Leadership roles attract some of the most curious, ambitious and growth minded individuals. These are three vital attributes for achieving transformational change and when people with these attributes are put together there will be a multiplier effect of new ideas that improving practice. Why then, after the team leader and coordinator roles are assigned, are schools not realizing this multiplier effect? What practical strategies are Senior Leadership teams lacking to empower middle leaders and foster collaboration as a larger network?
Let’s first assess the situation. These ascending leaders have either through curiosity, career mindedness or even coercion, accepted a role that is poorly defined, has limited or no authority and comes with a huge target for colleagues to set their sights on. The expressions, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ and ‘We are all in this together’ are common mottoes for these people. These are the Middle Leaders, the grade level and subject team leaders, department heads, coordinators and any other roles tasked with making sure a group of staff use time and resources appropriately and productively.
I give credit to senior leaders in recognizing the importance of middle leaders in affecting change across a school, but middle leaders need to be appropriately equipped to ensure desired changes stick. To affect meaningful organizational change, middle leaders need three to five years with their team, with the first year being spent mostly forming the team, developing a collaborative network and capacity building the team to achieve the desired change. This is different from the current reality, where most schools have a revolving door of middle leaders, often caused by competing school initiatives. This periodical assignment of team leaders is like playing musical chairs.
When I confront senior leaders regarding the lack of continuity in leadership, they often justify hasty leadership assignments because the nature of change is urgent, and/or the person chosen has significant experience. Schools are time poor as it is, throw in urgency and it’s a cocktail for disenfranchisement. Also, relying on experience as a solution has very limited success, as no manner of change is ever the same. Experience may help some leaders understand how to navigate the school hierarchy, but if a lot of the ‘experience’ these leaders have gained is ‘getting things done’, then it’s a good bet their teams aren’t collaborating and the product of what they produce will be one-dimensional, driven from the perspective of the team leader.
Middle leaders are often selected for their technical or organizational capabilities, and not their interpersonal or networking skills. Like many staff in schools, middle leaders feel very isolated, with no clear understanding of how they can collaborate with each other. Outside of their team, their relationships with leadership are very linear and limited to reporting. As such, the type of collaboration occurring in their team is often linear and limited to reporting.
If middle leaders are asked why they don’t collaborate with each other, they often make the same excuses that members of their team make about collaboration, ‘we have different students’, ‘we plan differently’ and ‘we do not have time’. These are unfortunately valid excuses in time starved environments. Even if time could be ‘made’, if people aren’t trained and disciplined in using that time appropriately, odds are the time ‘made’ will be used to catch up on work, not collaborate.
If successfully managing change or developing a collaborative culture is something that is vital to the school’s success, then creating a Middle Leadership Team is essential. Middle leaders are the true change agents in schools. With their buy-in and front-line perspective they will be the engines that drive transformational change. If you accept that this role is critical to developing a collaborative network in the school, then you need to formally establish a Middle Leadership Team. As a separate team, middle leaders will provide critical peer-support and be able to experience the practice of crossbreeding ideas insulated from the naysayers scattered across the school.
To empower this team to collaborate, this may require subject, grade-level and department teams to meet a little less or to free up additional periods for middle leaders. The reward is capacity-building a team that will act as a firewall for Senior Leadership, shielding them from the various types of conflict within teams that isolated middle leaders struggle to cope with. Middle leadership teams help prevent issues from escalating upward, through collectively addressing organizational conflict. These teams also serve as a benchmark for teams across the school to assess their own progress, thus ensuring greater continuity across the school. This continuity adds clarity of purpose, and also further aids the development of other teams. The Middle Leadership Team now becomes a forum for sharing best practices at an organizational level.
If you agree with this assessment, let’s now discuss a solution. The Middle Leadership Team is not a new concept, it has been around for decades and is the linchpin to the Matrix organizational structure:
“…top management teams cannot afford to let all day-to-day operational coordination issues escalate upward. Its real challenge is to achieve lateral coordination also at the levels below. This can be achieved through hard-wiring or soft-wiring. A matrix structure is an example of hard-wiring, because the two bosses of a manager in a matrixed position have the joint responsibility to set his objectives, supervise his work, do his appraisal, and ensure his development.”
Making Matrix Organizations Actually Work, by Herman Vantrappen and Frederic Wirtz, March 01, 2016, Harvard Business Review.
A Matrix structure does not solve all problems, and in fact can create new ones, but more efficient and effective lateral coordination ensures that everyone has a seat at the table. Most, if not all, school reform initiatives are top-down driven, with very little input from the middle. For example, to ensure the latest innovative practices like STEM and PBL take root, they require matrix organizational constructs. Schools are ripe for a hybrid matrix organization that doesn’t require middle leaders to assume reporting responsibilities with staff in different teams, but does require leadership across the school spending more time understanding what is going on in different teams.
Every Senior Leader I work with praises their school’s middle leadership on one breath and expresses frustration on the next. Teaching and planning is only half of the job, and the rest falls on administration to ensure school initiatives are far reaching. At the senior leadership level, the picture is clear, but to those below, it is difficult to connect the dots. That exhale of frustration, then, is senior leaderships’ angst from the myriad of problems middle leadership approach them with. Matrix organizations help alleviate this frustration, as they were born from companies seeking to break down silos and force middle leaders to coordinate the goals and activities with staff that have responsibilities to different teams. To achieve this level of coordination, you need a Middle Leadership Team.
Michael Iannini is based in Hong Kong. You can view Michael’s biography by visiting the Council of International Schools website, http://www.cois.org/page.cfm?p=2619. You can learn more about the work Michael does by visiting www.pdacademia.com or following him on Twitter @PDacademia or on LinkedIn, hk.linkedin.com/in/michaeliannini.