Updated Personal User Manual 2020

It’s been about a year and a half since I started sharing the idea of using a personal user manual as a leader. The idea of clearly stating the nuts and bolts of how others should work with you resonated quickly with many other leaders in my organization. I spent most of the summer of 2018 speaking to campus and department leaders about the value, but I don’t think I spoke on the importance of it being a living document.

Like a river, we are changing minute to minute and we can’t expect those on our teams to keep up if we don’t communicate those changes. So, I decided to update my Personal User Manual for 2020 to share with my teams in Round Rock ISD and plan on making it an annual update.


Moving into my third year as the Executive Director of Teaching & Learning I think it’s important for those on my team to better understand how I work and what I’m hoping to get better at in 2020. So, I’m updating my Personal User Manual. Here it is:

Communication:

Email – If you email me, I’ll try to respond on the same workday, even if it’s just to let you know that I’ll give a more detailed response later. If I email you with a question, I expect a response/answer in 24 hours. If there is no question or ask in the email then don’t feel like you need to respond – I’ll assume you got it and are good to go. I’m continuing my practice of not checking my email from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am on workdays and not at all on non-work days. You may rarely get an email from me during these, but I don’t expect you to respond during non-work times. If we need to be in touch outside these times, I’ll call or text your cell phone. You can do the same and I’ll share more about talk/messaging below. 

Messaging/Voice – My cell-phone number is (512) 632-5062. Feel free to call or text during the workday. I’m not promising I’ll pick up, but it’s the quickest way to get in touch. I use Google Chat on my mobile device and the best way to get in touch with a quick question during the day. I like Google Chat because it allows us to capture ongoing work-related conversations in one place. 

Social Media – This is always a moving target for me. For lack of a better way to describe my current thoughts on friending and following colleagues, here is where I stand at the moment. It’s ok to friend/follow your boss, but it’s kind of weird for your boss to friend/follow you first. I don’t know if anyone else agrees with that, but it’s what I do. If you are on one of my teams feel free to friend/follow and I will reciprocate, but I’m not going to make the first move. 

Workplace – I’m excited about using Workplace and believe it can be a valuable tool for organizational communication and learning. Still in the early phase though and I will be focusing on the best way to use this in 2020.

What I’m Working On:

I’m working on getting better at building connections between teams in our organization. So, if I ask you a lot of questions about your job or ask for a brief 1-1 meeting to dig a little deeper, it’s for my own learning, not to put you on the spot.

Potpurri:

  • I’m not in my office much so don’t call my office phone number. Use the number above. 
  • I expect everyone to write professionally. Grammarly is your friend, use it for everything.
  • This video is a little lengthy, but it pretty much sums up how I view Organizational Communication.
  • I’ll share ideas often around your projects or plans. Some ideas may be good, many will be off-base. Please try not to take my ideas/comments as orders and I respect people who disagree. If I want you to do something, I’ll tell you to do it. Those directives, however, will likely be few and far between. 
  • I’m still working on smiling more. I’m happier at this point in my life than I have ever been, but for some reason, it does not always show on my face. Those that don’t know me well often assume that I’m upset or disengaged when I’m happy and fully engaged. If I’m not happy with something you are doing I promise to tell you. If you are curious, ask. 

I’m pretty open and go deeper into thoughts around leadership and education at ryansmith.blog


The Personal User Manual is one of my favorite tools to help teams communicate and cut through some of the assumptions we throw at one another. It’s not your manifesto. It’s the basics to help those you spend your days with better understand why you do what you do.

Questions? Ideas? Connections? Share them below in the comments.


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Our Constant Struggle to Make It Simpler

This is part 8 of my 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-7, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We’ve come a long way and have made it to the seventh and final post in our look at Marc Lesser’s Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. This practice focuses on our ability to take a step back, remember our priority, and test some assumptions. Welcome to the seventh practice – Keep Making It Simpler.

It’s easier to take the complex road in our work as leaders. Keep adding tools, resources, ideas to our toolboxes and we want to play with them. We go to conferences or workshops and want to implement something new. Or we are striving to impress our own bosses and the people on our teams suffer the consequences.

Many of us work in industries driven by goals and plans. Key Performance Indicators, Campus/District Improvement, goals of more types than we can remember often shape our decision-making more than we like. And as leaders, we must remember that our goals shape the behavior of those on our teams. We can’t pretend we operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected and too often these goals and plans add unnecessary complexity or inject unintended consequences.

The complex path is easy but it’s also shallow, and it allows us to spread out accountability. It also provides us as leaders additional cover if the results do not pan out the way you were hoping. But, that is playing not to lose rather than to win. This often plays out by over-intervening. We add layer upon layer of programs so at the end of the day we can say, “we did everything we could,” or, “we covered everything.” We rarely are asked if by doing/covering everything, we made the system too complex and did nothing well.

