Foundations to Build Strong Leadership Teams

We have pressure all around us. Pressure to perform. Pressure to meet our goals. Pressure to meet other’s goals. Pressure to get it right. Pressure to close achievement gaps. The list goes on and on. Pressure is not in short supply. What can be done to channel the pressure into a productive venture? Giving strategic thought to both your direction and desired outcome is the best way to get the pressure out of pure stress mode and into a useful fuel source. 

Out of the Stress and Into the Team – Teams can counteract directionless stress and pressure. Teams are one of the most important entities at a school. It is well documented that having teams, functioning in teams, and maintaining teams is a critical ingredient for successful schools and districts. It is not good to travel the education landscape alone. So much can be gained by working with others. Sharing the load, solving common problems, exchanging strategies and resources and discussing student success or struggle is a tremendously valuable thing. The old saying is true: “Many hands make for light work.” That saying applies in schools as well. There is no reason for a leader, manager, administrator or teacher leader to have to feel that they must go it alone. So much can be gained by sharing, collaborating, and problem solving together.

Having teams is critical. Having functional people able to serve on a team is the foundational building block. How do teams come to have success? There are some fundamental aspects to look for and nurture to have the most advantageous climate and conditions for teams to thrive and grow. For purposes of clarification, teams in this article can range from a team made up of administrators only, or administrators with teacher leaders, managers with their department members, or any combination of the above. Gathering all of these key people together is important but getting them all pointed in the same direction is a critical task for a leader. So how does one get so many people connected to a set direction?

Why Are We Doing What We’re Doing? – It is important to be able to describe the “why” to others in your organization. Once the “why” is adequately described, the organization can move to the more detailed work of the “what.” But, as with anything, the starting point is the “why.” People need to know why they are going to undertake the cross-country journey.  Why are teams important? Why is the work that teams will accomplish be so important?

Daniel Pink (2013) describes that the latest research on what motivates employees to go above and beyond rests squarely in their understanding of “why.” Pink (2013) goes on to explain that all too often employers spend far too much time communicating the “what” to their employees and far too little time communicating the “why.” The compelling reasons to spend more time on the “why” and less on the “what” are magnetic. Once people know the “why” they can do so much to add value and power to the goals and direction of the school or district.

Common Language and Direction – One of the greatest challenges for a leader is to have everyone on the team be conversant and in full understanding about the strategic direction of the organization. It is crucial that staff be given time to talk about how different topics connect. To build a common language and capacity in the leadership team there are four skills or ingredients needed. They are: Competency, Conditions, Culture, and Context (Wagner et al., 2006). Competency includes skills such as: thinking strategically, interpreting data, collaboration, and identify learning needs. Condition skills include: maintaining time for problem solving, maintaining clear priorities, and maintaining support at all levels of the organization. Culture skills include: setting an organization’s agenda, building positive adult relationships, and monitoring communication at all levels of the organization. Context skills include understanding student’s families and clearly understanding core competencies needed for students when they become workers in the 21st Century economy. These skills can reveal a great deal of the missing pieces in your present organization’s ability to become a functioning system.

Application Question: Reflect and discuss the status of your organization regarding the 4 C’s described above? How proficient is your organization at each one? What items are missing? What areas should be worked on first?

System – Schmoker (1996) tells us that we stand a chance at good results when we have an emphasis on principles and practices that 1) are simple and supported by research, 2) are relatively few in number and 3) have huge but underused potential. Simply following these three points could lead to success in performance and achievement not yet experienced. But, it could get better if we build a recurring system that can generate this success over and over. Schmoker citing McGonagill (1996) warns us that school goals are “rarely linked to student achievement.” This means that however we choose to describe our panoramic vision and incremental details we have to keep it firmly connected to student outcomes and achievement. After all, this is the only thing worth putting all of this effort into, isn’t it?  So, how do we create a simple system for recurring success that focuses on student achievement and has only a few number of targets? Further, how do we create a system that anchors itself in the power of teams to accomplish the work?

General Foundational Systems to Support Leadership Teams

As we consider the entire organization and the various teams that exist, there are some fundamental and foundational systems that can be examined for their efficacy. These systems must be present for leadership teams to function, get results, and stand the test of time.  Each system should be examined in the context of your teams and evaluate any needs around each particular topic. These systems better help teams be connected to the “why.” Teams must know why they are engaged in the work. Why they are making changes. Why they are trying to improve. Having a system to support team development and growth also helps teams connect and be grounded in Wagner’s 4 C’s (Competency, Conditions, Culture, and Context). Finally, focus on systems of habit and conditions of success keep us centered on Schmoker’s point that we should be results oriented. Further, our results-oriented focus should be simple, easily understood and easy to maintain.

The following simple systems are high value considerations to build efficacy in leadership teams. These ingredients should be present and maintained with routine.

System #1 – Communication

Perhaps the most important consideration for the leader directing the work and implementation of student achievement initiatives is to be sure there is a common language. This thread, communication, requires attention for both the leadership teams as well as the teacher teams. The communication may be customized to both groups but the content must be coordinated and consistent. The leadership team tasked with implementing major initiatives must constantly review and monitor the communication that is going out. A huge piece of this constant communication is to continually explain the “non-negotiables.” This way as the process grows and moves everyone understands what the expectations are regarding implementation of major initiatives. The communication of new content is just as important as the monitoring of ‘implemented’ content. 

Application Question: How well are all stakeholders communicated with regarding the most important initiatives in your school or district? How do you know? What can be improved? Are the “non-negotiables” and expectations routinely communicated to stakeholders?

