Leveraging Shared Leadership Teams for Better Learning Initiatives

If many hands make light work, many minds make smart work. Bette Manchester headed the nation’s first statewide 1-to-1 learning with technology initiative, an important middle grades learning initiative. In 2001 and 2002, Bette established a leadership team to design how to launch MLTI (Maine Learning Technology Initiative), especially how we would help middle schools prepare for every seventh and eighth grade student and teacher in the state having laptops.

Bette taught me at the beginning of MLTI not only that leadership was everything, but that shared leadership teams performed better for an initiative than single leaders did. They are not simply an advisory group, but function as the decision making body. And by assembling a team that represents multiple perspectives, you can garner buy-in from diverse stakeholders and improve the quality and effectiveness of the plan.

The Power of Diverse Perspectives

Years later, I worked for a small, private, educational development organization. We created non-traditional schools for underachieving students in good sized cities. There were four of us. Two came from the business world and understood the business side of education and how to work with executive-level decision-makers, such as superintendents and chief academic officers, in large districts. One was a former high school principal who had also worked in the corporate world as a vice president for education for a large, national cable TV and telecommunications company. He understood school leadership and administration, and how to build community and business partnerships. And there was me. I understood pedagogy, student motivation, and professional development.

We were strong personalities, passionate about the work, critiquing an idea or plan from our own perspectives and areas of expertise. To hear our conversations might make you think we were arguing, but actually we listened to each other and revised our ideas and plans with that input. We always ended up with a much stronger plan because it stood up to scrutiny from multiple perspectives.

Since then, whenever I’ve had an initiative or project to work on, I have started by putting together a shared leadership team. These teams are made up of a spectrum of shareholders: students, teachers, administrators, school committee members, parents, and community members. It’s best to look for a diversity of positions, but also a diversity of perspectives. You do not want all “yes-men” on the team. While you might not want too many active blockers, you certainly want some of the folks who are looking critically at the work and coming to the table with their “yes, but” questions to be addressed.

The key learning about shared leadership teams: No one of us is as smart as all of us together. The secret is the power of diverse perspectives.

Shared Leadership Teams: What They Are and Aren’t

Schools already have lots of groups that they call leadership teams. But many of them are what I would refer to as “management teams,” teams that are leveraged to help share information between building administration and teams or departments, or to decide how and when to transition between terms or trimesters, or how to handle lunch on days with special events, or how to schedule fundraisers from various groups, etc. While management teams handle tasks related to the day to day running of the school, shared leadership teams focus on the strategic work of the school.

So shared leadership teams are not advisory groups, management teams, nor information dissemination groups (even if these are important tasks that need to be addressed). What shared leadership teams are is a driving force to assess where your educators are in the implementation process, identify timely next steps, assist in providing formative feedback to those educators, help troubleshoot and problem-solve the challenges of implementation, and facilitate the sharing of ideas. It’s roll-up-your-sleeves strategic work.

Decisions are made by working toward consensus. Not everyone has to agree, but, as much as possible, everyone should be able to live with a decision. And lots can be learned by asking someone to clarify their dissenting point of view. I find that often they have some concern many of the rest of us haven’t thought about, but that we should consider and plan for.

Keep in mind that lots of perspectives and shared decision-making does not mean letting folks do whatever they want. If you are the administrator, you still help set the non-negotiables and parameters of a decision. As a member of the team, your perspective is one of those shared in the discussions.

While working out the details and being nimbly responsive to the needs of your initiative are the vitally important functions of a design team, it is not their primary purpose. The most important role of a design team is building buy-in. It’s important to recognize that most learning initiatives in schools don’t fail because of lack of information (resources or training). It is because of lack of buy-in. Educators will be willing to try new strategies and put the time in getting good at them as their buy-in to the initiative improves. Your design team is a prime buy-in building strategy.

This is accomplished when you make sure the design team has broad membership representing lots of different stakeholder groups and perspectives about the initiative, helping to ensure that the design team’s decisions thoughtfully reflect those multiple perspectives Educators who are reluctant are likely to be a little less reluctant if they see people on the design team that they think are sort of like them: “We have to do what?! Well, if Judy is on the design team, then I guess it’s ok.”

Avoiding Unintentionally Sabotaging Your Shared Leadership Teams

If you are forming shared leadership teams for your initiative, you clearly want to reap the benefits that come from them: increased buy-in, soliciting stakeholder voice and choice, designing and planning strengthened by the power of multiple perspectives.

But some school leaders unintentionally sabotage their work by speaking about their ideas early. It happens naturally. As a leader, team members will defer to you, and when they don’t jump in to share, you start to share your ideas. And suddenly you have one leader with 14 people around a table, not a shared leadership team with 15 stakeholders expressing their diverse perspectives.

You can tell if a school leader is unintentionally sabotaging the shared leadership team by paying attention to the percentage of the talk in the shared leadership team from the school leader (not counting the facilitation, just the real talk—sharing and examining ideas, designing components, developing plans). If the school leader is talking most of the time, you’re in trouble and might not reap the benefits of shared leadership. In truth, school leaders have good ideas, and not sharing them is counterintuitive! But, in this case, it is also counterproductive.

So, what can you do to avoid the unintentional sabotage if you’re the leader? You will have to shift your leadership hat from directing and sharing, to facilitating and soliciting wisdom from others with these strategies:

Wait time: Like teachers do, sometimes you need to pose your question or prompt and wait. And wait. And wait. Just look around the room expectantly, someone else will eventually break the silence. The more the group gets used to actually expressing their ideas, the shorter the wait will be.

Actively solicit others’ ideas: The team might need nudging. You can turn to team members and say, “Stephanie, what do you think?” Maybe start with someone who has been quiet, but you know is likely to have a good idea. Maybe do a “round robin,” where each person shares an idea in turn. Spend more time getting others to share their ideas than you spend sharing yours.

Save your list for later: It is likely that everyone is waiting for you to speak. