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Tom Willis in conversation with Dr. Tim Dilg

Dr. Tim Dilg

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Listen to Dr. Tim Dilg, Superintendent at Valley Park School District on the Culture Eats Everything Podcast in conversation with Tom Willis.

Read more about Dr. Tim Dilg:

Dr. Tim Dilg is an award-winning educational leader, published author, and certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience helping individuals, executives, schools, and organizations maximize their potential to achieve personal fulfillment and exceptional professional outcomes. Dr. Dilg proudly serves the students, staff, and community as Superintendent of the Valley Park School District (St. Louis, MO). Dr. Dilg is passionate about helping educators maximize their potential and enjoys mentoring & coaching individuals and building collaborative teams.

Throughout his career, Dr. Dilg has focused his energy and leveraged his leadership to transform education through positive leadership practices, student-centered frameworks, differentiated talent models, and building cultures of engagement, empowerment, and innovation for students, staff, and stakeholders. He is passionate about empowering others with techniques, strategies, and sustainable success systems designed to ignite limitless personal growth, professional success, and happiness.

Dr. Dilg has been recognized as a National Educational Excellence Award Winner (2016), St. Louis High School Principal of the Year (2015), MASA Greater St. Louis Emerging Superintendent of the Year (2022), and is a published author and presenter at state and national conferences.

Under Dr. Dilg’s leadership, Vianney was recognized as a National School of Excellence, a Model School for brain-based instruction, a Top 50 Catholic High School, and a Top 100 Workplace. He also helped The School District of Calyton to be recognized as a top 100 workplace, and under his administration, Springfield Catholic was named a Top 50 Catholic High School. He has been married to his wife Lesley for 18 years, and together, they raise one creative, imaginative, and beautiful daughter, Lexi (14). You can connect with Dr. Dilg on Twitter @tdilg

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YouTube Transcript

All right Tim thanks for joining us you're the school superintendent for the Valley Park School District and the St Louis area. Thanks so much for being on the podcast today and I'd love to talk about this whole idea of hurting Purple Cows but before we do that I'd love to just get your background and bio.

Tom thanks for having me on the podcast I really appreciate the opportunity uh simply put I'm a father I'm a husband . I'm an educational leader who believes in creating Limitless opportunities for the student staff and communities that we serve. I've been really fortunate in my career to serve as an educator a coach an assistant principal High School principal and two buildings and assistant superintendent and now for the last four years proud superintendent of the Valley Park School District that's fantastic.

You've literally done it all through the educational system I would imagine you even probably cleaned up some throw up in the hallways at some point right you know. I was actually thinking about that driving into work this morning I don't believe there is a position uh in the educational system. I've not worked at at some point in my career I am a first generation college student the proud son of a man who is a maintenance man for the public school system for nearly 30 years.

So in college months I would come back and I would clean the buildings and wax the floors throughout my coaching career I think I've driven the bus I know during covet times I had to substitute as a school or District nurse on many events and occasions so there's probably not many things that I can't check a box on when it comes to the field of Education uh that's fantastic and congratulations on being first generation college grad what does that mean to you uh it means everything to me you know uh.

My parents my grandparents always stressed the importance of education and creating a better life not only for yourself and your family but doing more good for the greatest amount of people and uh always stress the importance of education and one of the greatest highlights of my career was when I was principal of Saint John bianni High School uh the lean maintenance man at that time was actually my father.

