In an ideal situation, most school leaders envision teacher-led teams working in a collaborative state. The desire for this collaboration stems not only from the proven positive correlation between team-collaboration and student learning, but also because executive stakeholders need middle leaders to help them see through school improvement initiatives.
In order for teams to work collaboratively, interdependence amongst team members is essential, by which I mean creating tasks that require trust, shared goals and outcomes. Interdependence harnesses the collective knowledge of the team and helps them to resolve conflict, however, it is also often the source of conflict. For example, if team members are unable to commonly plan or interpret assessment data differently. When executive stakeholders are made aware of this type of conflict, they will want teams to mitigate and manage it within the team because conflict that surfaces above the team is a major distraction to the school in many ways.
A Vice Principal once told me, “I struggle to separate from the idea that solid recruitment negates the need for training. If we are all professional and motivated, then teams automatically should be collaborative.” This statement presumes that professionalism means that working collaboratively is the responsibility of the individual, or essentially what makes them ‘professional’. It is also a common bias found in all organizations; if we hire great individuals, everyone will be a leader. This bias, though, is magnified at the middle leader level in schools, in that executive stakeholders assume a team of professionals will be able to communicate effectively, keep each other motivated, resolve their own conflict and achieve transformative outcomes. The team leader role is merely a line for reporting with executive stakeholders.
‘A team of star players does not make an all-star team’.
To be clear, teachers are subject-matter experts, incredibly efficacious, and there are many all-star teachers. However, these two characteristics can often undermine collaboration because a teacher’s individual need to succeed can limit their perspective and interests to their own practice. They are more likely to see collaboration as a time consuming obstacle, thus making it difficult to align with other team members and the school’s strategic objectives. This is true of both Primary and Secondary teachers, and especially when it comes to the topic of observations and analyzing data. A common retort I hear from teachers as to why they can’t collaboratively analyze data is that since the teachers are working with different groups of students, assessment data can’t inform the work of the team, only the individual class teacher. This example obviously runs deeper, as it is common for teachers to respond defensively if they feel that they are being put under the microscope.
To overcome these barriers to collaboration, senior leaders first need to acknowledge and rectify this bias about middle leadership. Next they need to ask: Who will take responsibility to foster interdependence among team members? Who will align the work of the team with the school’s strategic objectives? Who will clarify the work of the team and the role each member plays? Who will motivate and keep the team on track? Who will mitigate conflict at the team level so that senior leadership can stay focused on the bigger picture?
Even if executive stakeholders have answers to these questions, or if you have been singled out as the answer to these questions, we need to next ask, ‘Am I the right person at this time to lead this team?’ Successful leadership at any level is a multi-dimensional gambit, and ensuring the right leader is chosen requires a critical assessment on three different levels:
- Team: Who is being lead?
- Outcome: What is the expected outcome?
- Time: What leadership characteristics are necessary at this stage?
These three dimensions are not just a matter of aligning person, place and time, but a way of defining the antecedents for success. Early in my leadership journey, I always thought I had all the answers, even if I didn’t, I had no problem being confident about the ones I gave. That attitude and confidence earned me a seat at the middle leaders table, but it ultimately held me back from achieving bigger outcomes. As I grew as a leader, I learned to focus more on my strengths, which instilled a confidence in me to stick to what I know. If I didn’t know something, I needed to instill that same confidence in someone else who did know and let her or him lead.
This change in attitude allowed me to grow as a leader and achieve larger, long-term outcomes. I was able to tap into the collective experience of my team, motivate team members to take ownership of tasks and free myself to focus on the big picture. Creating an ideal situation isn’t just the result of all the stars aligning and shining on the leader. For a leader and the members of her or his team to work interdependently, it takes an incredible amount of time and team building. Unfortunately, this needed time is often not anticipated or allotted by executive stakeholders and the middle leaders whom have been selected to lead.
In fact, I have found that in many cases, the middle leader is chosen because they excel at their job and the executive stakeholders want them to ‘step-up’. The assumption is that the person being asked to ‘step-up’ can handle the additional responsibility. In some cases, there may be a vacancy and the prospective middle leader feels it is simply their turn to step-up, ‘someone has to do it.’ In almost all appointments of middle leaders, executive stakeholders focus on the individual and not the context in which they are being asked to lead in; they neglect to consider the three dimensions that contribute to successful leadership.
