this for a while. It’s not working. My principals don’t listen to me. My board wants too much out of me.” How can a leader best move forward when they really feel stuck in what they’re doing?

Lily: I’m very familiar with that feeling. From my experience, I can only speak from there, right? We can’t move from being stuck unless we see the damage that being stuck does. Sometimes we don’t even see that we’re stuck. We’re just … and even if we do, sometimes there’s fear to move forward.

In my experience, it’s seeing the damage that being stuck does, or what it’s preventing me from doing. My growth, the growth of others. After we see that, then there has to be … and you mentioned this … there has to be an intentionality about growing. Again, moving from stuck to the possible, getting a coach, joining a Mastermind group, this is … to us, as leaders … taking responsibility, right?

There’s a quote, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” by John Maxwell. To me, that’s a … a leader has to take responsibility and get the help they need, right? I’ve also observed that whatever baggage or issues we have, we bring to the table, affects relationships, but when we choose to lead and we don’t address those issues, then it’s devastating to the people we lead, and the organizations we lead.

So that’s why I’m so passionate about this lane, the leadership, because I believe that everything rises and falls on leadership. I believe that the people before us, the most important people, our students, our future. It’s important that we look at this, and really give it the attention it deserves.

Pat: I want to go back a little bit. We touched upon coach, and mentor, and Mastermind groups earlier. I want to think about it from a perspective of a leader, and let’s say, a superintendent or a principal. They live a pretty lonely life in the sense that it gets lonely on the top. They can’t share so much of their burden to their peers.

At that point, coming from their perspective, how do I go about picking a coach or a mentor, or picking a Mastermind group. If you can walk us through that path.

Lily: It’s interesting that you said it gets lonely at the top because when I think about a leader who says that, or I think about someone who feels that way, typically it’s because they’ve not developed the relationships. Because it shouldn’t be lonely at the top. You should be bringing people along with you. In order to trust, to have a culture of trust, you have to cultivate trust.

I would really look for someone who can coach in this realm to help you move forward. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. On my website, I have a list of coaches who can certainly speak into that. Certainly, find a coach from whether it’s the outside, so that you can help connect to the people that you lead. That’s a sign that something’s gone awry when you feel like it’s lonely at the top. That’s where the responsibility falls on you.

If you want to move forward from that space … I may be rambling, Pat, but …

Pat: No, no. You’re spot on because a lot of people, a lot of leaders at the top, they feel that they can’t turn to anybody. They feel they can’t share all their problems with their board. They feel that they cannot share all aspects of their challenges for the principals who are below them. That’s what … they have this feeling of being lonely, which like you rightly said, it does not have to be lonely. You can build this whole ecosystem around helping you get to the next level, and that’s what podcasts like yours really helps in getting the message out, and telling them there are like-minded people out there whom they can connect and network with.

Lily: If that’s going on, then I would question, “How have I cultivated this?” And then get help because if you don’t trust people, and if we’re not vulnerable as leaders … there’s some fear that we’re not facing, and if we don’t do that, how do we expect the people that we lead to do the same?

It’s incredibly important. If this is you, if you’re lonely at the top, then something needs to be done right away. So I would urge you. Look on my website, find a coach. Start there.

Pat: Now, let me go back a little bit on your experience here with the pyramid model which you’ve been working with. In your experience, how has the pyramid model been a helpful tool for child development?

Lily: The pyramid model is about developing social-emotional skills for children, right? Really from birth to five. Now, you’re thinking, “How can I develop that from birth?” Well, we work with parents. We work with the staff. If we’re able to teach this well, then everything else becomes easier. Everything else becomes … it becomes easier to learn. It becomes easier to connect. My experience has been, too, that when we teach these skills with the pyramid model, the staff also, they lift their leadership skills, or their social-emotional skills as well. So it’s a win-win for everybody.

Pat: I just want to take a minute here to talk about our main sponsor today, PikMyKid. Today, you know how there’s absolute chaos in every school at the end of the day at 2:30 p.m., right? Kids getting into cars, buses, traffic jams snaking around school neighborhoods, pedestrians walking all over. What really takes a back seat to all of this is the safety of our children.

In today’s day and age, with the technology we have, we expect our teachers to manage all this chaos using walkie-talkies, clipboards, sticky notes, and loud hailers when out in the sun, rain, when they actually should be in the classroom planning for the next day’s class. What PikMyKid does, it provides a comprehensive set of tools to manage all aspects of school safety. They have real-time parent notification system, panic-button feature in case of in-school emergencies, visitor management, absentee management, and a complete set of tools for the dismissal part of it.

Parents, on the other hand, can actually manage the pick-up of their children, including delegations, absentee notifications wired to PikMyKid applications right on their phone. They also receive real-time push notifications when their child gets in the car, walks home, or gets in a bus. I think PikMyKid is currently in hundreds of school across 25 states. They are in a pretty rapid growth-path now. What do you think?

Lily: You know what, I told you before we started, I actually love what PikMyKid does because I’ve experienced situations where I’m a director of a school and the school system didn’t have … they had some protocol, but they weren’t equipped. I think what this does is extremely useful. You have to give credit where it’s due. PikMyKids is doing something right. The safety of our kids is incredibly important, and then I can teach. Once I know they’re secure and safe …

I know as a leader, I’m thinking, first thing is safety, and once I think that’s in place, and if I can give it to some organization like PikMyKid, then I don’t have to think about that, because you guys are doing it right.

Pat: Thanks for weighing in on those thoughts.

What do you think the superintendents need to keep in mind when considering the needs of their special education students?

