The multiple perspectives, the buy-in from diverse stakeholders, shared leadership teams are a powerful tool in your arsenal for making large-scale school change stick. Shared leadership teams focus on the strategic work of the school. They focus on school change and improvement. They are not simply an advisory group. They are the decision making body.
Schools already have lots of groups that they call leadership teams. But many of them are not what I would refer to as “shared leadership teams,” not in the sense we're talking about here. I would probably call them “management teams.”
Schools frequently have teams that are used to help share information between building administration and teams or departments, or to decide how and when to transition between terms or trimesters, or how to handle lunch on days with special events, or how to schedule fundraisers from various groups, etc.
I am not implying that these management tasks are unimportant, because they are. Further, I believe they are best handled with teacher input and representation and not by administrative edict.
To me, however, management teams handle tasks related to the day to day running of the school.
Shared leadership teams focus on the strategic work of the school. They focus on school change and improvement.
In Auburn, we call them “Design Teams” because of the design and planning nature of their task. Another district I work with calls them “Implementation Teams” because they will lead the implementation of their strategic initiatives (and their “design teams” serve a specific function in school construction projects). Other folks call them “Work Groups.” It doesn't matter so much what they are called, as the work that they do.
Design teams assess where in the implementation process your educators are, identify timely next steps, assist in providing formative feedback to those educators, help troubleshoot and problem-solve the challenges of implementation, and facilitate the sharing of ideas. It's roll-up-your-sleeves strategic work. It's about assessing what needs to be done right now to help your initiative be successful. And it's about collaboratively crafting the overarching systems and structures that will guide your project.
For example, when Auburn started their 1to1 iPads in primary grades initiative, the design team for that initiative met periodically to plan various aspects of the program, including: what grade level we should begin with (kindergarten); the original name of the initiative; how to handle a small exploration program in 5 classrooms to figure out how we wanted to move forward with the program; how to craft a small randomized control trial (research study) at the beginning of the project, to insure we were collecting and analyzing data on how we were doing. Later, the role of the team evolved to focus on both on-going support of teachers and the special needs of rolling out 1to1 tablets to a new grade level each year.
As stated previously, shared leadership teams are made up of diverse stake holders. The power comes from these diverse perspectives.
But they are not simply an advisory group. They are the decision making body.
And, as much as possible, decisions are made by working toward concensus. Not everyone has to agree, but, as much as possible, everyone should be able to live with a decision. And lots can be learned by asking (nicely) someone to clarify their dissenting point of view. I find that often they have some concern many of the rest of us haven't thought about, but that we should consider and plan for.
Keep in mind that lots of perspectives and shared decision making does not mean letting folks do what ever they want (if that's worrying you). If you are the administrator, you still help set the non-negotiables and parameters of a decision. As a member of the team, your perspective is one of those shared in the discussions.
So shared leadership teams are not advisory groups, management teams, nor information dissemination groups (even if these are important tasks that need to be addressed somehow within the school or district).
What shared leadership teams are is a driving force to do the following:
- Work Out Details
- Solve the Problems
- Invent the Next Pieces
- Systematic Change and Continuous Improvement
So, if you are forming shared leadership teams for your initiative, you clearly want to reap the benefits that come from them: increased buy-in, soliciting stakeholder voice and choice, designing and planning strengthened by the power of multiple perspectives. And, if you are the one putting the leadership teams together, then you’re already a leader in your school or district (a little positional authority is usually needed to get them started).
So guess the most common cause of unintentional leadership team sabotage…
Yup. In my experience the most common source of sabotage are the people who put the team together in the first place. They never intend to. It just happens naturally.
You are leaders. You have postitional authority. The stakeholders at the table are used to your leadership. Probably, most of them appreciate your leadership. So what do they do? They do what they’re used to. They defer to you. And suddenly you have one leader with 14 people around a table, not a shared leadership team with 15 stakeholders expressing their diverse perspectives.
How do you know if you are unintentionally sabotaging your shared leadership team?
Pay attention to what percent of the talk in the shared leadership team (not counting the facilitation, just the real talk – sharing and examining ideas, designing components, developing plans) is from you or other school leaders with positional authority. If the answer is more than 25%, you have tweaking to do. If it is more than 50%, you’re in trouble (and won’t reap the benefits of shared leadership). If it is more than 75%, you are a master saboteur and are totally undermining your intentions of having a shared leadership team? (Ok, said a little tongue in cheek, but you get my point.)
