When I begin to coach a school leadership team, I often find a hard-working and well intentioned team frustrated at its low impact on the results it wants to see. The team’s wheels seem to be spinning rather than giving traction to enable priority teaching and learning improvements. Why is this happening, they wonder?
A team can attribute its low impact to external factors, such as calibre of students, reluctance of teachers to embrace and implement change, the students’ families, and so on. A team can blame one or two of its members for a lack of commitment or challenging behaviour in team meetings. Team explanations such as these, attributing low impact to external factors or blaming, are usually insufficient on their own.
It’s likely a leadership team will need to look inside, to itself, to find answers for getting better. By holding a mirror up to itself and knowing what to look for, it’s possible for a team to grow, learn and develop into a great team.
Suggested reading: Hattie, J. (2015). High-Impact Leadership. Educational Leadership, ASCD, February 2015, 36-40.
Here are 4 ways how a leadership team can look in the mirror to become a better team
1. Team Design
Just like a Dreamliner aircraft or the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner, a team needs a great design for an enjoyable journey and to safely arrive at its destination. Team design is the starting point for a high-impact team. However, most leadership teams don’t take the time to discuss, agree on, document and implement their unique team design. There’s a consequent risk of a team’s weak understanding about expectations and priorities.
A team’s design explicitly documents its mission (Why does the team exist? What’s its core purpose?); vision (How should the team think and act to accomplish its mission?); protocols (What are the team’s core work processes for achieving desired outcomes?); roles (Are team roles and responsibilities clearly aligned to team goals, and promote shared leadership?); alignment (How will the team determine its goals and align team member performance expectations to those goals?); metrics (How will the team track and measure its impact in relation to its goals?). Team design guides a team’s work, makes priorities and expectations explicit and shared, and is the touchstone for how a team works to attain its goals.
Suggested reading: Gustavson, P., & Liff, S. (2014). A Team of Leaders: Empowering every member to take ownership, demonstrate initiative, & deliver results. New York: AMACOM.
2. Team Relationships
At one extreme team relationships can be congenial, at the other extreme adversarial. Leadership teams often don’t talk about the quality of relationships they want. It’s too hard or too risky, so relationships don’t get discussed. It’s important for a leadership team to understand that relational trust in schools is a strong predictor of student success. By implication, being a high-impact leadership team requires strong relational trust, both inside and outside of the team.
A team needs to get explicit about its relationships. A framework for team talk is the research-identified four characteristics of relational trust: respect (How will we talk together, listen to each other, and give each other feedback?); competence (What does the team need to know and do to attain its goals, individually and collectively?); integrity (How will the team ‘walk its talk’? Do we agree that all team decisions will be made in the best interests of our students?); personal regard (How will we support each other in our work?)
Suggested reading: Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
3. Team Behaviours
The quality of interactions between team members is tightly linked to a team’s performance effectiveness. Are team members aware of the mindset and behaviours essential to its efficiency and effectiveness? By ‘mindset’ I mean team values and assumptions, by ‘behaviours’ I mean team skills. A team without an open-to-learning mindset, a genuine curiosity about the views and opinions of others, and the specific behaviours required for team members to work productively together, will most likely have a low impact.
It may require a coach to help identify, make explicit and critique a team’s values and assumptions. Similarly, a coach can help a team increase its knowledge of and skilfulness in using behaviours that improve team interactions and performance. For example, explaining your thinking and inviting others to ask questions; closing the gap between what you say and what you think; understanding the preferences of others and their interests; how to discuss undiscussable issues. With support and feedback, desirable mindsets and behaviours can be learned and implemented to increase a leadership team’s impact on student outcomes.
Suggested reading: Schwarz, R. (2002). The Skilled Facilitator: A comprehensive resource for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers and coaches. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.
4. Team Accountability
Creating a culture of accountability helps team members do their best and get results. Once a
team’s design and goals are explicit and agreed (see above), team members need to be clear about the criteria against which their performance will be evaluated and judged. Accountability happens between each team member and the team leader, and between members within the team.
The team leader should meet each team member at least each quarter to review performance progress. For consistency, the team should prior agree on the purpose, format, requirements and intended outcomes of these individual meetings. The role of each team member is to present an evidence-based quarterly progress report of their successes and challenges to the team leader. The role of the team leader is to provide each team member with support and challenge by listening, inquiring, critiquing, and offering guidance and direction.
Accountability within a team can be promoted by an agreed quarterly schedule of when each team member will discuss with the team their successes and challenges, explicitly focusing on team goals (see above). It’s the job of the team to listen, understand, inquire and offer suggestions. This process encourages shared responsibility for attaining the team’s goals, rather than the sole responsibility of individual team members. As well, it fosters team learning by increasing awareness of how each member’s work can inform the work of the whole team, thereby promoting alignment and coherence in team thinking and actions.
Suggested reading: Desmidt, B. (2013). Inside-Outside Leadership. USA: Xlibrus.