Leading Effective Teams Requires Regular and Dedicated Maintenance

Spring 2024

By Crystal Land, Michele Williams

This article appeared as "Priority Scale" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Independent schools typically fill their teams with high-performing individuals, ones who care deeply about the school and its students—and who are often fully occupied from the time they arrive at the school until late in the evening. Occasionally, at the beginning of a school year, teams will set aside some time to focus on team-building and the aspects that make teams effective. But once the year gets under way, the demands of the school day and year come into focus and the work around teams is not easily maintained. Perhaps inadvertently, we find ourselves structuring our days around the contents of our email inbox, a long and ever-growing to-do list, and, sometimes, the urgent need for crisis management. And that takes over any team-building time we might have had.

Leading the most effective and high-performing teams is one of the most important responsibilities of a head of school or senior administrator. Yet, leading teams can be complicated and even fraught due to interpersonal dynamics, the role of hierarchy and power, and the reality of administrators’ busy schedules as they manage the rhythms of the school day. 

But what if we dedicated more intentional time to team maintenance and leadership development throughout the year? We’d start the year by clarifying what it means to be an effective team, and we’d practice mindsets and skills, both in retreats and in regular leadership team meetings. Maintenance of collaborative team-building increases trust, addresses what works, names and practices approaches to disagreement, and creates rituals to authentically connect team members. Engaging in developing the leadership capacity of each team member, as well as that of the leadership group, allows team members to feel valued and provides processes for communication. Ultimately, team members learn to thrive both individually and as part of a team.

As heads of school (one former and one current), we have experienced the value of deeply investing in the working relationships in the administrative team. This not only benefits the team but also directly impacts employee satisfaction and student outcomes. Our collective experience as school heads and team facilitators has shown that everyone flourishes when leaders put their egos aside and lead with high emotional intelligence, mutual respect and trust, a deep knowledge of each person’s stories, and a commitment to proactively resolving internal conflicts.

What Teams Need

Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities That Transform Schools, has worked with leaders and school teams for decades; she provides insights on the purpose of teams and the emotional intelligence needed to create and sustain a high-functioning team. Strong team members need to be learners at the core: “For learning to occur, members must feel safe with each other. … Underneath a successful learning experience is that members trusted each other, built community with each other, and had overall positive feelings toward each other. This is the only way that members can explore perspectives that differ from their own.” 

While there’s plenty of research to support this, it also just makes sense. As Aguilar indicates, trusting colleagues includes demonstrating confidence in the competence and follow-through of each team member. And it’s also essential to understand and recognize our own strengths and challenges. How emotionally aware is each person? Do we see our own blind spots as individuals and as team members? As team members strengthen their individual emotional intelligence, the team can navigate challenging conversations, share feedback freely, and collaborate fully.

But what does collaboration really look like? Roland Barth’s 1984 memorable Education Week opinion piece, “Sandboxes and Honeybees,” lays out the challenges of working collaboratively. Educators often have the best of intentions to be collaborative but end up acting more “adversarial” or “competitive” (or, alternatively, isolated and siloed). Barth suggests that, without enhanced awareness and an intentional effort to lean into working together, leaders might revert to a version of preschool “parallel play” with each focused on doing their own job (the sandbox model) rather than sharing the toys, space, and needs of others (the honeybee model). All too often team members withhold information from each other, which impedes a productive workflow.

To advance from the traditional spoke model with the head of school at the center, administrators focusing on their individual tasks, and little connection between them, teams should broaden their interaction to be intentionally collaborative. Significant time should be spent reflecting on how the team is functioning to build the capacity of individuals and group leaders. Aguilar reminds us why this is so critical: “Your working relationships have an outsized impact on the health of the school.” 

But what exactly does this work look like? 

In Action: A Matter of Trust

Following an abrupt head of school departure several years ago, Crystal Land served as the interim head of Head-Royce School (CA) for a year before being appointed to the permanent role. The team, while incredibly skilled and well-intentioned, needed to rebuild itself as a trusting and collaborative group. As the leadership team re-formed, members asked for clarity on the team’s purpose and operating agreements. With more than a dozen members, weekly meetings, and the need for both small academic and larger full administrative team meetings, improved communication became a top priority. The first collective task was to create a shared “values and mindsets” document (see page 82) to guide regular meetings. Just like asking students to join in class agreements, the senior leadership team drafted and agreed on how the team would “be” when together. 

The group spent several meetings discussing how we’d act and interact with each other and eventually created a document outlining eight values and mindsets as well as the logistical structures for our shared work. Each meeting started with a reading of this document, and each team member was tasked with choosing one value to focus on for that particular meeting. While some of the agreements may appear self-evident—“practice self-awareness in communication,” “be efficient and productive,” “bring solutions to the table,” “use smaller groups for some conversations,” “end meetings with action steps”—deliberately stating these agreed-on intentions enabled the team to increase both self-awareness and group awareness around its interactions. The team also articulated the practicalities of the meetings around our expectations for food (yes), timeliness (yes), technology (no), and follow-through (essential). 

Over the first few years, team members rebuilt trust through interpersonal connections; storytelling; increased awareness of each other’s challenges; clarified organizational structures; social time outside of school; and intentional retreat times at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Because time and structure reflected how the team interacted as a working group, the team was able to fine-tune and improve relationships and build trust. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. There were moments when some aspect of group communication fell apart. The impulse to hold a “meeting after the meeting” occasionally reared its head as did political posturing, but the desire to collaborate rather than compete improved over time, and team members became less siloed and more connected. Without structure and protocols, teams do not always look at the needs of the group as well as those of individual members. As Barth points out, teams need structure and processes to be collaborative rather than competitive.

