Posted - 10 March 2017

4 organizational pillars to achievE transformative change in schools

by , Michael Iannini, Education Management Consultant & CIS Affiliated Consultant

To begin building the foundation for collaborative, transformative and sustainable change in schools, senior leaders need to:

  1. Recruit and retain Culturally Fit staff;
  2. Empower leaders throughout the school;
  3. Provide leaders time and support to build their teams; and
  4. Enable teams to evaluate and manage their own performance.

To achieve these four pillars for building a transformational collaborative culture, school leaders need to review their recruitment and retention strategies, improve communication across the school, revisit assumptions that drive the calendaring model and institute performance management systems that teams assume ownership of.

Fortunately, there is ample research, tools and a pool of professionals well versed in these four pillars. However, the professionals familiar with these tools are often overlooked by schools because they don’t have a distinguished educational background. Even if these professionals are hired by schools, they are often consigned to administrative work. One such professional is a Strategic Human Resource Manager or sometimes referred to in the corporate world as a Business Partner. Most multi-national companies promote the title of Business Partner, as they want to foster interdependency amongst departments. A novel idea that schools can benefit a lot from.

One reason schools may not fully utilize the skills of these professionals is because very few educators are familiar with Strategic Human Resource Management, as well as other critical functions that businesses require to thrive in todays education market. The education market has become hyper-competitive and the schools that are growing and thriving are the ones that are harnessing the collective talent and experience of every staff member, both academic and non-academic.

Pillar 1: Recruiting and Retaining the right people

I would never let HR participate in recruiting or evaluating my teachers,” is a common sentiment I hear in schools. I will not argue that educators are incapable of running a great school or practicing Strategic Human Resource Management, but the recruitment and evaluation systems for a school looking to meet the needs of all learners or achieve similar transformative goals shouldn’t solely be grounded in pedagogical practices. Collaboration, for example, is something that has driven innovation across industries, and is not pedagogical. Vicki Vescio, et al’s: A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning reiterates the positive correlation between the relationship between teacher collaboration and student learning. Collaboration, though, is not spontaneous and requires good leadership.

Collaboration is the outcome achieved by the combined outputs of leaders, at all levels, across the school. It is not only the result of senior leaders recruiting and retaining the right people, but middle managers coordinating activities that build trust and connect the activities of their teams to the mission of the school. Each team will be unique in its membership and challenges; therefore the recruitment and evaluation process must be differentiated for each team.   

As we begin to broaden the recruitment and retention criteria, we increase the risk that educators will stumble in their hiring practices by limiting their recruitment to their area of expertise, which is pedagogical. As the criteria broaden, the questions they need to ask become far less practical and much more difficult to assess. A well-intentioned example of trying to assess collaborative ability is: “How well do you work with others? Provide an example.” This question may only make up a small portion of the interview and will yield very little insight into the collaborative leanings of an applicant. The educator may feel like they have ticked the box with this question, but they have barely skimmed the surface.

Educators can learn to be better interviewers, and a team approach to recruitment is a far more effective strategy. Schools should form interdisciplinary teams comprising at least three people working interdependently with shared decision making. Furthermore, by using a team approach to recruit and foster interdependency in the process, you will also be demonstrating collaboration, something that will be very visible to applicants. The applicant should understand and experience that they are not being hired to work in a grade level or deparment, but they are being hired to work in and contribute to a community.

A critical failure in teams, which can be attributed to poor recruitment, is when a leader focuses their attention and relationship on the individual team member, as opposed to fostering relationships between team members. I briefly alluded to this point in my last article, The 3 year learning improvement plan: How to empower team leaders to build effective teams, by referencing a 1995 study from Linda A. Hill. The leader of a great team is not at the center, recruiting stars to fill positions and supervising each team members’ work. A great team leader is tangled in a web of interdependent interactions. To achieve this level of leadership, we need to recruit staff with a track record for working collaboratively.