So to actually have the opportunity to show up every day as my best self to truly live out my dream and career and to do that knowing that my father was there present helping to make that all happen knowing the sacrifices that he and my family had to make to afford me as a first generation college student opportunity to achieve these dreams and goals was amazing but for him to truly see it come to life and live it every day I'm not sure I can ever place a value on that wow wow that's awesome that's fancy you're making me making the hair on my next stand up thinking about my mind thinking about my own dad he passed away a few years ago from cancer um but my business partner are writing a book right now called the Great engagement all about how CEOs and superintendents create exceptional cultures and the dedication is really to our fathers it says to our fathers in heaven um and one of one of my notes and it says if all this book does is make my dad smile it'll be a success to me um so I know very directly the the power of a father in your life and how is it translated into your desire to want to serve and to lead others yeah I think first and foremost growing up the son of a labor worker right who cared so much about kids and schools and he was one of those people is one of those people that everyone knows him because he shows up in every sporting event every Fine Arts production he knows every kid by name he said he says hello to him in the hallways and getting off and on the school buses so he was much more than a title and I think growing up I saw that anyone can have an impact in a child's life it doesn't have to be a classroom teacher and I think that's given me a really good lens as a school leader because I do appreciate the administrative assistants the custodians the maintenance workers the bus drivers you know oftentimes they are the first and the last people that some of our students see and their impact and their influence can positively impact our students from the moment they see him in the morning until the moment they get off at the end of the day and head on home for a few hours we've got such a unique opportunity in education to really transform lives but it really does take all of us to make that possible and so seeing life through the lens of a classified worker in a school system I think kind of gave me the work ethic the values the character I needed to see the best in others and to understand the importance of everyone's role in this journey talk a little bit more about that work ethic and what is it that you mean by that yeah I I think you know sometimes uh whether it's intentional or unintentional I think as we continue to grow as leaders and ultimately matriculate up that professional ladder to various titles and positions and offices I I think it's easy and to become comfortable and to become more removed from the things that are equally as important in the field of Education what I mean by that is as a leader I think it's so important to model what you expect of others and that's not always these big grand gestures right it doesn't always come off in a board of education presentation or a state of the community uh kind of function or event each and every day I try to do the little things that I know my father would do so when I'm walking the ground to the campus and I see a piece of trash on the ground I don't think well that's for the maintenance man I I pick it up even if I see 20 students walk past it or two or three employees walk past it because to me I want a model that hey this place of learning is important to us we all have to take care of it not just the custodians or the maintenance men when I'm in a cafeteria if you know the different people the Food Service workers are busy all happily hop in line and do what I can to ring kids out or get them served faster or move a product from point A to point B or get an extra trash can in the cafeteria because one is overflowing not because others can't do it but because I can and I think that's that mindset of trying to be the best servant leader we can and while we certainly went into education to better the lives of students we ultimately get more out of our own personal satisfaction and professional values when we pour into others and so if by me getting an extra trash can can make that person's day that much easier or that much better or gives them an opportunity to do something else within the field of Education in that moment to help impact a student or another staff member then I need to model that and be leading the way all along that's the the essence of true leadership you know true um servant leadership that you're willing to put others first and put your ego to the side and which I think is so so valuable and so important for a lot of our listeners out there who are aspiring to become a superintendent or a CEO someday that's it's not about you if you're doing it right it's about the people that you have the honor of working with and and serving and clearly you get that message from your dad loud and clear I I've been doing this work for about seven years now across the country and the most inspiring leader I've ever met had didn't have a single person reporting to her so she wasn't a quote unquote Leader by title but she was a leader by her energy and it was a a janitor at a public university in the inner city of Detroit and it was just a great lesson for me of we can't confuse leadership with a title you know leadership comes from how we behave and how we model and and that work ethic that you talked about so I I um I just love hearing real life examples like yours and your father's because I think it's it's missing out in the world place right now yeah thanks Tom so this purple thing let's jump into Purple Cows uh some people have probably heard of that from Seth Godin and you've you've taken some of those Concepts and applied it to the world of Education I think in a really fascinating and and fun way so talk to us a little bit about what this whole Purple Cow thing is yeah well it really started when I was principal of Saint javiani High School I was really fortunate to be named principal there Vianney had a long history in the Greater St Louis area of being a school that others look to as being an example of not only the educational value but truly creating men of character and accomplishment um and yet like a lot of schools not only in the Greater St Louis area but across the country um had kind of become very comfortable with who they are and some of the things that they were doing and because of that there were some challenges when we first got there uh academic outcomes weren't necessarily where we had hoped they would be enrollment like a lot of places was on a decline we hadn't had an infusion of many facility improvements to kind of keep up with the modern educational setting and what I noticed after being there about a year was some of our very best Educators our most experienced our brightest the ones that were so committed to the Mission Vision and values of the school they were the ones that were starting to look over the fence into another pasture about should I be somewhere else is it time to maybe move on uh from Vianney to a different career field different School District Etc and I thought to myself wow if we lost not only this institutional knowledge but all this passion all this compassion that these Educators have what's going to happen in our school district that's not going to help us get better that's going to be an even greater challenge that we're going to have to come and so rather than focusing so much on recruitment of new talent I really tried to change my mindset to focus on okay how do we retain the best talent that we already have here and ultimately create an environment of excellence in a culture of Excellence that will continue to attract new Talent then to work with these amazing individuals that we know already exist within our field and so uh after reading Seth's book uh I think it was just the right timing in my life personally and professionally I did what I do with a lot of business books and other books from other fields I tried to apply a lens of Education to it and how I could make some of these practices that he talked about how to make our school stand out how to make our teachers stand out our students stand out what remarkable things and Innovative things could we do and ultimately what I kept coming down to after reading that book and then applying all the studies about employee retention and engagement and everything else decided before we could focus on programs we had to focus our energy on creating a positive culture for the people that we serve and so for us we kind of developed the acronym of purple passionate United resilient people leading education and those became our Purple Cows we ultimately identified and created a profile of what a purple cow was in our school system which ultimately was our very best and brightest and most committed Educators and then from there we really tried to be intentional about creating a culture of Excellence for them and then ultimately an environment where others would want to come and be part of our pasture so to speak as well that's great I love that I love the right of the gate there passion it's the very first word so talk a little bit about you know what that means and how do you bring that to life because it's easy to say right it's easy to have these easy easy to remember sort of um things like purple but how do you actually bring it to life yeah you know and I think that ultimately it does start with leadership and I say that with a caveat I think too often in not only school systems but really all organizational settings too much emphasis is placed on leadership too much emphasis is placed on human resources as being the owners are being responsible uh for culture however uh certainly we cannot expect of others what we're not willing to give and model and live ourselves so that's really important so additionally we had to really obviously one develop the mindset that culture was important to us people was important to us which quite honestly that's the easy part many people can get behind something like that right but then we had to really kind of decide what that means and so for me what that meant not only for me but my Educators was you know to really stand out we don't want to be good we want to be great and we need to care we need to engage we need to inspire and we need to play every day and so we really kind of focus really on six principles of participation personally thanking others personalizing The Experience publicly praising people promoting the great works going on in our school system and then ultimately professional development or professional growth those were kind of became our six P's of how we were going to not only attract but retain and develop our our Purple Cows in our system

