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“Build a Model of a Wonderful Workshop”

Posted by Jan Knutson on April 1, 2010

Every once in a while, a truly special moment occurs in education – the student turns out to be the teacher. I experienced one of those moments not too long ago, and I’d like to share it with you. This leadership lesson comes courtesy of a savvy leader named Virginia.

It was a Tuesday morning and I was conducting a leadership development training session in the workshop classroom. I gave each participant a set of plastic building blocks along with an assignment: “Build a model of a wonderful workshop.” The purpose of the task was twofold: 1) Test student creativity and thinking, and 2) Provide me with ideas for improving our North Pole facility. After starting the exercise, I left the room.

I returned an hour later and found that everyone was busy building their structures – everyone, that is, except Virginia. She was just sitting there, staring into space. “Is there a problem, Virginia?” I inquired. “No, Jan,” she replied, “I’m just thinking.” So I left her to her thoughts and exited the classroom.

After another hour had passed, I returned to the room to conclude the exercise. As I moved from table to table, I was truly impressed by the array of detailed models with structural components like smoke stacks, loading ramps, conveyor belts, sleigh landing pads, cafeterias, gyms, offices, and even high-tech classrooms.

When I came to Virginia’s model, however, I was taken aback. There, in front of her, were six vertical columns – and nothing more. “Need more time?” I asked. “No thanks,” she answered, “I’m done.” Hearing that, I probed further: “Virginia, I’m not sure I understand. All the other models are very detailed structures, but all you have are six columns. No walls, no roof, no nothing. How come?” The explanation she offered is where you’ll find the lesson for leaders everywhere:

“Well, Jan, it seems to me that what makes a workshop wonderful is not walls and ceilings, but what happens inside those walls and under those ceilings … it’s not how a workshop stands, but what it stands for that makes it special. These six columns you see are pillars, and they represent values – the values of respect, integrity, quality, customer service, responsibility, and teamwork. I found them listed on our website. Maybe for some folks they’re just words, but for me, they’re blueprints to follow. And that’s where leadership comes in. Making sure that everyone knows what VALUES are important, and then helping everyone turn those good beliefs into everyday behaviors is how leaders create a great place to work. At least that’s how I see it. And that’s why my model looks the way it does. Did I do okay?”

With a huge grin on my face and a twinkle in my eye, I responded: “Yes, Virginia, that is a wonderful workshop. And I think that you are going to be a wonderful leader. Thank you for giving me such a valuable gift.”

My Gift to you today from Virginia:

Your Mentor and friend,

Jan Knutson, friend and Mentor
800-332-6792 anytime


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