In truth, we (school leaders) are good at what we do. To not do what we are good at is hard! It’s counterintuitive! But, in this case, it is also counterproductive.
So, what can you do to avoid the unintentional sabotage?
You will have to shift your leadership hat from directing and sharing your wisdom, to facilitating and soliciting wisdom from others. These strategies might help when meeting with your shared leadership team:
Wait Time: Just like in the classroom, sometimes you just need to pose your question or prompt and wait. And wait. And wait. Try not to be the first one to offer ideas, suggestions, or opinions. Just look around the room expectantly, someone else will eventually break the silence. The more the group gets used to actually expressing their ideas, the shorter the wait will be. But even when your group is at that point, try not to be one of the first ones to talk.
Actively Solicit Others’ Ideas: Just waiting probably will not be enough. The team might need nudging. Turn to team members and say, “Betty, what do you think?” You need to do it in a gentle way. It can’t sound like you’re trying to put anyone on the spot. Maybe start with someone who has been quiet, but you know is likely to have a good idea. Maybe do a “round robin,” where each person shares an idea in turn. Maybe after a couple people have shared ideas, ask an especially silent person what they think. When you see someone has a facial expression that says they have an opinion, say, “Mark, you look like you have something to say…” Spend more time getting others to share their ideas, than you spend sharing yours.
Save Your List for Later: It is likely that everyone is waiting for you to speak. Don’t. The quickest way to allow others to not share their voice or perspective is for you to speak. Save your input for later. (You do get to share it, just not first – or second!) I know you already have your own ideas about what needs to be done, how it should be done, and what the next steps are (you are a leader, after all!). So, keep that list to yourself! For now. Save most of your speaking for facilitating and getting others to share their ideas and opinions. But do keep the list in your head or on paper. Wait for others to share those ideas. Cross them off as they come up (from others). After the discussion has gone on for a while, and lots of ideas are on the table, then you can cycle back to sharing ideas from your list that aren’t crossed off yet. Maybe share them just one at a time, with ideas coming from others in between.
Frame Your Ideas as Questions, not Suggestions: Folks know you have ideas. They probably generally like your ideas. They are used to using your ideas, and probably even are accustomed to deferring to your ideas. The way to not allow them to simply wait and take your ideas is to avoid framing your ideas as ideas or suggestions, but rather as questions, “What do you guys think if we were to…?” This way, you are still soliciting members’ ideas and opinions, but ideas and opinions about the ideas you share. It says you value and are actively seeking their input and voice.
Warning #1: You might be a little mad at me right now (maybe deep down inside – maybe just a little – admit it!). Why can’t you share your ideas? You have tons of experience working on initiatives, and with running schools and educational programs. Isn’t that experience valuable? At the very least, as a shared leadership team, shouldn’t you be participating as an equal partner in the team, and chime in just as everyone else should chime in?
The answer, of course, is “yes.”
But not right now. This post isn’t about you or your expertise. It’s about developing the capacity of a shared leadership team. Do you want to sit around a table of silent educators, where yours is the “only” voice? Or do you want to sit around a table with lively discussions, ideas flying, and good thinking being applied to the work? This post is about how you get the other stakeholders to stop being silent. Once they stop being quiet or hesitant to share their opinions and ideas, that’s when you get to start participating as a regular team member.
Warning #2: It will be painful at first. It doesn’t matter what you tell folks about how we will do this together and we are all leaders in this initiative and that this team was formed so we could get everyone’s perspective. It still violates the leadership paradigm they are used to. Folks will stare at you and wonder why you aren’t telling them what to do or what you’re thinking. In fact, the first couple suggestions that come from folks who aren’t used to shared leadership may even be delivered with a tone that sounds a little spiteful with an undertone of “This isn’t brain science! Why didn’t you say this already? Why am I having to say it?!” They might even treat you (for a while) like they don’t understand why you aren’t doing your job or why you’re just sitting there.
The good news is that once teachers, students, or other stake holders start sharing their ideas and see that those ideas are wanted and valued and even used(!), they will be much more willing to speak up. And at that point, not before, you can say (if you feel you need to), “That’s why I was just sitting there. To get you folks to start speaking up!”