Question to consider.

For the next several weeks I am going to post a provocative question a business leader uses in his/her company.  How does this apply to you and your organization?

What counts that we are not counting?

                – Chip Conley,  Founder Joie de Vivre Hospitality

 TED:  Measure What Makes Life Worthwhile

Working In The Middle East

I recently returned to Saudi Arabia for the fourth time in two years, and I have additional trips planned for November and February.   With all the crazy activities by extremist, and the conflicts amongst nations in the Middle East, I am asked frequently if I feel safe there.  The answer is an unequivocal YES.

Though I have traveled to Dubai, Oman and Qatar in the past decade, most of my time recently has been spent in the city of Riyadh.  This Capital City of Saudi Arabia is in the middle of the Kingdom and showcases some wonderful architecture.  It has all of the personality of every large city I have been fortunate to visit with arts, entertainment, historical landmarks, shopping, big buildings, crowds, traffic jams and hard working people dreaming and building a brighter future for themselves.  It is a bustling community with a rich culture, wildly different than ours in many ways, yet strikingly similar in a lot of their values.  Though our cultural similarities are overshadowed by the difference in gender rights.  And that is a whole other blog post.

The people I have worked with in Saudi Arabia, both men and women, have been amazingly gracious and welcoming.  They work hard to make you feel comfortable, welcomed and safe.  There is an appreciated focus on safety with very tight security.   Entering their country security is very much like ours.  In the international hotel in which I stay they have a security check of your vehicle when you enter, and an airport style metal detector when you enter the building.  Now we don’t see metal detectors at hotels here yet, but I did walk through one just this past week in two different schools in Oklahoma.   When meeting at the main offices of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Public Education Development Project I usually walk, which is about a half mile from my hotel, and I have not once felt intimidated, concerned or even out of place. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz

Now as for working with Saudis, there are a lot of communication differences making progress slow and frustrating at times.  All the people I work with speak English, but I have to admit that I do not understand everything they are saying, and I absolutely understand no Arabic.  It took me a while to realize they do not understand all of my English either, though they are hesitant to admit so, and most likely feel it would be rude to tell me as much.  But we all try very hard to communicate and we all are learning every time we’re together.  I did purchase Rosetta Stone, but I can only say boy, girl, dog and cat so far. And Rosetta doesn’t like my accent at all.

King Abdulla wishes one of his legacies to be a reformed educational system where all the children of Saudi Arabia are educated at a high level from kindergarten through college.  Dr. Mohammed Al-Zaghib is the CEO of the project and leads an ambitious team with great passion and a huge goal.  I certainly would not bet against this group, and am thrilled Solution Tree has been invited to play a role in their success.

Not surprising, the people of Saudi Arabia want the same things for their children as we do for ours.  To have them educated, safe, successful and happy.  They are absolutely no different than any other caring parent, and the people of King Abdulla’s project are no different than any other caring educator wanting to make a difference in the lives of their students.  But it is easy to see why this country is cautious to work with Western Companies.  So many outside companies look at the massive wealth of this nation and attempt to come in, make a quick hit, cash in and dash out.  They don’t really want to help, they want to prosper themselves, and only themselves. That is just plain wrong, especially in K-12 education were the stakes are way to important.  At Solution Tree we really want to make a difference in the world, and it is our belief that the best way to bring about global change is through education.  And that is why we do what we do.

Being Lucky

Having been in the event business now for 17 years, I have to say we have an unbelievable track record of never having a keynoter miss an event due to illness or travel.  On a very rare occasion we will have a breakout presenter miss an event due to unforeseen circumstances, mostly travel related, but for the most part it has been remarkably minimal.  Coming up on 1,000 Summits, Institutes and workshops you might say we are one lucky company, and we are, but not lucky the way you might be thinking.

We are blessed to have the presenters we have.  The quality of individuals who tirelessly present to educators ranging from eager to skeptical, and intense to apathetic, is unprecedented in our field.  Their job is no easy task, but WOW are they professionals and do they every care.

Let me give you a recent example of just how dedicated these experts truly are, and believe me they are not alone.  This is not an isolated case. This happened at our very last Summer Institute held August 13-15.

Rick and Becky DuFour spent 16 hours getting to Grand Rapids from Roanoke, VA.  One cancelled flight, one flight delayed two hours, another delayed 30 minutes,

and finally getting to the hotel at 12:15am with Becky kicking off the Institute with an 8:00am keynote in front of 1,000 in-house educators.

Tim Brown had his flight cancelled in Moline so he rented a car and drove six hours so he could arrive in Grand Rapids at 2:00am, and he is not only a presenter but also the emcee kicking off the event and introducing Becky.  And then he had tells me “I got to drive through some beautiful countryside on my six hour road trip.”  And he meant it, and by my calculations it was dark for nearly 5 of those hours.

Jack Balderman has a flight cancelled and drove from Midway Airport in Chicago to Grand Rapids arriving at 4:00am.

And Anthony Muhammad had a flight diverted from Phoenix to Yuma, only be bussed two hours back to Phoenix, to have another flight cancelled, and then hopping on a red-eye to Detroit and then driving to Grand Rapids to get to the Institute at 9:30am.

Are we lucky, you bet your bottom we are. We are lucky to work with people like these people, and we work with more than just these five examples.  We work with hundreds of pros just like these.  And that is why we do what we do.

Quote on selling and being sold.