Lily: One of the things that’s extremely important is they remember diversity, that every child is different, and every child has different needs. Even if you have a child with a specific disability, it doesn’t mean that … and you’ve read everything about that disability, doesn’t mean that that child will fit in that box. So that’s very important to remember.

Also, that parents are extremely important in this process. You know, they can be … and most of them are … can be great partners. They know their child best, so listening to parents is extremely important. I think one of the most important things to understand is, how you go as a leader is how the community goes.

If you have issues with diversity, then that’s how your community’s going to go. If you really work on it, and you see how important it is, then your community’s going to go that way as well.

Pat: That is awesome.

So you’ve hosted a hundred-some podcasts. If you can share with us, what really stood out with that experience of the last few years you’ve been doing this. What did it teach you, and how did it improve you as a leader?

Lily: I created Master Leadership podcast because I saw the need for all of us to grow. One of the biggest things I’ve seen is how we’ve … I continue to grow. I continue to ask questions, and so I grow. So the guests, the listeners, we all grow collectively. That also opens doors to other possibilities. If I’m bringing a guest on who has read a book, or has listened, or has a specific quote that speaks to our listeners, then that person’s going to grow.

What I’m learning, too, is that there’s no limit to growing leadership, right? There’s no limit to that, so that’s certainly what I’ve learned and what I continue to learn.

Pat: So to tie it all together, if listeners could walk away from this interview with three top lessons about leadership, what would you want that to be?

Lily: We need to always be intentional about growing in our leadership. We never arrive. Even though there are some people that are more natural leaders, if that’s not cultivated, these leaders can cause calamity. So to me, if I can leave a message, it would be, be intentional about growth in leadership. That doesn’t mean that just because you have a certification and leadership that you’ve arrived. It means that you have a certification. You’ve completes some things.

There’s so many things that we can learn. It’s opening our possibilities, opening our eyes, opening our heart, opening our will, to how we can grow in this area. Because if we do that, Pat, then the future … think about our kids. We would have developed these skills in our students where they can become amazing leaders. Not only that, they can choose amazing leaders to run our country. They can choose amazing leaders to run our organizations. They know what great leaders look like.

When I look at leadership and where we’ve gone, I always have to ask myself, “What’s my responsibility here?” That’s another take-away that, as leaders, we should be asking no matter what the circumstances, we should be asking … not blaming, because we can always point fingers, and we can always complain, right? I have to catch myself from complaining … but asking, “Okay, so this has gone awry. What’s my responsibility here?”

That’s part of the reason why I started my podcast because I asked myself, “What’s my responsibility here? What can I do about it?”

Pat: So before we wrap up, we like to ask all our guests a few rapid-fire questions? The questions will be quick, but the responses don’t have to be.

Lily: Okay.

Pat: All right? So the first one is what do you currently spend too much time doing?

Lily: That’s easy. Editing. Oh my goodness. You know. You know about this. My mom would certainly be proud that I’m finally using the communication skills I learned, though, you know? I edit all my work, and I love it because I get to really re-listen to my guests, but it does take a lot of my time.

Pat: A lot of time.

Lily: Yeah.

Pat: So what do you not spend enough time doing?

Lily: Time with my son, but it’s because he’s a teenager now, and he prefers spending time with his friends.

Pat: What do you wish more people knew about your job?

Lily: How grateful I am to be able to serve them, and how important it is that we collectively grow in leadership and education.

Pat: What are the emerging trends in education that you are keeping an eye for?

Lily: Trends in education. So, trends in education, they come and go. That’s been my experience. Currently what we’re watching is how privately operated schools, like charter schools, may receive more support than public schools, right? We’re watching, also, this shift in states having more control of education. We’re also watching how common core is losing its steam, and how communities are standing up for less testing of our students.

What I want us to do is to disrupt how traditional leadership shows up in education. The question I would ask, the question I would contemplate is, what if we see the importance of teaching leadership skills to our staff and students, right? I wonder, right? If they would lead themselves better, if they would invite others to speak into their lives, if they would make better choices, if they would grow their influence.

In this situation, you also address bullying and low self-esteem. You’re creating a lifelong learner. That’s the trend I’m intentional about supporting.

Pat: What’s your thoughts on impact of technology in education moving forward?

Lily: Technology is here. We can’t roll it back. It is what it is. There are some pros and cons. I think we need to use the technology to move forward. I know for me, I have to learn the technology. My son’s on the iPhone, I ask him what apps are you using? Again, we can complain, right? And yeah, we can think about the glory days, but those glory days are gone. We have to move forward and create new glory days.

They can teach us a whole lot more, too. There’s so much to learn. I tend to love technology, except when it doesn’t work.

Pat: That’s funny. So that was great, Lily. Thanks for sharing that, and if listeners want to hear more from you, what is the best way for them to reach out to you?

Lily: They could certainly tap into the podcast, which is Master Leadership podcast. It’s featured on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio. They can find it on my website as well at masterleadership360.com. If they want to shoot me an email, it’s [REDACTED].

Pat: Again, I just want to say thank you so much for your time today. It as great being able to pick your brain. And I’m sure the listeners would have gotten a lot out of it, like I said. Thanks again.

Lily: Pat, I really want to thank you for this opportunity. It’s not very often that people ask me questions, so I welcome that. I also get to be in the shoes of my guests. I feel the nervousness, but the excitement as well. I want to honor you because what you’re doing is extremely important. I think PikMyKids as well, is extremely important. So keep up the good work, Pat.

Pat: Thank you, Lily. I appreciate the time today.

Lily: You’re welcome.

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