Additionally, how well do you assess other cultural values? I often hear from leadership that “if we hire professionals, they should act professionally.” This notion of professionalism only becomes an issue when conflict arises. This type of value is often a generational conflict, but as International Schools prosper, it is emerging as a much greater intercultural dilemma that school leadership is not prepared to cope with. Professionalism is a subjective value that can greatly influence the culture of your team and school. An example of how to overcome this cultural barrier and improve your recruitment process would be to clearly define what professionalism is and create a common definition to be used within your school context. Odds are everyone has a different interpretation and that disparity not only affects the recruitment of staff, but also their relationships with team members. If we want to recruit ‘professionals’, we need to ensure we have a common understanding of what that term means and ensure the recruitment process is geared to assess if applicants are ‘professional’ by our school’s standard.

Just recently I had a Vice Principal tell me that “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.”  Again, this statement presumes that professionalism means that working collaboratively is the responsibility of the individual, or essentially what makes them 'professional'. This statement is a common bias found in the recruitment process, that if we hire great individuals we will have a great school.

'A team of star players does not make an all-star team'.

Teachers are subject matter experts and incredibly efficacious, and there are many all-star teachers. However, these two characteristics can undermine collaboration because their individual need to succeed can limit their perspective within their area of professional inquiry. They see professional development as a personal learning journey, thus making it more difficult to align with other team members and the school's strategic objectives. This is true of both Primary and Secondary teachers. I often hear primary teachers complain that since their students are different their grade level team can only plan and coordinate. Secondary teachers flip this argument and say that even though they have the same students, they teach different subjects and are unable to plan or coordinate. With this anecdote in mind, another tip for identifying people who value collaboration, would be to have them identify goals they have pursued in their former schools and then engage in a line of questioning to see how other stakeholders across the school affected the outcomes of those goals.

If building a transformational collaborative culture is a strategic objective, then we need to reassess our recruitment practices and look outside the education industry for best recruitment practices. In Jim Collins Good to Great framework, this is Stage 1. We need to essentially redefine what a great Teacher is; “Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus.”

In redefining a great teacher, and especially the process for recruiting one, we find that there is less emphasis on curricular accomplishments and more attention to the Fit of this teacher in helping us achieve our strategic objectives. A major recruitment criteria then should be to ensure and maintain Cultural Fit

Cultural fit is the likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization…employees who fit well with their organization, co-workers, and supervisor had greater job satisfaction, were more likely to remain with their organization, and showed superior job performance.” Katie Bouton, Harvard Business Review

Identifying cultural fit requires good intuition and excellent hiring skills; it also requires a very specific understanding of what breeds success in the culture we are seeking to build. To achieve that level of understanding requires an interdisciplinary approach. The interdisciplinary approach also helps us to prevent silos developing within the school, as we will be ensuring that new recruits are capable of demonstrating the values and behaviors that will foster strong relationships across the school.

A very practical way to build the profile for a Fit candidate, would be to:

  • Assemble a group of stakeholders that are representative of and will regularly engage with the team, department or section that the candidate will be working in;
  • Ask each stakeholder to first individually consider and define their relationship to this candidate in terms of:
    • o   Purpose: defines the work and relationship to this candidate.
    • o   Values: core beliefs and approach that supports the purpose.
    • o   Behaviors: work and communication style demonstrated by the candidate.
    • Next have the stakeholders build consensus on a definition for the Purpose, Values and Behaviors that synthesize each of their individual reflections.
    • The result of this interdisciplinary approach will provide a profile that defines the candidate’s unique role within the school culture. This exercise will also give us insight into how the school culture is changing as a result of new challenges or opportunities.