We all remember certain things our parents told us when we are growing up, that sometimes our Dads or Moms don’t even remember saying.

I am not clear what brought up this particular quote, but I believe I was a young teenager talking with my Dad about his business or a summer job.   So here is the quote the Dad laid on me, and I have repeated hundreds of times.

Nothing in the world has ever happened until a sale was made.


Think about that.  A first date, a job interview, joining an organization, buying anything from food to a house, and heck go back to the beginning of time when the serpent convinced Eve to take the apple.  A sale.

So if you think you are not a sales person or don’t like sales people, take a look at the successes in your life and you will see a sale bonded to the outcome.

Why go abroad?

As I have said, with almost as much boring redundancy as our Mission Statement, our Vision Statement is:

Transform education world-wide to ensure learning for all.

Here are the group of men I just spent three days with earlier this week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

IMG_4349 copy

There are an equal number of woman at the training, in an neighboring room. The Saudi culture divides the population into separate gender trainings.

Tom & Susan (in her Abaya) Many, are two world class presenters and educators, who kicked off the first of four workshops introducing the PLC process to Cohort #1.  They did a phenominal job of working with translators and dealing with cultural issues.  I can not imagine anyone working harder or being more successful in introducing this work.


At a my meetings outside of the workshop, I was presenting our plans for future professional development in the region, and one high ranking official asked me “Why do you want to expand to Saudi Arabia, isn’t the United States big enough for your company?”  Wow, that one took me off guard. The good news is the honest answer was easy.

“Because it is our vision, why we are doing what we do.  It would be easier to focus solely on the US, and probably more profitable.  But if what we have at Solution Tree truly works, and it does, then why would we keep the secret to ourselves.  Why would we not share what has been proven successful in our country with others, and give our Authors an international platform to help kids succeed all over the world?”

In reality, we could downsize the company and only focus on PLC work, making my life a lot less complicated and the company potentially more profitable.  But the other areas in which we publish and provide professional development are important to real school improvement too.  We truly offer the highest quality opportunities for authors to take their passions and put it into the hands of educators who are begging for tested, proven and implementable solutions. So why wouldn’t we go global?

International work is expensive, it is an investment, and most always takes a long time before we see any significant financial gains, but we do see immediate personal advancement in teachers, schools, and districts which leads to significant gains in student achievement. And THAT is why we do it.


Quote on the question of “How”.

The answer to how, is yes.


I know it is frustrating, but all answers/obstacles can be solved.  If you don’t now how to solve it, get help and figure it out.  Sorry, but the first response if not “I can’t”, “I don’t know”, and certainly not “I give up”.

When I was at Tufts University, I had a boss, Dr. Tom Murnane, who would respond to obstacles with,

You’re clever.  You’ll think of something.

And 99% of the time, he was right.

What’s In A Name?

When we began running Solution Tree in 1998 the name of the company was National Educational Service, NES.  NES has been started in 1987 and somewhere around 1995 a trademark infringement happened with National Evaluation Systems who owned NES.  They worked out how to live together with both having the same acronym and went about their merry ways.  Problem is the previous owners kind of forgot to tell us.   So in 1999 I stepped in it knee-deep, and then in 2004 when we were really getting some traction, and they were being acquired, they stalked until they found two infractions and sued us for $5,000,000.  Heck, it could have been $5 Billion, made no difference. So we joyfully embraced the option of choosing a new name.

We were certainly not in the position of hiring a firm like Michael Cronan and Associates whom you pay big bucks to help you pick company or product names.  One of their biggies is Amazon’s Kindle.  So we went about it in a much more fun and collaborative way. Internally.

We bought a naming software, we surveyed staff, authors, associates, family and friends. We narrowed and re-surveyed, and voted, then realized we need to start all over again, and eventually we had consensus among the staff to re-name and re-brand the company Solution Tree.  A two word name, not easy to become another educational organization acronym, and one that truly fits who we are and what we do.

There is a lot in a name.  To launch a new book, event or digital product you real need to think it through, have fun, shelve the discussion and come back, and possibly go with your initial instinct.  You will know when it is right.  We did with Solution Tree.  Hope we are equally as successful with the upcoming launch of Global PD.  We’ll see!

Okay, a shamless way to end my blogging lapse.

So…I have been sooooo bad about blogging lately.  Lots of really bad reasons I won’t share or make up, so let’s begin again.

Too often I think, “Why in the world would anybody care about what I feel like pontificating about?”  Heck my own wife doesn’t read this blog. And as for my kids (16, 15, 13, 12), I am happy they still like me.  Though I am entering into a flash mob phase of ‘my parents are dorks’, so why set myself up for them telling me I have business all wrong.  Any ways…I do have about a dozen topics I am going to write about over next few weeks.  Then tonight, while sitting our rental in Culver, IN, after watching our 15 year old play lacrosse for his Boarding School (lots to share there…oy vey) I received this email from one of our Associate/Authors, Tom Hierck.  Really nice guy who is writing a book for Solution Tree with one of my favorite human beings, Ken Williams.  Ken and I share a thing for good watches and classic Lincolns.  I’ll write about my ’65 convertible some day soon.  Their book is going to be great, but I promise not to kick into sales mode here.

“Why” is a big deal to me. But you knew that.  Here is another indicator as to why Why is a big deal in schools, and really in all that we are or want to be.  Thanks Tom and Ken.


Tom Hierck                      Ken Williams