Try spending more time together, recommends Nadia Hewstone.
I have met many talented and committed senior leaders. I recently worked with a Senco who had masterminded an approach to supporting pupils with complex needs in her school. Her approach was creative, optimistic and, against all odds, impactful. She had galvanised teachers who were organised into teams of SEND specialisms. This meant there was a high level of expertise across the school in the areas of need most affecting their students. Buy-in from the staff was razor sharp. It was aggressively ‘no excuses’ and built a truly inclusive school despite the dismal national picture for SEND. She used her coaching sessions to work on her own blind spots and increase the chance of success of this initiative. She was, in my view, formidable.
Sometimes, however, a leadership team doesn’t function as well as the team members do as individuals. Headteachers know this. One headteacher told me her team were all overachieving as individuals, but never on a joint project.
A key barrier to high-functioning senior teams in schools is not spending enough time together. Senior team members often work in silos, which leads to a loss in collaboration, inefficient use of time and missed opportunities for creativity. Another barrier is the lack of understanding of each other’s roles. The Senco role is different from that of the curriculum deputy. If they do not spend time understanding each other’s roles, they will lack the analytical thinking needed to implement whole school initiatives, and they risk basing their opinions of each other on judgement. A third barrier is ineffective senior team meetings. They often mix operational with strategic, with a heavier weight on operational matters. This usually makes the meetings long, and muddies the water, so people become disengaged and even despairing.
Before we delve into the elements, we work with the team to contract how they will work together. We then support the headteacher to be the custodian of the contract. This can be a big culture shift for some teams, and all the teams we work with report this as being very powerful.
I worked with a deputy head once who told me her team had called her by the wrong name for three years. This is not unusual. There are often things about each other we don’t know because we don’t make space to connect. So we design ways the team can connect and build trust. I recommend regular away days for the senior team, for connecting as well as planning.
Then we work with each member of the team to identify their leadership development needs and support them to carve a learning pathway for themselves as well as navigate their way in their current context. It is important that we are external coaches for this so that the tricky bits can be tackled, safely. We also run group coaching sessions where we support the group to communicate in a way that upholds the contract. These sessions offer rich learning opportunities for everyone (including the coach).
Like teachers, leaders need clarity of expectation, so the third step is to work with the team to identify where more clarity is needed. This often leads to restructuring team meetings, an overhaul of schedules and timetables as well as support with planning for the whole team.