Posted - October 2016

The 3 year learning improvement plan: How to empower team leaders to build effective teams

By Michael Iannini, Education Management Consultant & CIS Affiliated Consultant

“Schools need to provide resources and structure that guide middle leaders towards an outcome that aligns their team with the needs of the school.”

I recently facilitated a Roundtable discussion that was convened due to the growing interest from senior leaders in schools related to professionally developing their middle leaders. This interest has grown due to various challenges schools face: retention, recruitment, opportunity costs, fostering collaboration and encouraging leaders throughout the school to take more ownership for the school’s performance. Those participating in this roundtable discussion were at various stages of planning, implementing and evaluating professional development initiatives for middle leaders. In this article, we will examine some dynamics of effective teams and the role of the team leader to facilitate a team that is focused on Transformational Collaborative Outcomes.

Teacher leaders, Coordinators and Department Heads are often asked to take on roles without a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and are seldom given sufficient training or tools to effectively lead their peers. As they are often on the front line themselves, they may not feel empowered as leaders and also do not want to strain relationships with colleagues. Operating in this environment can be very stressful; leadership is often called upon to resolve conflict amongst team members. In this environment teams may not realize their full potential.

The objectives for developing the leadership skills of middle leaders should be to: (1) Free Senior Leaders to focus on strategic objectives; (2) Empower middle leaders to independently pursue team objectives aligned with the school; and (3) Instill trust and confidence that regardless of the outcome, the work of middle leaders still contributes to the success of the school.

Regarding point 3, I believe that more can be learned from failure than from success, but only if we have the system and time to debrief the outcomes. Innovation is a combination of recognizing a need and the ability to persevere in the face of failure. If success is to be replicated, we need to understand fully the environment required to achieve and sustain success. The system is a reflection of the team’s ability to engage in processes that promote continuous improvement and senior leaderships understanding that teams need time to develop and execute those processes.

When senior leadership create the necessary environment for teams to succeed, as well as empower team leaders to take greater ownership of their teams, the combined effect enables the school to achieve transformational outcomes. Schools that have struggled to promote greater collaboration within as well as amongst teams must first break down the silos that breed complacency and then sow the seeds of Transformational Collaboration. A transformative school culture will exhibit:

  1. Shared understanding and beliefs about the school’s Vision and Mission;
  2. Consensus on team values and core purpose, aligned with the school’s;
  3. Awareness of team progress amongst leaders across the school;
  4. Time for team leaders to plan, coordinate and debrief; and
  5. Effective leadership which is demonstrated and modeled from the top-down.

One quick way to assess the health of a team is to understand its orientation to time. Time Orientation is a cultural attribute; it’s a cultural preference toward past, present or future thinking. Time Orientation affects how that culture values time, and the extent to which it believes it can control time. Similarly, teams develop their own attitude towards time. Relating this cultural attribute to the Collaboration Spectrum, a transactional culture thinks in terms of how much time is left; i.e. ‘only 90 more days before the school year is over’. On the other hand, a transformational culture thinks in terms of what they can achieve with the time they have.

When working with team leaders, I can assess this attitude towards time by probing their team goals. Team leaders that see time as a hindrance to performance, for example not having enough time, will often focus on transactional goals. Team leaders that think in terms of what they can achieve in a given time will find time to achieve transformational goals. Thus, the most effective teams tend to recognize the time dilemma at the start of the school year, address it without being overwhelmed by the limitations, and are able to adapt to time constraints throughout the school year.

How do teams evolve to this level of effectiveness? One important attribute they exhibit is being future-oriented. Future-oriented teams delay immediate gratification by resisting the desire to pursue short-term transactional goals. Immediate gratification in a school context is beginning the school year with planning activities, preparing the classroom and attending to last minute scheduling ‘emergencies’. Because schools have been working from a calendaring template that is decades-old, if not a century, staff return to school every year with a fixed mindset of what needs to be done and attend immediately to those tasks. These teams take for granted that they can tackle larger issues, such as transformational goals, once the school year is underway. Unfortunately, setting out to achieve transformational work requires significant investments of time in building trust and aligning team member beliefs and interests.

Jeffrey T. Polzer (2003) found that the very first team meeting often becomes the norm for how teams operate. In the context of the team that gives into immediate gratification, they begin reinforcing informal norms for transactional collaboration and reinforce what Hargreaves and Dawe (1990) call contrived collegiality. The foundation for transformational collaboration requires alignment of beliefs and personal interests, as well as building consensus on behavioral norms that will enable constructive conflict. When teams do not begin the year by looking ahead, they allow a default set of norms to take shape. This default set of norms focus on the individual’s responsibility to the team, as opposed to the responsibility to their team members.