Additionally, here are some questions that will help assess cultural fit in an interview:

  • What type of culture do you thrive in? (Does the response reflect your organizational culture?)
  • What values do you feel support our vision?
  • What behaviours demonstrate those values?
  • What values are you drawn to and what’s your ideal workplace?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • How would you describe our culture based on what you know?
  • How does this align with the work culture you are seeking?
  • What best practices would you bring with you from another organization? Do you see yourself being able to implement these best practices in our environment?
  • Tell me about a time when you worked with/for an organization where you felt you were not a strong culture fit. Why was it a bad fit?

Below is a tool I am repurposing to demonstrate where I feel most International Schools are in terms of their recruitment capabilities. The image is from Douglas B. Reeves’ book Transforming Professional Development Into Student Results. I would classify a majority of International Schools in the Lucky quadrant. My reasoning for this is because they have capital to build great facilities, secure cash flow supported by an admissions waiting list and plenty of money to search for great staff, allowing them to hand pick students and staff that fit their idea of success. Please note that their idea of success is also closely modeled after that of the parents they are seeking to attract. The problem with a lucky school, which can be evidenced by what has happened to International Schools in China over the last 10 years is that if anything upsets the antecedents for success, such as a financial downturn that reduces enrolment, increased competition, government regulation and/or increased concerns over pollution, just to name a few, the school can quickly fall from lucky to losing.

The reason for this fall is because the school was built in a bubble. The culture of the school, and of its community, was not strong enough to weather these challenges. In the case of China, the ensuing admissions practices that took effect to counter reduced enrolment probably had the most immediate and detrimental effect on schools. Simply put, some teachers weren’t prepared for a ‘different’ kind of student appearing in their classrooms, often non-native English speaking, less assertive and in some cases requiring learning support. It wasn’t so much a matter of the teachers being able to attend to the needs of all learners as much as it was the success criteria that all learners needed to achieve. Teachers were being asked to attain the same success criteria for students that were often not realistic for all learners. In some cases, teachers weren’t trained to meet the needs of all learners.  During this period, though, there were examples of Learning schools, whose response was to gradually adjust admissions and human resource policies over a period of years. 

The fall from lucky to losing caused huge staff turn-over for many International Schools. The underlying causes of the turn-over were largely ignored, which was whether or not teachers were resilient enough to see through this period of change. Elaine Yew, at Egon Zehnder in the 1990’s, led a firm-wide project called the Team Effectiveness Review, or TER. This proprietary model analyzes six critical team competencies, of which Resilience was probably the most important competancy overlooked in the case of China. Resilience for a team is how well it can hold together even under severe internal or external stress and remain effective.

The solution in this case was not curricular, though this is where most schools gravitated to. They had to work harder to find experienced teachers in a smaller pool of applicants. They sought more professional development to support teachers in the classroom. In some cases, professional development budgets got cut, and training was limited to teacher-led professional development. Teacher-led professional development can be incredibly effective, but you need a collaborative foundation in place, built on norms of behaviour, good communication skills and shared goals.

For staff that did prove resilient, many schools were unable to retain them. The injury added to the insult of losing good staff is that it costs more to recruit than to retain. In order to retain professionals that fit, schools need engagement processes in place that leverage staff experience, provide targeted professional development and acknowledges contributions of all staff. Retaining great staff, both academic and non-academic, requires meaningful engagement as well as goal alignment between school and staff. Aligning goals not only helps to reduce the number of evaluative measures that leaders need to engage in, but makes their engagements more purposeful. Additionally, targeting the professional development needs of all staff becomes much easier, which encourages retention of staff that feel they still have room to grow within a school.

The recruitment and retention process is a combination of ensuring staff are appropriate to the curricular mission, as well as the professional culture of the school. To ensure we identify and retain fit staff, we need to better define the purpose, values and behaviors that breed success, both curricular and cultural. Again, there are several tools out there that help to define those parameters, one of which I provided an example of for defining the profile of a candidate. These tools are the result of research that was conducted in other industries and require experienced professionals that are able to understand the needs of different stakeholders to ensure they are deployed effectively.

