Jon Yost

Jon Yost is the recently retired associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Sanger Unified School District in California. He has worked in public education at the elementary, secondary, and district levels.

Leading With WHY

When working with districts and schools, I’m often asked a question from site leaders something similar to this: “How do you get people to buy in to Professional Learning Communities? How do you get them to see the benefits and support PLCs? The evidence is so clear and convincing!” It is typically followed with an explanation of what has happened, what they have done, and a description of pushback they are receiving. They voice their frustration and often appear to be at their breaking point. They are doing everything they know how to do to persuade them, but they just aren’t gaining any traction.

I recently watched Simon Sinek’s YouTube video titled Start with Why—How Great Leaders Inspire Action. As I watched and listened, it hit me—they are beginning with the What and How, versus beginning with the Why. I reflected upon my own PLC journey and remembered what helped create buy-in and helped the staff get excited. It wasn’t the What or the How of professional learning communities, it was when they embraced the Why.

For those that haven’t read Sinek’s book or watched his video, let me briefly summarize his Golden Circle that incorporates the Why, How, and What.

What are your outcomes? What are your products? What is the result of what you are doing?

What is the process you take? What are the specific actions you take to get your what?

What is your purpose? What is your cause? What do you believe?

Sinek uses Apple to explain the Golden Circle. Apple’s What is the creation of computers and electronics. Apple’s How is the design of their products, which are beautifully designed and easy to use. Apple’s Why is their belief in challenging the status quo. The What of PLC’s would include a common formative assessment plan, identified best practices, and team action plans. The How of PLC’s would include data protocols, prioritizing standards, and responding to students who need additional support. The Why of PLC’s is based upon your personal beliefs, but may include a statement such as, “collaborative processes empower individuals.”

Sinek makes a key statement. He writes, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Inspiration comes from knowing why you do what you do. It comes from staying true to why you went into education.

We inspire behavior when we keep why we exist at the center of our conversations. We create greater shared ownership when we collectively define our purpose. Conversations around impacting our students and our community create excitement. Conversely, our What and How rarely, if ever, inspire us.

My new and improved response to the site leader’s question now begins with, “Tell them the Why!” Why does your school exist? Why are you getting up every day and coming to work? Why do Professional Learning Communities work? Why is it so important to you? Why do you want them to embrace it? Why are you so passionate about PLCs? I’m then typically the recipient of a surprised and puzzled look followed by a long pause. I then begin a dialogue around their responses to these questions, and before long, the gleam in their eyes and the enthusiasm in their voice returns. I then say, “Go back, tell them your Why's, and see what resonates with them. When you see what resonates with them, help them discover their Why. Once you have them talking about their Why, you’ll then begin to see their support.”

I need to caution you that discovering your Why isn’t as quick and easy as you might think. Your Why is greatly influenced by your experiences, values, and beliefs. Write them down. Contemplate them. Refine them. Expand them. Most importantly, know them and share them regularly. You’ll find yourself not having to work too hard for opportunities to share the How and What, but I’ve found you’ll have much more success if you talk about the Why first and frequently!

Here are some of my own favorite Why's:

  • Our issues are complex and no one has all the answers.
  • PLC’s are about empowering everyone to make a difference.
  • Collaboration improves our thinking.
  • I need your best thinking.
  • I need your ideas.
  • I want everyone to be part of a team.
  • I want work to be like family.
  • It is so much more enjoyable being a part of a team.
  • We can do anything if we put our minds together.

Be courageous! Be passionate! Care deeply for your colleagues and share your Why!



Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio.





