IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE “LONELY AT THE TOP”: DEVELOPING HIGH FUNCTIONING LEADERSHIP TEAMS

The vastly expanding demands put upon school leaders provides schools with an opportunity to create their own form of distributed leadership. Baker explains what leadership teams are, why they offer many benefits, and how a team can be most effective.

In the face of a changing world and increasingly complex challenges, the most important thing schools and heads can do is invest in human capital.

As we think about the crisis of leadership in schools and what it will take to develop and sustain the leaders and the quality of leadership that our schools need, we must expand our thinking from boards and heads to our school’s senior leadership teams. The implementation of a school’s mission, vision and values starts from its leaders, including their abilities to execute a school’s strategy, operations and educational program, as well as the culture that they create through who they are and how they lead.

Since I began as head of school five years ago, the development of my leadership team has been a top priority for me and, with each year of experience, I come to see the importance as well as the challenge and complexity of this work more clearly. The ideas here have been influenced by and developed in conversation with my executive coach and with members of my leadership team, who are valued colleagues, thinking partners and mentors for me. I have gleaned many insights from books and thinkers about leadership, management and team building, including Ron Heifetz, Peter Senge, Michael Fullen, Patrick Lencioni, Marcus Buckingham, Steven Covey, John D’Auria and others.

In the face of a changing world and increasingly complex challenges, the most important thing schools and heads can do is invest in human capital, building the capacities of our teachers and leaders. For our schools to become true learning organizations, schools must value learning and growth throughout our institutions at every level, become obsessed with professional development, and distribute leadership throughout the school. This begins with the board’s support and evaluation of the head, and continues with the head’s creation and development of a leadership team.

What Is a Leadership Team?

I define a leadership team as the group of leaders, managers, administrators—educational and non-educational—who are collectively responsible for the implementation of a school’s mission, vision and strategy, and the management of all day-to-day operations of the school. This team will certainly include administrators who report directly to the head but may also include others who do not, or who have dotted line reports to the head. One of the most if not the most important job of the head is to hire and develop the leaders around him, both as individuals and as a well functioning, collaborative, interdependent team.

Below are seven reasons why leadership teams are essential and seven ways that heads can build effective teams.

Why Is a Leadership Team Essential?

Head’s Survival and Effectiveness

A head is only as strong as the leaders who surround him. From a practical perspective, distributed leadership and delegation are necessary for heads to manage the various demands on their time. The more involved heads are with the day-to-day operations, the less time they have for the various other roles and responsibilities that they need to play for the school to thrive. My coach and I often talk about the goal of our organization becoming “operationally leaderless” so I can focus on work that “only I can do.” Given the increasing demands on heads of school, heads should be working to reduce the number of people who report directly to them.

More Minds Are Better Than One

If harnessed properly, the collective wisdom and thinking of a team are greater than any one person’s. As Ron Heifetz articulates in Leadership Without Easy Answers, our organizations will only be able to solve our most significant problems and adapt to our changing world when we bring multiple, competing perspectives to the table and when we hold the space for new vision, ideas and truths to emerge out of these various perspectives. No matter how right I think I might be in a given situation, I will make wiser decisions if I have a team of trusted colleagues thinking together with me.

Breaking Down Silos

So many of our schools, like other organizations, are challenged by the silos that exist, most often between the educational and non-educational sides of our school (finance and operations, admissions, marketing development), but also within the educational program itself (between different grades or departments, formal and informal education, special and “regular” educators, to name a few). Integration and collaboration must start from the top. Silos are not neutral; when we are not supporting each other’s work we are often getting in each other’s way. When our teams function interdependently individual leaders can see the whole school, which informs the quality of their leadership, including their decision making and their stakeholder management. When leaders understand each other’s goals, strategies, rhythms, challenges, and priorities, they can have each other’s backs, supporting and strengthening all of the pillars of their institution through how they work, rather than through doing more work.

Individual Leadership Development

As Marcus Buckingham teaches us in First Break All The Rules, people don’t leave organizations, they leave their direct supervisors or managers. If we are going to recruit, retain and develop strong people at every level of our organization, we need great leadership and management throughout. Being part of a strong team also strengthens an individual’s leadership. Collaborative decision making, wrestling with dilemmas of practice, collective strategic visioning and thinking—all learned behaviors of a high functioning team—develop the skills and capacities of the leaders on that team. A team culture in which colleagues are able and willing to give each other timely and honest feedback about their work contributes to team members’ learning and growth.

Team Building Trickles Down

Most of the senior leaders in a school also lead others and have (or should have) teams that they lead as well. The head can model the kind of leadership that all school leaders should strive for. Supervision, coaching, mentoring, team building, professional development, a growth mindset, and putting learning at the center—these values and processes should pervade the institution from the boardroom through the classroom.