So it’s the simple path that is hard, but lasting. It’s the simple path that provides our teams the space to do their best work and become mindful leaders themselves.

How then, do we protect our teams from the barrage of noise looking to invade their work, the anxiety that comes from a perception that they must do everything, and the fear that can permeate a culture driven by an annual performance measure?

Lesser takes us back to where we started so many weeks ago. We help our teams make things simpler by making things simpler ourselves. He suggests a meditative practice of “letting go.” The ideas he tells us to let go of are the exact things others in our lives are telling us to pay attention to, so there is an inherent societal conflict in making things simpler. Simple is rarely praised or rewarded. The practice outlined in the picture below does not tell us to permanently let go of our to-do lists and our expectations of others, but rather to lean into the feeling of how we would see our work without these burdens.

Another aspect of Keep Making it Simpler suggested by Lesser is responding to the expectation of others that, “we are all so busy.”

Does anyone else struggle with how to respond to colleagues who assume we are feeling as busy as they are? I’m never sure how to respond. I have as much to do as anyone else, but at the same time do everything I can to never feel busy. When I find myself feeling busy, that’s an internal message I’m doing something wrong – not a badge of honor. Yet, when someone asks me if, or assumes I’m busy, then I feel social pressure to make a heavy sigh, hitch up by belt, and say something like, “oh yea,” or “sure am.” But, am I doing something wrong or is my work less important if I’m not busy? I don’t think so. Some internal work to do there for sure.

Luckily Lesser shares my aversion to promoting busyness, “To me, busyness means becoming caught up in that complexity and losing sight of what’s important. Busyness equates to mindless rushing. For me, the antidote to busyness is remembering to be mindful and to practice being focused, engaged, and spacious.” Here’s what he means by focused, engaged, and spacious:

My final suggestion on this last practice of a mindful leader is to make seasonal assessments of where we can cut back. Cut back on programs, goals, initiatives, projects that aren’t moving, and anything else we can. This is easier said than done and also something I struggle with, but complexity relentlessly works its way into our lives everyday. And if we don’t stop at least four times a year and see where we can clean out and wash away some of the noise, we will drown as a leader. The easiest way to make things simpler is to do less. If you have thoughts on how to effectively work against the creep of complexity, please share them in the comments.


So there we have it. Over the last two months we dove deep into each of these practices of a mindful leader:

I hope you enjoyed the discussion and would love ideas on other books to take a closer look at in the comments. My key learning from spending a day with Marc Lesser back in September and his book is the value of making an appropriate and intentional response. Our ability to respond to any situation as a mindful leader is essential to provide the space for our teams and families to flourish.

And the way we cultivate our ability to make the mindful response is through practices such as these. The good news is that as a leader or family member we have countless opportunities to work on ourselves by practicing our thinking, listening, and ability to provide space.

Thanks for joining us on the journey. Did you miss a stop? Check out the whole series here.

Re-Reading on the Road

Ryan Smith

Wrote this several months ago, but forgot to post it. Hope you like it.


The first time I read Tim O’Brien’sGoing After Cacciato I was sitting on the roof-top terrace of the Rex Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It was dark, I was 22, sipping a gin and tonic, and listening to the common night-time sounds of an incredible city in Southeast Asia.

This time I’m 40, on a business trip, sitting in a hotel bar in Houston, TX. I’m still sipping on a gin and tonic and this time listening to the common sounds of hotel bars across North America.

It’s amazing though how taste, words, and sounds tie a life together. I’ve re-read several books lately from my younger days and can’t recommend it enough. Rather than chasing the latest writer, revisit the favorites of your youth.

  • The same story means something different to…

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70/20/10 & 70/20/10

Over the last few years, I’ve been sharing a 70/20/10 mentality around professional learning. The idea is well-known throughout the training & development industry and hypothesizes that 70% of employee learning occurs through on-the-job experience, 20% comes from direct conversations with co-workers, and only 10% comes from formal learning workshops.

Just recently I had the opportunity to hear an additional take on the 70/20/10 concept that looks at who should hold decision-making control of professional learning. Who knows best where our areas of need lie and who should be deciding how we spend the precious moments we dedicate toward our journey as life-long learners?

At an organization I had the privilege to visit recently, individual employees are expected to drive 70% of their own learning, their leaders determine 20%, and the remaining 10% is the mundane compliance-type training we all get to sit through. The organization provides a vast array of professional learning experiences for its staff, however, 70% of the responsibility for self-awareness and decision making is owned by the individual, not her leader. Goals and expectations of performance are set together, but the individual charts the path and seeks help where they feel it’s needed.