Jennifer Ledford

Mr. Yost,
I absolute love this post and it's message. I too believe that many schools miss the mark on implementing new procedures or programs because they are far too focused on the "How?" or "What?". As stated in your post, while those questions are important, the "Why?" is at the center of the circle. Everything we do should have a purpose that stays true to our vision as educators. So many times, we start on the outside of that golden circle and attempt to work our way in. I agree with what you have stated here and therefore believe that those previous methods are backwards. We should definitely start with why we are doing what we are doing. Why are we implementing that program? Why are we beginning this new procedure!
This post also makes me reflect on my own approach to my school staff. During the last year, I attempted to get my staff to join me in a book study. I had just started reading this book called "Be the One" and found it would be great for the staff to read along with me. Looking back now I realize that I simply displayed the "What?" for my co-workers and did not show them the "Why?" behind my email. I will be sure to keep this in mind in my future attempts to bring my staff together in reading and learning.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this!

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Jon Yost

I feel so honored that many have read this blog and posted positive comments. I wanted to respond to some of these.

Pam W: One of the truths I learned a long time ago was you will rarely have complete buy-in from everyone. Waiting to have complete buy-in is usually futile. The evidence for creating high-performing teams (PLCs) is overwhelming. Getting support with PLC implementation is very valuable. I had a wonderful coach my first year of implementation. It might be helpful for your new principal to reach out to Solution Tree for that same type of help.

Justin: First, thanks for your post! When thinking about your why, ask yourself why you meet as a team. What is the power of a team who are willing to examine their practices and their impact on learning? Your team should know why they are meeting and why it is powerful. Revisit it as often as you need to remind your PLC why it actually exists.

Laura: When I read your comments, I was reminded of how much I didn't know at the beginning of my PLC journey. My suggestion is help build the capacity of those around you to understand the work of a PLC. When you are working on mapping standards, you are working on the first of the four key questions, "What do we want students to learn?" A PLC has to answer that question so they can get to the next question centered on common formative assessments. There are several great books and articles out there that can help build capacity.

Holly, Katie, Shawn, Amy, and Abby: Thank you for your comments. Keep learning and keep your why close to the work!

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Lucas Saleh

Mr. Yost,
I greatly appreciated reading your post. It has left me inspired, and as you so thoroughly explained earlier, is the a great starting point for implementing the PLC process in our school and throughout our district. One "Why" that was referenced sums up the need for my building and that is "Our issues are complex and no one has all the answers." I work in alternative education and the need to collaborate and implement the PLC process starts with understanding that our situation is different, it is complex, and it will take work. Most of all, it can be figure out and effective. I'd argue that the PLC process could be a major component in figuring out how to best serve our at-risk youth in my school. Thank you for the inspiration. The Bible references many individuals who were complex, yet, God called on them to do magnificent things, we as teachers must be willing to put in the hard work.

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Abby Laymon

Mr. Yost, I greatly enjoyed reading your article. I read your article for an assignment for my Graduate course I am currently taking. Through reading your article and completing this assignment I allowed me to reflect on my current job. I currently work for a charter school where unfortunately there is no established PLC. However, with my position in the school I believe this is something I can help to establish within my school. Through reading your article it has allowed me to see that when trying to establish a PLC at my school it is important to focus on the Why not the What or the How. By focusing on the Why it will help to inspire the people I work with and get them more invested in developed a PLC at our school.

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Amy Nash

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and the posted responses, Mr. Yost. Like Ms. Winstein, I am new to blogging but I felt compelled to jump in. Our district is considering launching systematic professional learning communities K-8. With so many new initiatives being launched in the last few years, our teachers are feeling isolated and overwhelmed. How we launch the PLC will be critical. If we add one more thing to the teachers' plates, they may revolt. We must help them understand the WHY. Your list of favorite WHYs will help jumpstart this discussion. Their initial reaction will most likely be to worry that this is just 'another thing' they must do that they feel has no bearing on their daily classroom experience. The chart is such a clear way to show effective PLC and guide our discussions. I also appreciate that you shared Simon Sinek's video on WHY. Too often this step is missed because we assume everyone understands the why. I will use your blog and Mr. Sinek's video to help our teachers understand the WHY as we launch PLCs. Thank you, thank you for your timely and informative perspective.