Leadership Pipeline Development and Succession Planning

One of the most significant challenges to schools’ success and sustainability is the frequency of leadership transition. A strong team and a culture of leadership development lead to leadership continuity for several reasons. Leaders who feel they are growing and thriving are more likely to stay in their schools and their roles. When leaders do move on (and they will, hopefully to positions of senior leadership in other schools, which heads should support and of which they should be proud), others will be prepared to step into their roles. A strong system with a strong culture is larger than any one person in the system. I have found that the stronger my team gets, the more we are able to see the loss of a senior leader as an opportunity, despite how hard and sad it is to lose a beloved colleague and valued administrator.

Leaders Need Each Other

No school leader has it all. We all have strengths and weaknesses. A strong team can maximize individuals’ potential by capitalizing on their strengths and augmenting their weaknesses. On a team not everyone has to be good at everything. Great teams recognize and celebrate the different styles and strengths of their members because each member knows she is part of a collective, whose total strengths and capacities are greater than any one leader’s.

How Can Heads Build Effective Leadership Teams?

The Right Players

Building an effective team begins with, in the words of Jim Collins, “getting the right people on the bus” and (although this is less often quoted) “getting the wrong people off the bus.” While heads need patience and a growth mindset in order to develop the people on our teams to their full potential, they should be voracious about assessing what their schools need from their leaders and whether or not the people in leadership roles are the right people at the right time for the school. Hiring affects not only the quality of each leader’s work, but also the professional and personal experiences of the leaders with whom a leader collaborates and of the people a leader leads.

Making Team Explicit

Just because people meet together does not make them a team. Heads need to make the idea of a leadership team explicit, to discuss with the team’s members what it is and why it is important. As part of this, teams need to develop shared norms and expectations of attitudes and behaviors for in and out of team meetings. Heads should expect everyone on the team to practice systems thinking and to get “on the balcony” of the whole school. I tell the leaders on my team that they each have at least three roles: leadership and oversight of their particular area, learning to lead, and taking shared responsibility for the collective vision, strategy and performance of the whole school and the whole team.

Mission, Vision, Values

Everyone in a strong school should have a shared understanding of the school’s mission, vision and values, and this is particularly important for a strong leadership team. Mission and vision, along with priorities, goals and measures of success are the parallel to a football team’s touchdown; they are the shared outcomes toward which team members strive, together. Shared work starts with a shared sense of what a team hopes to accomplish, and the ways each leader will help to accomplish it.

Putting Learning at The Center

As my coach likes to say, in a learning organization, “the learning is the work.” Heads need to create cultures in their schools where learning from failures and successes is as important as the failures and successes themselves. As the leading learners in their schools, heads need to model and expect risk taking, reward failures that lead to learning, and devote time to learning and reflection in one-on-one meetings and in leadership team meetings. Even during the hiring process it should be clear to candidates that reflective practice and the willingness to be vulnerable are nonnegotiable. Heads need to establish openness and trust on their teams in order to create the space for people to be honest with themselves and each other.

Working to Clarify Roles

On great teams, different members of the team serve as experts, coaches, mentors for other members of the team, including the head. On my team, for example, one person is a go-to person for performance management issues, and others for their particular strengths, such as external relationships management, institutional memory, collaborative inquiry, knowledge of child development, and conflict resolution. Recognizing different talents lets people shine and acknowledges that they don’t all share the same strengths or weaknesses. This is, in fact, why they need a team. Who is on the bus is important, but the ride is more comfortable and more productive when where people are sitting also makes sense to everyone.

Engaging, Growth-Oriented Team Meetings

Heads need to develop their own coaching and facilitation skills in order to make leadership team meetings sites for learning and growth. Modalities such as strategic thinking and visioning, dilemmas of practice, after-action reviews, and personal and professional sharing and reflection help develop critical habits of mind and heart in the school’s leaders. Meetings can help team members get inside each other’s worlds, building empathy and strengthening interdependencies. Heads can minimize reporting and tactical work that are not relevant to everyone and that do not help bring the team members out of their particular perspectives. Finding the authentically shared work of a school’s leadership team can be challenging, so heads should talk with their teams about this and seek feedback about the quality of their meetings.

Genuinely Empowering the Team

Hard as it can be, heads must strive to truly empower the leaders around them. I have learned that one of my blind spots can be a lack of awareness of my own power and the way power dynamics can hinder people from stepping fully into the leadership roles I hope they will play. Heads need to encourage, even beg their teams to disagree with and challenge them—to reward and praise dissent, and show their teams that they value their opinions even when, especially when, they disagree with the head. This means allowing their teams to make decisions that they disagree with, which is where the rubber hits the road of delegation and empowerment. Decision making is where heads can illustrate their trust in the collective wisdom of the team. Taking back authority after a deliberative process can exact a long-term price, while genuinely empowering a team for even one decision can be a significant investment in team’s leadership effectiveness.

Conclusion

With the challenges facing schools and heads in our rapidly changing world, it is more important than ever that heads do not go it alone. My own experience has taught me that when a head is surrounded by great people who not only strive for excellence themselves, but who also are invested in working collaboratively and productively with other members of their leadership team, the head can maximize his own potential and the potential of the people around him. Actualizing the full potential of leaders throughout our schools will be a key to our school’s surviving and thriving into the future. And, it makes the challenging work of school leadership rewarding and fun.♦

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