System #2 – Professional Development

Professional development is a thread that should be ubiquitous and omni-present. Especially when it comes to major initiatives. Leadership teams and teacher teams should be provided and exposed to as much professional development and support as time and money will allow. There is nothing as important as the support and on-going training in the constant maintenance of high-value initiatives through training and follow-up coaching support. These sustained opportunities for training must include the expectation that participants take back and apply the learning. The leader and leadership team must make the expectation clear that training be used and integrated into schools, work sites and classrooms.

Application Question: Do all stakeholders receive on-going professional development and coaching on the most important initiatives? How does the leadership team set the expectation that all professional development be used on the job? How do leadership team members get professional development specific to their roles?

System #3 – Big Picture/Detailed Picture

Leaders, especially the leadership team, have the constant responsibility to re-orient people to the big picture. Much like the directory maps at shopping malls that have a “You Are Here” dot, we must constantly show people where they are on the map. This gives people the connection to Pink’s “why.” For many, knowing where they are and why they are working on a specific program or task can make up the vast majority of their need to feel connected and effective in their efforts. This big picture snapshot also allows for a vivid description of “Where We Are Going.” Further, leaders have to take the big picture and bring it down to very specific tasks and details to be sure the moment-by-moment and day-to-day are clear, effective, and productive. It is the task of leaders and the leadership team to constantly monitor both big picture cohesiveness along with detailed work tasks to be sure the alignment is proper.

Application Question: Do members of the leadership team possess the skills to communicate, explain, and support the description of the big picture of what your school or district is working toward? Is the same true with details about each high value initiative? If not, what steps must be taken to ensure that they understand both the big picture and the details to support any staff member with implementation?

System #4 – Culture

An organizational culture must be present that supports monitoring, sustaining, implementation and organizing the major initiatives. Great care should be taken to evaluate and nurture a positive culture that supports these initiatives. Culture is a very powerful force and can block and undo even the best-laid plans. Indeed, continuous improvement depends upon and requires a safe and supporting environment. The culture of the organization, especially when it comes to high value initiative implementation, must be that teachers can and do make a difference. This culture must be shaped and maintained by the leaders. It will not spontaneously appear. Further, without constant tending it will fade and move toward disarray.

Application Question: Is the culture of the organization one where all staff members know they make a difference in implementation of the high value initiatives? How do the members of the leadership team handle the responsibility of monitoring this culture on a constant basis? What support or changes are needed to improve culture and the understanding of efficacy in implementation of programs and initiatives?

System #5 - Resources and Support

One thing that the leadership team must consider from their level is the list of resources and support they need to provide. This will include materials, personal professional development, implementation site visits and preparation time. The ground level personnel must know there is a pipeline to the leadership team to solicit support, materials and other needs on a regular basis. Some of these needs can include: how to set and hold high expectations, timely professional development, clerical support, flexibility in teaching schedules, time to meet as a team, and coaching conversations. Further, there should be conversation around the emotional state of staff. Are they overwhelmed? Do they feel there are barriers to success?  It is the responsibility of the leader and leadership team to constantly monitor and solicit feedback on any needed resources or support for any high value initiative.

Application Question: Do leadership team members understand implementation of initiatives well enough to recognize needed resources and support needs? What feedback systems exist for leadership team members to gather information from all areas of the organization? What growth opportunities do leadership team members need to expand on to be more effective at providing resources and support to staff?

System #6 – Time and Change

Time will be an issue on two fronts: 1) finding time and 2) repurposing time. Finding time means that teachers and schools will come to find that there are practices and present systems that do not support the new direction of high value initiatives. As they identify these things that don’t fit, permission must exist to ‘weed the garden’ and let go of things that no longer work. Also, permission may have to be given to repurpose time that is being used but may not be getting maximized. Explore ideas to repurpose time in meetings to support the learning, problem solving and support around the high value initiatives.

It is also critical for the leadership team to remember that most school personnel are not trained in initiating, implementing and sustaining change. Specific training and opportunities to support change to new practices should become regular events in monthly leadership meetings to provide staff ample and regular exposure to change strategies and implementation techniques. Meetings throughout the organization should be maximized to provide maximum opportunities to support change and the side effects of change. This leads to the continued building of a common language and common direction.

Application Question: What support do leadership team members need to be aware of and provide regarding use and repurposing of time? What support and understanding do leadership team members need to bring to assist in the difficulties that change brings? What growth experiences do leadership team members need to gain to be more effective in their role?

Next Steps

Like the famous saying “Mama never said it would be easy, just worth it” so it is with major initiative implementation in schools. No one said it would be easy but it is worth it. Reform and change can be challenging but success is sweet. When even the beginning stages of success are seen they should be celebrated and held up as a victory for all to see. It takes a team to move an entire organization. The leadership team is a crucial body to provide support in driving any major initiative. Therefore, building the skill sets of people who can become leadership team members, or more effective leadership team members, is one of the most important things that a school or district can do.

Works Cited

Pink, D. H. "The science of motivation." Curriculum and instruction steering cmte. Monterey, CA. 20 Feb. 2013. Keynote speech.

Schmoker, M. (1996). Results: The key to continuous school improvement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wagner, T., Kegan, R., Lahey, L., Lemons, R. W., Garnier, J., Helsing, D., & Howell, A. (2006). Change leadership: A practical guide to transforming our schools. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


David Horton is a lifelong educator. He has served as an Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, a K‑12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment; Coordinator of Secondary Mathematics and K‑12 Instructional Technology; high school Assistant Principal; and high school math and science teacher. David’s area of expertise is building systems and structures of organizational leadership that align mission and vision with practice. In particular, David’s greatest passion is the study and support of teams and collaborative success. He currently teaches as an adjunct professor with two Southern California universities.

David has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Master of Education from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He received a Master of Science degree in Administration from Pepperdine University and earned a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne. David resides in Southern California with his wife and two children.

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