Pillar 2: Empowering Middle Leadership

As soon as a team is assembled to begin putting in place the first pillar, we need to begin setting in place the second pillar: empowering middle leadership. Teacher leaders, coordinators, department heads and vice-principals are the heart of the school. They are the true change agents and will be the most effective tool in ensuring transformative and sustained change. We can not achieve these outcomes without ensuring their buy-in and commitment to implementation. 

Schools that empower their middle leaders will demonstrate these 6 characteristics:

  1. Formally recruit middle leaders;
  2. Clearly define the role, requirements and benefits;
  3. Ensure time for team planning and coordination;
  4. Ensure stability by reassuring middle leaders their role is secure beyond one year;
  5. Provide leadership training and mentoring; and
  6. Maintain communication channels for middle leaders to receive and give sensitive information.

Whether a school recruits internally or externally for a middle leadership position, they should still adhere to the interdisciplinary recruitment process and look to ensure Cultural Fit. Also, 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 the expectations and benefits that come with those responsibilities. I am amazed how many middle leaders that attend my workshops don’t have job descriptions or amended working agreements to account for their ‘additional’ duties. Many don’t even know what is expected of them, other than what team members tell them the previous leader did. The number of schools that treat teacher-led role descriptions like a legend that gets handed down generation to generation is very surprising.

Pillar 3: Provide leaders time and support to build their teams

If the job role is clearly defined and the expectations laid out and agreed to, we can then effectively mitigate the problem of time, or more to the point the additional time leaders require to effectively lead. This time problem, again, is more pronounced by middle leaders that are wearing multiple hats, such as still teaching in a classroom. For those middle leaders that are not in the classroom, but are still hindered by the time problem, it is most likely because they are taking on too many initiatives and/or micromanaging the work of their subordinates. This time dilemma for those that still have teaching responsibilities can be solved easily by reducing their teaching load and helping them to set priorities so their administration time is used effectively and with purpose.  Administrators acknowledging that leadership isn’t just something someone does, it is something that requires careful planning and coordination is also essential.

I often tell my workshop participants that even though they may meet once a week for 45 minutes, to ensure that meeting is effective, it should actually be the culmination of 2-3 hours of planning and coordination activities. Leaders that invest the time to ensure the work of the team is meaningful and purposeful will benefit by team members that are more engaged and supportive of one another.

The image below was developed by Maxim Sytch, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, and is available online in his course, Leading Teams. This image demonstrates very visibly and simply the importance of giving middle leaders more time for planning and coordination, especially those that have multiple roles. If we agree that fostering interdependence is critical to achieving Transformational Collaboration, then we need to support and empower middle leaders to achieve Reciprocal Interdependence within their teams. 

For middle leaders that do have an office and are not in the classroom, the fix becomes more problematic, because often it is their own understanding of leadership that is the greatest obstacle. Those higher in the leadership chain that don’t feel empowered or are ineffective due to the time problem are often islands unto themselves. This is where the Silo Dilemma begins to build. Middle leaders that work harder to achieve the expectations for their department or team will often be less empowering and engaging with their subordinates and micromanage more. These middle leaders’ concept of leadership is that they are solely responsible for the expected outcomes. Therefore, they engage in more transactional collaborative work by increasing the number of tasks they need to supervise.

In time, and with ample support, middle leaders will settle into their role and devise strategies and practices to become more effective. In order to empower middle leaders, we need to let them stumble and potentially fail and be there to help them understand why. Senior leadership, and those in the higher echelons of middle leadership, are often too afraid to let their peers and underlings fail. If, however, middle leaders are given time and support, their efficaciousness, professionalism and resilience will surface strengths that they were hired for. An example of how to provide time and space is as simple as reassuring middle leaders their roles are secure for 2-3 years. Furthermore, to ensure their success they need time for planning, coordination and professional development. Lastly, middle leaders will approach their work with greater confidence if the sixth characteristic of an engaging and empowering school is well established.