I’m incorporating more of both 70/20/10 frameworks into my decision making as a leader of leaders in my large suburban public school district.

Adopting this mindset requires resetting expectations for both the learner and the teacher, the team member and the team leader. Clarity in where agency lies will be key in navigating from an environment which creates passive learners who are waiting to be told what to do, to an environment where learners are trusted to be self-aware and trusted to take action.

And it’s more than moving more trust toward the learner. It’s recognizing that her decisions are better. Even if I don’t agree with the path, if she and I agree on the outcome then I should not be charting the path. 

“But what about the new or struggling team member who does not yet have the experience to know what they don’t know?” you might ask. Don’t we as leaders need to prescribe a list of technical skills for the novice to learn or a catalog of workshops to attend over the next year?

Just remember that if we are honest with ourselves as leaders about how adults really learn at work, then as the leader we have roughly 20% decision making power regarding time and direction and roughly 15% power regarding the overall impact on someone else’s learning. Think about how you learn. Sure, you may give someone else credit for molding your thoughts and helping your grow – I certainly do. But, it was your decision to listen to that person and embrace their philosophy. Growth is not driven by compliance.

If we are dictating 70% of their time, then I’ll argue our teams may be learning surface-level technical content, but are not engaging in the level of learning necessary to make lasting adaptive improvement. Give even your newest team members the respect to own their learning.

So, how do we allocate our 20% as leaders to help our staff members make the best decision with their 70%? My plan is to make sure the readings, workshops, and learning experiences I require of my team focus on self-awareness, understanding one another, and how their work contributes to the success of our students. 

I’m working through this idea as I write so I’m sure my thinking on this will continue to evolve. What are your thoughts? I would love to start a dialogue around this idea. Share your thoughts in the comments. 

The Clarity of a Personal User Manual

I was introduced to the idea of a professional User Manual in a workshop recently and it’s becoming a valuable addition to my work. The idea of creating and sharing your User Manual is to let those you work with on a daily basis know how to you tick – similar to stereo instructions. Adam Bryant popularized the idea a few years ago and highlighted the idea that a blueprint or user manual has been used by many successful leaders.

It’s an opportunity to provide clarity to those around regarding your values, as well as blind spots you may have, preferred communication protocols, and also briefly share your own influences. And it’s really only valuable if you actually share it, so here it is:


Cultivating a beginner’s mind is a daily personal aspiration and I expect those on my teams to embrace curiosity and a Unity of Purpose mindset. We need to seek every opportunity to work with other teams in the organization and worry more about outcomes for students and teachers than who gets the credit.

Others tell me I tend to not show too many emotions and have been told that I am hard to read. So please just ask me if you are unsure as to how I feel about your work. I’m working on getting better at delivering clear feedback and will accept any and all assistance.

I trust those on my teams to make decisions and create solutions with the experience of students and teachers as the driving factors. That trust means I don’t need to sign-off on every decision or be cc’d on emails and if I pop into one of your meetings or presentations, I’m there to give feedback and just listen so please don’t interrupt the flow and introduce me. If I feel the need to chime in I will.

Make sure I know the big ideas/goals around your projects. I believe in the mantra, “Dream big, start small, move fast,” and will continuously push my teams to question their ideas, projects, and programs.

If you make a mistake, let me know early and we will figure it out. If something does not go as planned, let me know about it before I hear about it from someone else.

I have two young boys and do my best to be present with my family or present with myself outside the workday. If for some reason I email you outside of work hours – and I rarely will – do not feel like you need to respond until the next workday. If for some rare reason I need to get in touch right then, I’ll text or call. Please follow this same system with your teams.

If you need to get in touch with me I prefer either in-person, call my cell (512) 632-5062, chat/text, email – in that order. I rarely use my office phone line. I’m pretty good at staying current with my email, but if you need a response in the next 24 hours, please say that in the message or subject. I often batch respond and may “snooze” your email for up to 24 hours if you don’t communicate a need for a quick response.

The one area of your work in which I expect to be heavily involved is in hiring. Inviting someone to join our team is the most important decision any of us make as leaders. I expect to be involved in decision-making processes around hiring/interviewing.

Finally, a couple recent books that may help you understand how I think regarding work are:

An Everyone CultureRadical CandorPrinciples

I’m also pretty transparent about my thinking on my blog at ryansmith.blog.


Writing and sharing your own is highly encouraged – even if you don’t necessarily lead a team. The more we know about each other’s inclinations and influences, the better our work will become and we can spend less time making assumptions and putting on fronts.

I would love to hear your thoughts and stories about the use of User Manuals or Personal Blueprints. Please share them in the comments or with me on Twitter.