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Shawn Sutton

Thank you for sharing this resource. Sinek's connection between the "golden circle" and the body's limbic system was particularly resonant.

As a science teacher, my department has been tasked with unpacking and implementing the Next Generation Science Standards. We have a professional learning community that meets on a monthly basis in order to align our instruction with the new curriculum. I'm finding that progress is slow - in part because it is difficult to leave the comfort of traditional science lessons behind, but also because this is uncharted territory.

I feel that a major stumbling block for our PLCs may be the "why" component. In some minds, the "why" behind NGSS integration might be "...because the state says so." A more inspiration "why" motivation might be "...because we want to support resilient, critically thinking young scientists." I will be sure to share this TEDx clip with my colleagues.

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Katie Carhart

I loved reading this article. I have worked in 2 districts now. The first district I worked for I was there when PLC was the newest thing so we really learned about them well and had a variety of different PLC's in our building. In my current district, I sort of feel like the PLC is a slogan that we throw around because it is "what we are suppose to do." However, I don't feel like what we are doing is actually a real PLC and not very beneficial. I really liked the questions, what? how? why? I would love to start implementing this into my PLC with my kindergarten team. I think it is very meaningful when used appropriately!

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Laura Gay

I really enjoyed reading this post. I think that it is so important for teachers especially to see where the person involved in running the PLC is coming from or what their purpose is. In the district I work in, there is a new initiative by the district that we have to map out the standards for each unit and create lesson plans during our PLC time. This would be fine, except for our building ILS is not helpful or supportive and we end up telling her what the plan is while she types it into a form. This becomes a complete waste of time and seriously lack direction.
Do you have any advice for how to work with someone who has no direction in our PLC's?
Thank you,
Laura- Springfield, MA

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Holly Willet

I couldn't agree more. It seems so simple, but we have to know the value and purpose as to what drives us which should be student centered. If you bring it back to that, it's half of the battle!

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Justin Mesloh

Jon, in this article you first mention Sinek. He states, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” As curriculum in changing, as the dynamics of the PLC you are a part of will change, as the way lessons are being delivered is changing (ie: 1:1 ipads, etc), this quote is something that I believe with my whole heart. The students who have hung on my every word and the players who have worked their hardest for me have always been students/athletes who, through the grace of God, I have somehow inspired. These kids are my why. You know that! You also state, "....we should constantly go over our 'why' and share with each other." How often should we be doing this? Once a week (how often our PLC meets) seems too much. However, once a trimester seems like not enough. What do you suggest? What do you see changing when we do go over these?

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Pamela Winstein

Dear Mr. Yost,
This is my first professional blog, so please understand if I seem like a novice. I have been teaching for 22 years and I am in the process of getting my Master’s in Education. I just read your article, All Things PLC, about how to get the entire staff to buy in to Professional Learning Communities in their district or school. This is interesting to me because every couple of years the name changes for our, now called, PLC.
I believe consistency is important. When things change every year, even something as small as a name, it seems to lose some of the power behind it. I have a new principal this year, his first year as a principal, and he is very eager to get the entire staff on board with our PLC’s; however, it feels as though we meet often, and come up with suggestions, but things are not carried out. I enjoyed reading your comments about Sinek’s video, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, and the suggestion that we start with the “why” instead of “what and how” makes a great deal of sense. I believe it will be easier starting from that approach.
My school is currently doing a book study, The Leader in Me, by Steven Covey, and getting the entire staff to buy in has been a struggle. We meet in our PLC’s to discuss the book, because next year my building wants to begin implementing the Leader in Me, and it seems a lot of time is wasted arguing about how not everyone wants to do it. I am going to suggest that we look at Sinek’s book for motivating ways to get us all on board.
I would love any suggestions you may have to make this process go smoothly. My building is a mix of veteran and new teachers alike. We are a K-6 building.

Kind Regards,

Pam Winstein
Kindergarten Teacher

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