The sixth characteristic, maintaining communication channels, is probably the most important support mechanism, and in many ways ticks all of the engagement boxes, in that middle leaders that have regular access to senior leadership will better understand what is expected of them, have greater buy-in to the strategic objectives of the school and will be able to shape the implementation of those objectives to ensure they are time-appropriate and all the right stakeholders are aligned. Middle leaders that are privy to and play a role in the governance of a school will also stay at a school longer because they:

  • Feel valued;
  • Have a vested interest in the school’s outcome;
  • Value the professional development opportunities through active participation; and
  • Want to mentor team members to assume their role.

Pillar 4: Enable teams to evaluate and manage their own performance

High functioning teams are never happy with the status quo. Working in an engaging and empowering environment motivates team members to continually improve their practice. Leaders will likewise strive to develop their leadership capacity and to meet the expectations of their team members. To satiate this need to improve will require teams to reflect on where they have been and where they are going, and the difference between the two states is the heart of measuring performance. Performance can be measured in a number of ways, but it’s the measurement factor that has stigmatized the word and practice of evaluation. The stigma is a result of poor practice and far too many leaders in schools not having been educated properly in the process. As such, the performance evaluation is a task that offers very little value to the individual or organization, and often devolves down assessment or survey data.

Performance management is a very strategic and complex process. In my book, Leading from the Middle, (due to be published this year) I will go into far more detail on how middle leaders can devise and implement an effective performance management system, as well as get buy-in from team members. For the sake of this article and to bring closure to the 4 article series, it is important to understand that middle leaders need to be a part of and engaged in this process. If done correctly and regularly at the front lines, the data that gets channeled up to Senior Leadership will be invaluable in shaping strategy and policy for schools. It will give real time information and a realistic perspective of what and how a school can successfully accomplish given the human resources at that moment.

For middle leaders looking for a way to benchmark the state of their team, in terms of satisfaction and effectiveness, they need to ask these 3 questions every 2 months:

  1. What are we doing well?
  2. How can we improve the way in which we work together?
  3. What will we accomplish in the next 2 months?

It is essential to ask these questions every two months, because throughout the school year significant events are regularly occurring that distract, and in some cases impede, the work of the team. Teams need to evaluate how these events have affected the team and affirm their working processes and goals. It is an opportunity to have a reality check and ensure the goals we started out with are still relevant and feasible. Additionally, this is a great time to check in with team members and ask them to LOL, to define a Line-of-Learning. The Line-of-Learning is a reflection of what the team has learned from their work together and how will that learning influence their continued work as a team. This learning process will influence the team in one of three ways:

  • Affirmed: They feel they are on the right track and are confident to continue pursuing their goals.
  • Shifted: They have been introduced to new ideas that have given them pause for thought and encouraged them to reflect more deeply on their practice and goals, possibly implementing some changes.
  • Changed: The work of the team has deeply influenced the way they work and they are actively changing aspects of their practice, as well as setting new goals to support those changes.

As we reflect on the journey of middle leaders to achieve transformational collaborative change within their team and school, we need to respect the time and investment that is necessary to complete that journey. We need to understand the difference between outputs and outcomes and that if outcomes is what we are striving to achieve, we need to set a time horizon of 3-5 years. We need to support that journey by building 4 Pillars with people that fit the mission and empowering them to achieve the vision.

Collaboration is not always a concept that is greeted with open arms. Educators who have had success working in isolation may view this process as an invasion of their pedagogy and a waste of time. Harry K. Wong, a well-known educational author, states that the trademark of effective schools is a culture where all teachers take responsibility for the learning of all students. The key to strong collaboration is recognizing that a student shouldn’t be the responsibility of only one teacher, but of all teachers…A professional culture requires teachers who are willing to share, support, and explore together. Developing a collaborative culture will result in reducing teacher attrition, improving student learning, and creating the type of school that everyone searches for when they decide to become an educator.

Jason Perez, Head Principal at Heritage Trails Elementary

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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