How to build a powerful school leadership team
There's strength in numbers - and this rings especially true when it comes to leading a school. Achievement Partner Caroline shares her expertise on what's needed to best prepare leadership teams for the biggest challenges.
I recently heard about a newly appointed headteacher whose staff were feeling very frustrated. Every time they approached her with an issue, she said: “I am empowering you to solve that problem for yourself.” This started me thinking about why this was unhelpful to them. Surely leaders are meant to empower others, and teachers and support staff can benefit from independent problem-solving. I eventually realised, however, a key detail: the headteacher was new and she and her staff simply didn’t know each other well enough yet - and as a result, they hadn’t established trust.
For a team to lead effectively they need to trust each other. If they are going to trust each other, they need to get to know each other. As author Patrick Lencioni tells us in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we need to build "vulnerability-based trust": a deep confidence in teammates that allows admission of vulnerabilities without fear of negative consequences.
Trust will allow your team to:
- challenge each other
- establish a shared language
- aim towards a shared goal
- be open and transparent with work and updates
- share in mistakes made, without it feeling like it’s all about one individual.
If individuals in a team focus solely on their own goals and personal status, then the collective results of everyone will be diluted. Lots of tasks may well get done, but at what cost? Long-term, sustainable change will not be achieved.
Credibility is key to teamwork
Building up credibility between team members takes time. As an Achievement Partner with Teach First, I work closely with school leaders to support their development. During my three years in the role, I’ve seen first-hand how this credibility is gradually established between leaders and their teams. I’ve seen individuals grow in confidence because they know that they are trusted by their teammates to get the job done.
The Leading Together programme gives your team time to reflect on how effective they are as a team. So often the teams are made up of highly effective practitioners, but they are not always highly effective at the same things. By exploring what they are doing well individually, and what they are doing well as a team allows them to work much more collaboratively - and very often more enjoyably.
Better team diversity leads to greater outcomes
Teams need to feel comfortable enough with each other to be able to have challenging conversations necessary for real change. These conversations need to use the team’s breadth of experience and expertise to create new options and make better decisions.
One individual can come up with solutions to all sorts of problems, but great school leaders make the best use of their teams - and the more diverse the team, the greater the variety of experience that can be drawn from. A primary school leadership team that has no early years or Key Stage 1 experience, for example, is unlikely to be as effective as one where all key stages are represented.
I have seen many leadership teams benefit from including a team member who has experienced a very different school setting. One of the most effective teams I have worked with was in a school in a highly deprived and multi-cultural area. The team reflected the diversity of its community and was the richer for it.
Taking responsibility for accountability
The Headteacher and Teacher Standards clearly state that staff know and understand their professional responsibilities and are held to account. Individuals are, of course, accountable for outcomes related to their role, but it is an understanding of the collective accountability that will lead to a culture of support and encouragement, and ultimately a culture that brings about change.
Highly effective leaders understand that when holding their teams to account they don’t just tell people what to do and delegate tasks; they are clear about how they want it done and they allocate tasks according to who is best placed to deliver them. Teams that lead together check in with each other and make sure everyone understands what needs to be done and how to do it.
Exploring important issues together
It is important to empower your team members, but not to just get on with it on their own. Creating vulnerability-based trust involves admitting mistakes, sharing weaknesses and acknowledging others’ strengths. Everyone must feel able to admit when they are unsure of how to tackle a challenging task and ask for help.
Being part of the Leading Together programme gives leadership teams the opportunity to explore important issues together. Whether it is learning about your school’s culture, or refining your curriculum, the very act of working on these topics as a team with an experienced facilitator (your Achievement Partner), will help to build trust and a real understanding of your team’s strengths.