and um this this idea of the six principles is that something that that you guys came up with yourselves as an extension of the purple or where did that come from yeah yes and no uh in part it came from just really engaging in conversation purposeful conversation with those that we had already identified within our system as purple cows and so what we did we we leaned into the conversations we did stay interviews and we said to them Tom why do you keep coming to our school every day what excites you most when your feet hit the ground in the morning what are you most excited about doing seeing living as part of your work we also asked them the opposite of that what would when your feet hit the ground this morning make you say is this the right place for me question if you should look to another Pastor for a career change or or placement change at this time in your life career why do you keep coming here and they talked about that personalization part they talked about being seen as people they talked about things that we know are critical and not only in education but all career Fields the relationship aspect they talked about it without ever saying our mission our vision our values they talked about developing men of character and accomplishment they talked about making a difference in the life of others and so a lot of these things came organically from those conversations that not only do they love participating in events whether it's coaching or leading a club or volunteerism and service but boy they felt more engaged they felt more acknowledged when the people that they report to participate in those things and it was a value-add they talked about not the big grandiose gestures and award ceremonies when it came to actually acknowledging their work but the small personalization that takes place on a database uh stopping in the hallway and telling Tom what a great job he did on that history lesson or seeing Carrie in the lunchroom interacting with kids on her lunch period and really getting to know them on a personal level and stopping her briefly for 10 or 15 seconds on the way out to acknowledge the relationship she was she was building and they and they talked about while it while it's nice to have that intimate personalization of course if we want to continue to attract others and recognizing that some people do value that personal plays well praise more how could we do that on a larger scale and that's where we really started to incorporate not only that praise into our bigger Awards ceremonies like teacher of the year and different Awards throughout the month but leveraging the tools of social media so that our parents knew what great Educators were supporting their kids so that if you were a prospective applicant that you could see all these great people and the Innovative and personalized things they were doing with students to possibly get you to consider joining our team and we really really just tried to start leveraging the tools a little bit more to get the message out of wow this is a great place to work and here's who you're going to be working with if you decide to join this community um and and as the superintendent you know Tim I'm curious which of those is the the most challenging for you to bring to life you know for yourself yeah I I think for me um it's just constantly uh realizing just how personal everything we do on a day-to-day basis is uh sometimes in education certainly as an educational leader we rightfully get caught up in developing systems and processes and we think about the larger scope of our work whether that's a facilities master plan or strategic plan and we get really high level because that's what our role charges us with doing right organizational change is a high level systems thinking role but at its heart to really be successful we really have to get down to the very smallest detail of the people that this is impacting and the people that are going to have to do the heavy lifting of the work and so just making sure that I'm constantly acknowledging constantly valuing the work that's done every day and that doesn't always mean it's a new curriculum document it doesn't mean it's this great professional development that our assistant superintendent or a teacher leader has developed it truly is in the minute to minute and day by day aspects that every one of our staff members does to make this a great place to work and I would imagine with that Focus that you're you're intentional about doing that in a in a maybe daily or weekly way um what are some some of the things that you do to keep that alive for yourself yeah you know I have some expectations that I try to hold myself to and I ask my leadership team to hold me to as well and hopefully uh model in their day-to-day aspects right so some of those include making sure I'm intentional about practicing joy and gratitude each and every day um that can be really difficult when you're a school or District leader particularly coming out of some of the difficult things we did with the pandemic uh there was a lot of negativity swirling in our country uh but specifically in the world of education and but I noticed um not even on an educational or professional level but just on a personal level my social emotional health my physical health and well-being is so much different when I think about what I'm grateful for and then I look for ways to make others happy or Infuse joy into them right some of the best days of my life are when I'm actually standing out each morning uh waiting for kids to get off the bus and just getting high fives and fist bumps and saying hello I love being at sporting events and Fine Arts Productions and seeing our students display their great work and that's where I find Value and I find Joy that's what keeps my fire going and so I really try to practice that each day the other things you know I I do I I try to be present um I try to act with Integrity speak honestly and always do the right thing right and ultimately I want to make sure that each person whether it's a student in our Pre-K all the way up to a graduate or if it's one of our employees or someone here in the central office when they go home each day I hope they say you know regardless of what they think about my policies my practices some of the difficult decisions we have to make man he treated me with respect he saw me today when he saw me right now like I just kind of acknowledge for the head now but like I could tell that Tim saw me as a person I could tell that he respects me as a person and I know whether that interaction was 10 seconds or 10 minutes then he values the work I'm doing in the school district yeah they're just just being seen I've always said that great leaders listen the greatness out of their people and and a lot of that is what you said just being seen just just knowing that our leader our our boss the superintendent you know actually sees us as a human being is a huge part of the work right it's so simple that's so simple and yet we get we get overly busy and so we we don't have time to do that stuff at least that's what we tell ourselves as leaders yeah I think you know a key to that Tom that I found is uh quite quite honestly being intentional