The Importance of Knowing Someone's Name
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
As I sat down to have my first cup of coffee this morning, I began to reflect on the many individuals who have influenced me as a leader. This got me looking back on a few insights that these individuals have shared with me throughout the years, many of which have become integral parts of what I see as an authentic leader. Case in point, the value and importance of knowing someone’s name. I will never forget one of the first conversations I had with Dr. Bruno Morawetz in the early 90’s. At the time, I was an eager, young Camp Director at Camp Kawartha, and knew very little about leading a camp. I sought out advice from Bruno, who at the time was running Camp Ponacka, a very successful boy’s camp on Lake Baptiste. I admired that Ponacka had a mission to foster young men into becoming thoughtful, appreciative, self-confident individuals, imbued with a spirit of forgiveness and humility. Of the many insights that Bruno was kind enough to share with me, his advice about getting to know every camper’s name, has prevailed with me throughout my career.
I’ll be the first to admit that the task of learning each camper’s name, and then all over again with the start of each new session was no easy feat. I will also be the first to admit that it was absolutely worth it, especially knowing now how much of an impact it had on my ability to interact and connect with the campers. Looking back, my attempts were rather exhaustive in the memorization techniques that I used; name games, pneumonic devices, memory palaces, you name it! (Pun intended.) It typically took me most of the week to remember each camper’s name, but it was all made worthwhile seeing those campers’ smiles when I greeted them by name. Knowing someone’s name breaks down invisible barriers which are so often present, and allows for a deeper connection. It lets a person know that you are interested in them as an individual; it affects how they feel, and there is an increased sense of belonging when people in a community know one another’s name. When I think of the eight-year-old campers arriving at camp for the first time, and knowing very few people there, I can empathize with how intimidating and scary that must have felt for them. I have seen the camper who tries not to draw too much attention to themselves because they are shy. In their minds, they are thinking no one knows them, but as soon as you say, “Matt, you did a great job this morning with your cabin mates cleaning up the dining hall, thank you!”, that camper is now walking away with a smile and an extra skip in their step, thinking, “Wow, the camper director knows my name!”. It is such a simple, yet powerful act of knowing kindness and the memories of the reciprocal smiles that I got in return will never cease to make me smile, too.
I have seen so much value in adding personalization to one’s communication toolkit and I have done my best to carry this habit as I shifted into a career working in Independent Schools. Learning every student’s names in a school is hard work, especially when enrollment can reach upwards of a thousand kids. In any school I have had the privilege of working at, I continually used every opportunity I could to get to know student’s names…coaching, advising, teaching classes and asking students to introduce themselves to me if I met them in the hall. Although my primary responsibility was not teaching, but to raise funds for the school, I believe getting to know the students helped me significantly in my career, especially when I met with parents. There is nothing more powerful then meeting with a family and sharing a fond memory or story you have of their child. In my experience, this personalization creates a complete paradigm shift of the relationship dynamic that you now have with this family. Fundraising is about relationships and the deeper the relationship with a family, the more likely they will support the school, especially if they feel their child is learning in a community where the faculty and staff know and care about their children.
In my experience, if the senior leaders of schools, such as Heads and Principals get to know each student’s name, it would set a higher standard for the rest of the leadership team and the rest of the faculty and staff. It makes such a difference in a school community if they see the Head or Principal of the school remembering student’s names and interacting in the hall using their name, forming authentic relationships. There are many justifications that individuals may give for not remembering names, like having a bad memory, the large number of students to remember, or lack of time, etc. While there may be some truth to any or all of these reasons, I truly believe that improving this skill will make Heads and Principals more effective leaders, able to connect on a deeper level with their students. In fact, I would argue that learning every student’s name is one of the most important things a leader can do in a school. The more time leaders spend directly with students, the easier it is to break down barriers and strengthen your school community. I have often heard schools describe their school community as a family. If that is true, then it is even more important that you know everyone in your family. Every school will be different, and how you learn a student’s names will also differ, but learning them is what matters.
Bruno, although you are no longer with us, your legacy continues. I am so grateful for the advice you gave so many years ago. Knowing someone’s name makes a difference and allows you to connect on a human level.