How to Build a Great Leadership Team
It’s no secret that principals set the tone for an entire school community, driving the goals, culture, and practices of every staff member. I’ve had the opportunity to work with principals across the country, supporting their school growth, culture, and student achievement goals, and I’ve seen that even the most skilled principals often struggle with keeping student and teacher morale high.
When I first begin work with a school, I can usually tell very quickly when the school’s leadership team is not aligned. After observing this, I ask principals if they believe that they are effectively using and supporting the leaders around them. More often than not, they agree, but cannot say exactly how they are developing each leader’s ability to assume responsibilities and be truly successful.
I find that many school leaders struggle in working together as a collaborative team to bring real and lasting transformation to the classroom. Principals do not know how to prioritize this among ever-changing initiatives, staff turnover, and the various challenges that come with leading schools. Here are some of the best practices that I’ve used when coaching principals to build, support, and sustain a great school leadership team:
Modeling success in delegation.
Many principals appear to be skilled at delegating because they can assign tasks and send members of their administrative team to “go and do” them. In the worst-case scenario, leaders may delegate because they lack the understanding or skill set to handle that project themselves. They will sometimes debrief with the team after the task is complete, but very often remain too busy to take the time to do so. This lack of clarity, goal setting, and follow-through could mean that the team remains unclear on how to define success. In a perfect world, the principal would share the strategy, model its success, and evaluate the end result.
At CT3, we use the “gradual release model” approach, where principals shift responsibility and understanding to members of their leadership team, ensuring consistency in the implementation of strategy and messaging to the school staff.
Principals must communicate expectations clearly, and then model a successful process for their team to replicate. For example, when a principal is looking to improve data collection, he or she must model the exact process of how to collect data during walkthroughs of each classroom. Once the principal and team member complete a few walkthroughs together, they can split the remaining classrooms, maximizing efficiencies. The assistant principal (or other members of the administrative team) should then lead the process with the principal providing support.
Building leadership capacity through coaching.
Once principals model success for staff and master the art of delegation, they must look at ways to improve the effectiveness of their developing leaders, thereby increasing leadership capacity. Empowering leaders to assume greater responsibility is a strategic process most effective when rooted in a healthy culture of coaching.
In October 2016, Education Week published an article in which Peter DeWitt wrote: “…if leaders truly believe in being collaborative, they also understand that they have a blind spot (Scharmer) which they lead from on a daily basis, and they may need outside guidance on how to get through that blind spot.” When a leader seeks out and welcomes transparent feedback, it helps teachers find value in the feedback they receive from that leader. It creates a common coaching language and sets the healthy precedent that everyone can improve for the betterment of scholars.
Principals must have the humility to be coached often and in front of members of their leadership teams. In return, they will earn the flexibility to coach members of their teams wherever and whenever appropriate: in tough transitions, common spaces or staff meetings.
Holding high standards.
In my work coaching principals through CT3, the healthiest coaching cultures are based on mutual respect, where principals have strong relationships with school staff and teachers. This mutual trust fosters an environment where everyone is responsible for upholding high standards and being held accountable when those standards are not met.
The most effective principals hold themselves and members of their leadership team to the highest standards. Principals can further motivate teachers by holding their core members to these same high standards in staff meetings and other collaborative settings. Strong leaders come from principals who are transparent about the feedback and goals they have for every member of the team, and trust staff to operate the same way.
Principals should dissuade assistant principals and deans from sitting on the sidelines and encourage them to host regular staff meetings or professional development sessions. The successful principals that I work with empower their leadership team to disseminate staff-wide emails about feedback, observations, and goals. This sends a message that everyone is held accountable in doing their best work to collectively meet, and exceed, the school’s goals.
Expecting and fostering team unification.
School leaders must be unified in their processes to be effective. Principals should work with their teams to identify a set of three to seven “cultural norms,” or standard practices, that all leaders are expected to use in running their meetings. For instance, in one school that I work with, critical feedback is paired with praise and for every “grow” there is a “glow.”
In the same way, teams must have established norms, or ground rules, when it comes to giving and receiving feedback in meetings or sessions with teachers. These norms create healthy boundaries and safe spaces, where feedback is valued by all parties. This practice will unify school leadership, creating a cohesive team ready to support each member of the school community.
Focusing on instruction and learning.
An effective leadership team creates transformation in the school by first focusing upon what occurs in the classroom. Strong principals often hire great assistant principals or deans to manage assemblies, staff meetings or common spaces. While solid and consistent schoolwide routines and procedures are important, many principals lack a systematic way of creating lasting positive change in instruction or achievement in the classroom.
Great principals must ensure that each member of the leadership team is ready to manage a grade level or team of teachers. They should hold focused meetings to review student work and identify areas for instructional focus, again modeling this practice for other leaders. Effective principals change schools by living in instructional spaces, walking through classrooms each day and communicating data points and goals to all staff.
There are two types of disruption that can occur in a school’s culture: positive and negative. While the right leader can introduce innovative ideas to help the school grow, the wrong person can derail a healthy culture, alienate teachers or fail to make an impact. I recently co-wrote an article about the process of interviewing candidates that explores the advantages of hiring someone with a growth mindset, even if the person is not as skilled. Hiring someone with a high skill set who exhibits a disempowering or fixed mindset can negatively disrupt the team.
Effective principals make their team members feel safe and supported enough to be “disruptively innovative.” The objective of “positive disruption” is not necessarily to build consensus, but to create a space where the established norms, systems, and processes provide a framework for healthy discussion. Having a growth mindset as a school leader means listening with an open mind, and being willing to seek out different solutions or structures.
Building a great leadership team is the foundation of developing a transformational teaching staff, which, in turn, is the key to building a positive and vibrant school culture. When leaders act as silos with conflicting processes or try to take on too much without the skills and support needed, the rest of the school community can suffer. Normalizing and aligning principals, assistant principals, directors, deans, and other school leaders provides consistency in both messaging and action, which builds trust among staff, students, and parents.
By William Sprankles
William Sprankles is a consultant for CT3 and serves as the Director of Innovative Teaching & Learning at Butler Tech in Ohio.
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