Most new managers fail to recognize their responsibility for team building and spend most of their time building relationships with individuals (Linda A. Hill, 1995). The combined effect of reinforcing transactional behaviors at the beginning of the school year and the team leader’s focus on individual team performance will derail the potential for transformational collaboration. In fact, what I am describing here is not even a team, it is a working group, or what Jeffrey T. Polzer (2003) calls a manager-led working group. It is an effective way to manage specialist teams working to achieve predictable outputs and in many cases team leaders aspire to achieve this level of cooperation in the span of a school year (Hollenbeck, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2002).

My work with schools also confirms this research, in that almost all teams that I have observed struggle to conceive any greater purpose than common planning. It is fair to say this is a reasonable goal for any new team leader in their first year, to ensure curricular alignment and develop common assessments. However, for teams that have worked together for more than one year, they should be setting more ambitious goals, transformative goals. Transformative goals require vision, trust and a future-oriented mindset.

Future-oriented teams understand that even transactional activities can present unique challenges with a high potential for conflict. To successfully mitigate challenges and constructively leverage conflict, effective teams realize they need to build trust and respect each other’s differences. Without the trust and respect of one another, team members will be less likely to collaboratively problem-solve and more likely to walk away from conflict feeling wounded. Taking this into consideration, future-oriented teams will find time to build rapport with each other. Team members will understand how their values and beliefs are similar, as well as how they differ. Team leaders will align team member values and identify behaviors that support the shared values of the team. These teams understand that teams develop in stages so they begin the school year by:

  • Working to develop trust and understanding how each other are different;
  • Agreeing on a list of appropriate team behaviors and values;
  • Building consensus on a team mission that will guide the work of the team; and
  • Agreeing on a team goal and aligning individual goals with the team mission.

Tuckman’s is probably the most commonly referenced model for staged team development: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. Future-oriented teams understand, that even though some planning activities can not be delayed, there needs to be Forming activities done in parallel. A forming activity that I often use is based on Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT). ILT theory states that individual beliefs about personal attributes (personality, skills, behaviors) contribute or impede outstanding leadership (Javidan et al., 2006). An example of personal attributes that team members might find favorable in a leader would be trustworthy, visionary, risk-taking and decisive. The importance of surfacing these beliefs is that we will build awareness of each other’s expectations for how the team will be lead, as well as developing a greater understanding of team members’ expectations for the team leader.

ILT is drawn from extensive research into Cross-Cultural Leadership, specifically data collected from the Globe Study. Based on this research, we know that some personal attributes are universally desired, whereas some may only be desired in specific cultures. Trustworthy and visionary are examples of universally desired personal attributes, where as risk-taking and acting decisively are desirable to only certain cultures. By surfacing these beliefs early, team members gain a greater appreciation for how they are similar, and more importantly, how they differ. They can use this awareness to begin developing communication and working strategies early in the school year. When confronted with challenges or conflict, team members will be more likely to address the problem and not make inferences about team member behaviors. There are additional activities for belief and value sharing teams should engage in, especially those relating to beliefs about education and improving student learning. These activities can easily be found with a simple Internet search.

The next team building activity that needs to be facilitated is building consensus on Group Norms. I love facilitating this activity as it is a form of therapy. It allows team members to reflect on all the things that disappointed or angered them about past team work and surface it in a productive and positive way. I call this activity the Elephant in the Room:

  1. Team members are asked to write a list of 10 things they hate about working in teams; i.e. people that come late, don’t pay attention, communicate inappropriately; etc. During this time there is no talking, but expect giggling. Give everyone 2-3 minutes to complete his or her list.
  2. Next, have everyone read one item from their list and continue reading until all items have been presented. Allow time for some elaboration and remind people to present the item in terms of how it makes them feel.
  3. After a consolidated list of items is complete, build consensus on 5-7 behaviors that all team members agree need to be enforced. Do not try to do more than 7, as then it becomes to taxing to enforce the norms and ultimately team members will default to a state of contrived collegiality.
  4. Lastly, take the negative item and rewrite it as a positive; i.e. We hate people that are late – We will arrive to meetings on time.

Three important outcomes are derived from the two activities listed above. Firstly, team members are exposed to how each other are similar and more importantly how they differ. Secondly, team members are exposed to a way of communicating beliefs that focus on the work of the team. Furthermore, they are required to build consensus, which will mean retreating from some positions and focusing on what’s most important and aligned with the team. Lastly, this is an opportunity to model, practice and reinforce effective communication. A fourth outcome that team leaders should aim for, which happens within 3-4 months (Tuckman’s Norming Stage), will be whether or not team members actively enforce the norms without the need of the team leader having to police individual member behavior.