and scheduling time it's amazing how we always and I'm guilty of this as much as anyone else we always uh revert to I don't have enough time or I'll get to it tomorrow and I think we do that with a lot of our things in our lives both personally and professionally and so what I have tried to become more intentional about is rather than my calendar being a weapon of of taking away my time and making my time really using it to be intentional with my time so I block out periods to write thank you notes to my employees uh notes of congratulations to my students notes of thanks to our community and Business Leaders who participate to help make our Limitless Learning Community a possibility I block out times to get into classrooms and lunchrooms I never have opportunities on my schedule that'll take me away from bus Duty in the morning because I want to see the faces and I want to be reminded first thing in the morning who are we heat or serve who are we trying to create Limitless opportunities for whose lives are we transforming today and barring a crisis I'm out there each day for that very reason not because I collect any data right about students socially emotionally or academically not because I'm asking them hey how's that new curriculum working out or are you ready for that state assessment no I want to be reminded of our why though and those whys get on and off our school bus each and every day and really grounds me in my work and so really being intentional and leveraging my calendar to create opportunities to develop a culture of Excellence is something I have really grown and adapted to over the years that's so so great you know let the let the calendar serve you not vice versa right that's right we get so busy I just learned recently because I realized I've been saying that a lot lately well lately the last several years and uh when people ask me how I'm doing and I sort of do some research I found out that uh busy actually comes from an Old Dutch word meaning the zinc which roughly approximates anxiety which is fascinating you think about it right if if you were to replace the word busy with how you doing well I'm very anxious right we wouldn't say that but that's that is in essence what we're saying it's almost this point of pride in our culture of being busy being you know under the surface sort of anxious and so I was talking to some leaders yesterday some CEOs and super intense that we convene once a month from across the country and one of them said something that really struck me she said I've been trying to say that my life is full it's full in exactly the ways that I want it to be and in beautiful ways and you know not always you know but ninety percent of the time you know I'm I am as full as I need to be and there's ten percent of time where I've got to do stuff or things happen that I don't obviously want to happen but that's just part of life and I just love that visual of how do we be more intentional about having full and valuable lives as opposed to reactive with quote unquote busy lives I actually uh I actually kind of grabbed greatness from one of my mentors in my doctoral program many years ago uh he described it as prioritizing your purpose and what he recommended this was long before I ever became a superintendent and now I continue to spread this message to students that I teach in graduate programs who are aspiring to be principals or superintendents themselves but what he said was one of the things he learned very quickly when he became a principal our superintendent was you have to be intentional about prioritizing your purpose and he meant that on a personal level and so what he recommended to all of us was whatever our means were and whatever our interests were uh find time for your family find time for your friends but don't talk about it prioritize it so what he would say is for him and his wife the Arts were really important and going to the theater was something that they prioritized well a lot of people would say you know what we should go to the theater we should go to dinner we should go to movies or ball game together right and we know we should find time for those that care about us and yet we always end up we should we should we should we very seldom act upon it and so what he recommended was buy the tickets right if those are season tickets and you can afford those buy the season tickets if they're movie tickets buy them today because once you make that purchase and that investment of something that's purposeful and important to you you're more likely to go right you're committed now you're invested you've expended the dollars it's on your calendar you and your significant others or friends are making those plans and so I have done that in my personal life and again that's when I find my most Joy personally but I basically took that same principle and tried to make an applicable to my professional life and so if I say people are important if I say my purpose are the students and the staff in the community that I serve how does that show up in my daily work more specifically on my new detail how does that show up on my calendar can I identify on April 6th where I'm doing that what that looks like where I made my purpose a priority and that's just something that stuck with me for many years I love that prioritize your purpose yeah you got to put on your schedule right we we would never miss a meeting with the parents or or with a teacher right if we schedule something and yet we'll do it all the time um we'll Scott we'll have a personal appointment that will will just blow off and we've got to treat it like it's a a regular meeting that's that has not just as important but more important you know why would we why would we possibly have an excuse for missing something that's you know to your point personalized and and personal um around your purpose so yeah and I think Tom you know not and I'm a former English teacher right uh so alliteration is important to me but sticking on that principles of the peas that we've been on you know to me we've talked about priorities we've talked about personalization um but maybe the thing that all of us in education particularly leaders need to think about is also permission and what I mean by that is we need to give ourselves permission we are not titles we are not robots right we are not locked and loaded to the positions that we serve we are people and we need to give ourselves permission sometimes to do what's right for us and the other people that we care about obviously there's people we care about professionally but they're obviously people in our lives personally that make our profession possible and we need to give ourselves permission to go to our child's theater event go to our daughter's soccer game take our spouse or significant partner out to a dinner and event I think somewhere in education all of us classroom teachers classified workers School leaders we we beat ourselves up about not be being present at our work that we've started to lose a little bit of ourselves personally and so we need to give ourselves permission to prioritize our purpose not only professionally but personally as well I love that you really do love alliteration yeah I do

