Is your firm as good as PS 89?

It was a strange juxtaposition of events - bonus day at my firm followed by a tour of the local elementary school where my daughter will attend kindergarten.

The contrast was jarring.

The principal did mention money (or the lack of it) at one point, but it didn’t dominate the conversation. It was the kids - their education and their welfare - that dominated the conversation.

Throughout the tour, I was struck by the combination of skills, innovation, and caring I saw. There was evidence of it everywhere - in the halls, in the classrooms, and in the eyes of all the staff.

What if our firms were like that?

How can they do it?

Ronnie Najjar is the principal of PS 89 and has been since the school was built in 1998.

Like many corporations, the school has to deal with tight budgets, changing regulations, and a turbulent market. (Residential population in the school zone has risen manyfold, wreaking havoc with logistics.)

They’ve also had to figure out how to survive the 9/11 attacks (just 2 blocks away) and how to accommodate kids with special needs.

The people who work at PS 89 do all this - and do it well - for less money than they’d make in most corporations.

Why?

“With an apple, I will astonish Paris”

It’s not simply because PS 89 is a school. (There are plenty of poorly run, ineffective schools)

The secret, I think, is that the people who work there genuinely care about what they do and feel connected to the community. And when people are engaged like this, the mundane becomes miraculous.

They don’t just have an art project on apples. Instead, children’s paintings are beautifully arranged under the quote from Cezanne: “With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” Their clay models are carefully arranged in a glass showcase along with artful photos of the kids engaged in the process.

They don’t just follow the standard teaching script. They have detailed points of view on the benefits of “integrated co-teaching” for teachers and children. They know the latest developments on working with special needs children in the classroom in a way that’s both sensitive and effective.

Working with 535 young students every day can be demanding. Yet, as a boy runs by us, briefly distracting the tour, Ronnie doesn’t admonish him. Instead, she smiles and quietly says, almost to herself, “I love that kid.”

Then a PTA member whispered to me: “She knows every kid by name.”

Can we do it, too?

It’s not naive to think we can have this kind of environment at work. Quite the opposite. It’s our responsibility.

But it requires a shift. It requires that we re-humanize our corporations. That we think of them as social businesses instead of machines with people as parts.

It requires that we replace bromides like “people are our most important asset” with environments that truly address basic human motivators: autonomy, purpose, personal mastery, and community.

If we create caring, connected workplaces, we can transform how we work.

A public elementary school in New York City did it. Our corporations, with all their resources and possibilities, can do it too.