Have you ever worked in a school where a principal saw the school through what many assumed would be a tough leadership transition? Perhaps you were at a school where you were part of a transformative school improvement initiative. Hopefully you have experienced being at a school where executive stakeholders supported and empowered you. These three examples require three very different types of leadership: transitional leadership, transformative leadership and supportive leadership. This does not constitute the definitive list for leadership types, but these examples do require leaders to embody distinctly different characteristics and employ different strategies.
It would not be reasonable to think any one person would be the right person to be successful in each of those three examples. While we do ask this of our executive stakeholders, it is not reasonable to expect it of our middle leaders. Thus, we should differentiate our approach in choosing middle leaders and recruit candidates that have the experience and skill sets which are commensurate with the team they will lead, the outcome they will be expected to achieve and the stage of development the school or team are in. To achieve this, we need to find leaders that are the right fit for the three dimensions and clearly define the role of the middle leader in line with those dimensional considerations. We also need to ensure their buy-in to the outcome that is being sought.
These three requirements (three dimensional fit, clearly defined role and buy-in to outcomes) now become the basis for selecting the middle leader. Multi-dimensional assessments require multiple perspectives, therefore an interdisciplinary recruitment process is required to identify the right leadership candidates. Unfortunately, the selection process for middle leaders is limited to far too few stakeholders and not allotted sufficient time. This happens because one school year hasn’t finished, but preparation for next school year has begun. In the myriad of pressing tasks, most executive stakeholders will not take time to critically assess who should be the middle leader, let alone account for the time it takes to prepare middle leaders for their role in the coming year. Even if there is no change in grade level leader or department head roles, we should not assume the next school year will be business as usual.
In my interaction with middle leaders, I am struck by how many of them that do not have job descriptions or amended working agreements to account for their ‘additional’ duties. Furthermore, where job descriptions exist, they are often vague. Some executive stakeholders may even become extremely defensive if questioned as to their expectations or for clarity regarding the role. Left with this lack of clarity, middle leaders new to a team or school will often have to learn about the job by finding out what their predecessor did and effectively emulate . In my own experience, the number of schools that treat teacher-led role descriptions like a legend that gets handed down generation to generation is very unnerving. It is for this reason, whether or not the middle leader has a full-time teaching role, they should still have their job description evaluated and amended to clearly define the leadership responsibilities they are assuming, as well as buy-in to the expected outcomes. Also, even if they are returning to a leadership position, we still need to consider the three dimensions and adjust the job description accordingly.
Over a 3 to 5-year period, teams will require different styles of leadership to achieve a desired outcome. The leader that begins the journey may not be the right leader to end it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be part of the journey. Initially, teams will require someone who has great organization skills and is attuned to the needs of each team members. As the team grows and becomes more interdependent, they will then require a leader who promotes risk-taking and can stay focused on the big picture. As the team closes in on their desired outcome, they will finally need someone to monitor progress, evaluate progress and keep the team motivated. Even with the outcome fully achieved, we will require a different style of leadership, someone who can consolidate the achievements and scale the impact.
Let’s now consider how to use an interdisciplinary approach to recruit middle leaders, regardless if they are new to a team or returning to a leadership role. Here are three essential questions that require input from multiple stakeholders:
- How well has, or will, next year’s middle leader collaborate with their team and other leaders in the school?
- How resourceful can or will they be to support the needs of their team?
- How have they measured up to other middle leaders?
These will also help identify support middle leaders need and that they can begin getting now in preparation for next year.
When you take time to ask the right questions, with an interdisciplinary team, and assess how the next school year may differ from this one (team composition, accreditation, new goals, etc) you then need to review the position description and either edit it in line with next year’s reality or reaffirm the expectations for the middle leaders based on this year’s achievements. The position description should be viewed as a living document, which becomes an opportunity to raise the bar, as well as confirm the middle leaders acceptance of the expectations being put on them. This is the most important part of achieving buy-in, and once buy-in is achieved, you will find your middle leaders to be more accommodating and resilient to the unforeseen challenges that will inevitably occur next year.