Prioritize Those Plates!

I have always liked the imagery of spinning plates to share with leaders about our need to keep an eye on all the moving parts to the job, to allow others to help us, and to ensure we keep each of them spinning instead of falling off.  I think about this image constantly, and I have been amazed to see it come up recently in Twitter chats, conversations in my district, and in blogs.

Trust me, I love the imagery of the spinning plates! So much so that I am even learning how to actually spin plates!

While the illustration of spinning plates has many connections and points that relate to our work as leaders, there is a fundamental flaw in its comparison – not all the plates are the same size, weight, worth, and measure.  There’s are many presuppositions in the “plates” visual that need to be stated explicitly:

  • All “plates” look the same as the others.
  • All “plates” require the same movement to get it moving.
  • All “plates” need the same attention to keep them moving.
  • All “plates” have the same impact if they stop spinning and fall down.

As a first year administrator, the ability to judge, assess, and evaluate situations, issues, initiatives, tasks, and goals were the most difficult.  They all felt like urgent, important items which needed the same amount of attention, focus, and effort.  Having this perspective not only created confusion and work overload, but it also increased my levels of anxiety and stress.

So, while we make the analogy that “we have a lot of things on our plate”, or we feel like “we are stuck spinning multiple plates”, lead learners need to make sure there is a clear priority to ensure focused outcomes to you and your community.

Below is a list of 6 Keys for Lead Learners to Prioritize:

  1. Leaders Are Organized. In speaking with Lead Learners after long periods of time, I
    find out that all of them have created a routine outside their normal day to get organized.  Whether it is the weekends, early in the morning before work, or after everyone else is asleep, Lead Learners get organized.  It’s in those times that they go back through their emails and respond to the hard ones.  It’s then that they look at their calendar and get everything ready before the upcoming week or day.  It’s during those moments that they clean up their inbox, reflect on those things that were left on the desk, and go through their mail.  It’s in those quiet moments, they create or reflect on the “to-do” list and check mark those boxes.  It can’t all be done during the “normal” work day, and lead learners invest time to get organized.
  2. Lead Learners Create Action Plans. Creating a “to-do” is a good tool, but action plans include other key information for you as well as your team to ensure work is done.  These action plans keep not only the leader focused, but also the team.  They ensure that things get done and there is a clear process for the work.  Lead Learners ensure meetings are productive and action is created, monitored, and evaluated.  Here is a template that can be downloaded and modified as needed: Action Plan Template
  3. Lead Learners Research.  When Lead Learners know the research, they know where to invest time, energy, and resources.  In developing action plans, it is easy to create a laundry lists of things that can be done.  I witnessed a Building Leadership Team brainstorm ideas for an initiative to target grading practices.  After the list was created, the Lead Learner facilitated the team in matching the ideas against Hattie’s research on the “Top Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement“.  This created a lot of “ah-ha” moments among the team in realizing which ideas should take priority over others to drive their work.  Lead Learners make sure to go ahead in places that have shown proven results.
  4. Lead Learners Know Their Community.  Coming in to a new district this year, I spent time understanding the cultures of the community, district, and schools.  I was able to be part of a process to develop a new district mission and vision to help clarify our priorities as a district.  I also dug in to the historic data and information gathered from test scores, surveys, and focus groups.  In spending time with the community members in many places and forums, all of this has given me a clear understanding of where we came from, where we are, and where we want to go.  Having this context allows me to know and be able to concentrate on initiatives and issues that are important and vital for our community.
  5. Lead Learners Know When To Say “No”.  Lead Learners are masters of the Hedgehog Principle that Jim Collins references in Good to Great.  This book has become a Top 5 favorite leadership book for me, and I was impacted on the point about the Hedgehog Principle that noted how leaders have a hyper-focus on what they do.  This means that they not only know where to go, but they know where not to go.  And, they have no pretenses, excuses, or reasons other than that the other stuff doesn’t move them towards the goal or desired outcome they need to work on.
  6. Lead Learners Know When to Give Up.  Years ago, our District Leadership Team was involved in an extensive initiative.  We had all hands on deck, and we had invested a significant amount of time and money in the work.  We had action plans, looked at the research, and saw the alignment to the community needs and goals; everything from five 5 Keys above.  But, our particular results were not moving us forward as we would have liked, and we saw upcoming problems with finances and leadership capacity that threatened its sustainability.  So, we were at a decision point: keep moving ahead or give up.  Leaders have decide if the social scrutiny or continued loss of time and resources matter enough to abandon or keep moving on.

As I continue to consult and coach leaders, my goal is to help them find balance in their work life and personal life.  Too often, I hear of the stress attached to the spinning plates.  For me, the goal is not to minimize the number of plates all the time; it may not be an option.  But, focusing on the right plates with the right prioritization can help to leverage our work as leaders to transform our work.


  1. Neil, this is really good. As I look to step into a school leadership role next year, I try to see as much as I can through the lens of the school leader. I constantly question what I would do or where I would begin with this or that. I have stored this post because I know I’ll need to read it again soon! Thanks!

  2. One thing I love is that you remind us that when we are spinning plates, the plates aren’t all equal in size, shape & weight. A key factor in being a successful leader is knowing how to prioritize. Those priorities must tie back to the leader’s values and beliefs. While we all try to say YES as often as possible, another key skill is knowing when to say no. Thanks for this great post, Neil!

  3. Neil
    This is good. I would stress that number 1 should be creating the “not to do” list when prioritizing. Distractions, noise, lack of clarity and over committing one self is most likely to derail many new leaders. Anyone can make a “to do list,” but only the most focused leaders know how to make “not to do lists.”

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