In Action: Building Empathy

After being focused on the day-to-day tasks required by the pandemic, the leadership team at Katherine Delmar Burke School (CA) needed to return to team-building and strategy. Head of School Michele Williams considered how to lead this change. It would require intentional and reflective work on what it means to be a leader and, more specifically, what it means to be a leader at Burke’s.

Burke’s partnered with Leadership + Design to build the team’s leadership capacity, designing an intensive deep-dive experience to focus on individual and team needs. The three framing questions that guided the work required genuine and deep reflection, vulnerability, and trust: Who am I as a leader? Who are we as a team? And how do we, together as a group, move the Burke’s strategic work forward? 

Through curated and planned readings, group reflections, team-building exercises, and retreats, we worked to grow as leaders and as a team. We shared our own routes to leadership by mapping individual paths through the “Five Moments When” exercise in which team members choose five significant moments of their personal and leadership journey to illustrate how they became the leaders they are today. Learning about multiple journeys helped colleagues get to know and appreciate each other—as educators and as people—on a deeper level. Knowing the person behind the title and job description is powerful and builds empathy and understanding, solidifying the connection and effectiveness of any team. When challenging incidents and difficult interpersonal dynamics arise, being able to recall a person’s background and story helps team members feel compassion and move toward resolution instead of retreating to individual siloes.

Equally powerful, a facilitated examination of an existing internal document, “Guiding Principles and Practices,” allowed the team to open the school year with an honest examination of how it had been operating. This document had been created before the pandemic, before some of the current members of the leadership team had joined Burke’s. It was designed to be a touchstone of understanding to the core beliefs influencing the administrative team’s thinking, actions, and interactions (principles) as well as the actions and behaviors that were used to hold each other accountable (practices) in the day-to-day work as leaders of the school. This document had not been revisited during the pandemic, but with facilitated guidance, the team returned to it and reviewed the alignment of stated expectations and actions. The team explored what it was doing well, what it needed to work on, and how team members hold one another accountable for meeting these principles and practices. This helped recenter and align the team, both philosophically and practically. We were reminded to be mindful of our established leadership values and behaviors in our work together and to hold each other individually and collectively responsible for practicing them.

Culminating these efforts, each team member prepared a brief TED Talk-style presentation, reflecting on the year-long work around leadership themes. These talks were powerful and transformative moments for individuals and for the team as a whole.

Leading the Charge

These two experiences are examples of the continual process of building and strengthening our teams. We are never finished with building trust, strengthening the team dynamics, and onboarding new team members. In Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 model of group development, teams continually need to “form, storm, norm, and perform” as they develop, deal with conflict, change, and grow. 

In complex times such as ours, the day-to-day demands of school life can sometimes distract and disrupt our big-picture efforts. When leaders have a heightened awareness of the emotional intelligence needed to work together as well as a commitment to maintaining efforts to connect and reflect, team members are better positioned not only to get work done but to deeply know, support, and collaborate with one another in service of our students. 

As Barth points out, teams should operate like beehives rather than sandboxes: “[The bees] suggest just how great may be the power of cooperative behavior in the service of a common purpose.” 

Values & Mindsets

The administrative team at Head-Royce School (CA) created eight values and mindsets and stated logistical structures that are read at the beginning of each meeting.

  • Keep your focus on what’s essential (people and the mission).
  • Be fully present (put technology aside).
  • Lead with integrity.
  • Practice self-awareness in communication (be honest and aware of your air time and impact, give space for all voices to be heard, allow for disagreement).
  • Listen with your head and your heart (assume best intentions).
  • Honor and respect confidentiality (know what can be said, speak as one voice).
  • Be efficient and productive (bring solutions to the table, use smaller groups for some conversations, end meetings with action steps. Follow through!).
  • Have fun, support each other, forgive.

8 Ways to Build Your Team

  1. Create team agreements. At the beginning of each year, create or revisit team agreements to be used in and out of meetings. How do we best interact when we work together? What are the values, mindsets, and behaviors of this team? How will we use the agreements to check in on a regular basis on what’s working and what’s not?
  2. Conduct empathy interviews. Spend time interviewing fellow team members to better understand their role, joys, and pain points. David Brooks’ October 2023 New York Times article “The Essential Skills for Being Human” provides suggestions for how to listen deeply and well, including exploration of key crossroads, life moments, and professional journey highs and lows.
  3. Clarify values. This is a simple and effective tool that allows team members to prioritize their top core values (personal and professional) and compare them to the values of others and of their institution.
  4. Develop and use protocols for each meeting. Be intentional about openings and closings of the meetings. Provide time for personal check-ins; clarify agenda order, timing, and decision-makers; rotate facilitators; and end with action steps.
  5. Be transparent about how you operate. One tool is Adam Bryant’s “User Guide to Me,” which is an informative way to help others understand your unique working style. 
  6. Shadow a colleague. Gain insights into a colleague’s role, develop empathy for that person’s challenges, and find opportunities to provide support and connection. 
  7. Share your understanding of school history. Build a collective timeline of the school and significant initiatives and decisions through the leadership team’s experience. Bring along an artifact as part of the process. 
  8. Give TED Talk-style presentations. Provide an opportunity for team members to give a short talk to the rest of the leadership team on their vision, learnings, and perspective. 
Crystal Land

Crystal Land is a partner at Leadership + Design, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to support positive change, and a former head of school. 

Michele Williams

Michele Williams is the head of the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco, California.