so um we're uh we're out of time here which is always the case it flies by when we're having fun so maybe you could wrap up with a book recommendation for the audience absolutely there's so many great texts that I have learned from over my career professionally uh one of those is Liz Wise wiseman's book multipliers how the best leaders make everyone smarter ultimately I think regardless of our title and our role in education that's what our charge is is to become a multiplier it's not enough for me to be the best version of myself it's not enough for you to be the best version of yourself we're ultimately looking for that ripple effect so if I can make one person's life one percent better today man that's a significant difference you calculate that over a school year of nearly 200 days that's over 200 people's lives that I've impacted today and we know that those people ultimately are going to go out and stack up on that and make a difference in a person's life today or tomorrow and so I may never know that I don't know the different Ripple effects I don't know how deep it goes or how far out the spread and ripple takes place but if I can have that mindset each and every day of investing in others pouring into others and making them better wow that that's how we make a difference is that one percent continuous Improvement day after day and so I would encourage all of you to check out Liz's book multipliers I know she has a new one out right now I can't quote it because I haven't had the opportunity to dig into it yet but I'm certain I'll find some nuggets of wisdom in there and grab that greatness as well yeah fantastic well thank you again Tim for the time I appreciate it and uh have a blessed rest of your week Tom thanks so much for the opportunity.

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