The last activity I will introduce in this article that highly effective teams engage in and is always taken for granted in schools, is agreeing on a core purpose for the team. Schools, largely due to accreditation requirements, have a Vision and Mission Statement, which is seldom revisited, let alone measured.

Highly successful schools not only revisit and measure their mission, they ensure teams are aligned with it. This comes back to ensuring personal interests on teams are aligned with the work that the team is doing. To achieve this, team members need to agree on their core purpose, or mission, and the team leader’s role is to ensure it aligns with the vision, mission or strategic objectives of the school. A simple protocol (The Task for this Group Is…) introduced in my last article will align individual team member thinking and interests within the team, and ensure the work of the team contributes to the development of the school.

The importance of the team purpose or mission statement can’t be stressed enough. The possibility of a team getting derailed 3 to 6 months into the school year is highly probable. The cause for derailment can either be conflict or member divergence in pursuing the team goal. No matter the reason for derailment: if there is not a purpose or mission statement to remind the team of what they are working to achieve, they will eventually retreat to their classrooms where they can focus on and achieve personal interests. I warn against the use of broad statements, such as “We will improve student learning”, because individual interpretations of how to achieve that purpose can be vastly different. In contrast, this statement is much more vivid and defines the work of the team, “To improve student learning, we will work interdependently to observe and provide feedback in our exploration of various differentiated learning strategies.” This is not a goal, though. The goals that result from this statement should be more specific in terms of outputs, measurement and time.

One common misconception school leadership has is that there should only be one Vision and Mission for a school and that teams and individuals make goals. The flaw in having individual teams develop goals related to the schools more general and higher level Vision and Mission is that it is pretty vague and doesn’t always connect with all members of the school community; i.e. Non-Academic Staff, Teaching Assistants and Parents. Some schools take steps to elaborate on the Vision and Mission, which then turns into a 4-page flier about what the Vision and Mission means and the role each member of the community plays in achieving it. I would argue that the 4-page flier overcomplicates the purpose for a Vision and Mission, and furthermore makes it more difficult for all members of the community to align with it. In fact, if a Vision, Mission and/or Goal are too specific team performance is reduced:

Specific learning goals in teams focus individuals’ attention on narrow elements of their tasks, thus reducing coordination, communication and teamwork – resulting in missed opportunities for learning and innovation. - Nahrgang et al., Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2013

With this in mind, and given the efficacious nature of educators, the goal setting process can be self- serving if team leaders aren’t critical of the potential outcome for the goals. Achieving transactional goals benefit a small population of students, but any gains won’t be sustainable, especially if that teacher leaves or the team experiences significant change. Lastly, if teams, as well as individuals, pursue vastly different and unrelated goals, the opportunity to scale the effect of the outputs for those goals is lost. Additionally, provisioning resources for individuals and teams (PD Funding) is spread thin, which greatly reduces the potential impact of those resources.

Most of my work is with international schools, many of which have bountiful talent and resources. However, these schools are not achieving their full potential because the focus is often on the individual’s performance, not the team. The team is a unit for organization and not capacity built to channel resources and interests for the collective improvement of the school. The team as a unit of organization is largely due to international schools having very short term horizons, largely due to contracting educators for two year terms.

To begin building the foundation for sustainable change in schools, senior leadership need to:

  1. Formalize the role of the team leader and set a clear expectation for what she or he is expected to achieve;
  2. Give teams time to develop (3 years) and help them to establish a future-oriented mindset;
  3. Provide time and space for teams to engage in team building activities that build trust, establish the purpose of the team and align team goals with the strategic objectives of the school;
  4. Recruit and retain staff in line with their long term vision; and
  5. Procure, develop and allocate tools that help teams plan, implement, measure and evaluate their performance.

To achieve these five criteria for building transformational collaborative teams, school administrators will need to review their recruitment and retention strategies, improve and strengthen communication across the school, revisit assumptions that drive the calendaring model and institute performance management systems that teams assume ownership of.

My next article will be the last in this series. The purpose of that article will be to address the above concluding points in more detail, in particular, capacity building the school’s human resource capabilities to promote 3 year planning horizons. The human resource capabilities that will be discussed in detail will be performance management and ensuring cultural fit.

Michael Iannini is based in Hong Kong. You can view Michael’s biography by visiting the Council of International Schools website. You can learn more about the work Michael does by visiting or following him on Twitter @PDacademia or on LinkedIn,

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