Building Effective Teams – Not just in sport!

Blog post by Jen Alford – Head Teacher

14 months into my first headship, I had this ache in my bones that things weren’t where they needed to be.

I had hit the ground running 12 months ago; carved out a new vision with values that set the culture, addressed the not-yet-good-enough standards of teaching and learning, worked out how to control the heating, added more towels and spoons to the staff room, moved  from RI to good and maintained a deficit budget (reducing was a tall order as improving teaching and learning obviously has a cost implication!)

Yet couldn’t work out why it did not feel like the direction the team were pulling in was aligned. SURELY, everyone knew and recited our vision statement and key priorities?

Maybe, in reality, because I myself enjoyed the control of being at the helm and felt out of control when I let others do it.

It was through another exposing coaching session, of which I am sincerely grateful, coupled with the feedback from Ofsted about leadership development that I realised my role was no longer solely improving the school in terms of curriculum, teaching and learning etc BUT through the investment and development of a highly functional team and that that journey would start with ME!

I tentatively wrote on my School Development Plan the target of ‘developing leaders to enhance their impact on the school’ and quickly realised they were only as effective as I allowed them to be. This priority was only going to work if I first started on developing myself!

I started to read and research what it takes to build highly effective teams. I found myself devouring the book by Patrick Lencioni, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of Team’ as my foundation. It connected to me as a leader and what I had cultivated in my staff team that was in fact dysfunctional rather than functional.

I started off by sending staff an anonymous google-form with key questions about myself as a leader. I ‘wanted’ to hear their voice about what they perceived I was good at and what they saw of my behaviour choices that could sometimes derail the journey.

Unsurprisingly, the common denominator was ‘you need to do less and let us step up’ or ‘you need to trust that we can do what you’ve given us to do’.

I thought on this valuable feedback and the very first thing I did was to look at my team and reallocate roles and responsibilities away from myself.

  • The Senior Teacher in Charge had been telling me (albeit subtly) for a while that she wanted to transform our behaviour policy. I let her run.
  • The maths lead, showing secure understanding of our teaching and learning rubric, asked me for more opportunities. So, I released him to lead maths and coach the English leader.

I stepped back from my day-to-day running around like a head-less chicken that gave me a false sense of busy impact. I blocked out time with leaders to chat about impact and I trusted what they were doing in their lanes.

I took a breath, curled my control-freak toes and slowly became more content and confident. I must add at this point that my staff had given me no reason to doubt their competence, it was all in my own self-confidence and dysfunctional belief, even ego, that I had to have my finger in every pie.

Would you believe that I have become accustomed to the silence? I have learnt that time to study is not in fact lazy or indulgent but highly necessary. In the space, I have time to think. Really think, strategically away from distraction (don’t get me wrong, sabotages come) and I have invested time in knowing myself.

I crafted a ‘training plan’ that we worked through as Senior Leaders off site so we could really delve into what would make is function more effectively, following the 5-dysfunction book as a spine, with lots of collaboration and activity team. However, we would say now that all these areas must be practised time and time again or old habits resurface quickly.

The first activities were around building trust. We explained that team trust is the confidence among members that all our intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group, the sabotage of trust being lacking vulnerability.

We all completed personality tests and spent time reading each other’s together, spotting what we clearly knew and highlighting our strengths and weaknesses, exposing some of vulnerabilities. I could not believe how cohesive this time was, making sense of each other and our strengths and weaknesses.

Next, we unpicked another dysfunction ‘inattention to results/ego’ which is the tendency of team members to seek out individual recognition and attention at the expense of results. We discussed our need to make the collective ego greater than the individual. I was particularly struck by this one, it resounded with me because I had inadvertently spent my first year as a head enjoying the individual recognition at the expense of developing this team of great practitioners. After this, we talked about making our goals precise and how we needed to make progress more; seeing the team win and not ourselves as individuals.

We then unpicked the Fear of Conflict. This was HUGE in our team. All 4 of us had learnt that we really dislike conflict and seek harmony at all costs. BUT those costs are big. We have not practised productive, passionate, unfiltered debate around issues that matter because we all feared bad conflict. I had modelled pacifying these discussions out of discomfort and we had to dig deep here and drill down into why we had to start these kinds of discussions, rooted in trust and the desire for our vision to be met, engaging in challenging conversations. My toes curl every time, but the buy in after one of these conversations trumps anything I have known before. Which leads into the next dysfunction we addressed, Lack of Commitment, which tends to result when people have not bought into and idea because their voice has not been heard. Commitment doesn’t result when everyone agrees, commitment results because of being heard even when people do not precisely agree. I draw conclusions at the end of meetings based on what I have heard and then we clarify our commitment using the sentence stem ‘What exactly have we decided her today?’

Finally, we focused on Embracing Accountability. We established accountability as the willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the group. This costs but pays off. We did activity after activity, modelled by me first as the leader, calling out and holding each other to account but also reacting to a ‘call out’ with humility and a desire to change for the team.

I would say that was the start of the journey, now comes the practise, the reflection and the desire to work with each other effectively for the benefit of every child in our school and those yet to come. It is all rooted in trust and connection with one another and it’s well worth the wonky, curled toes!

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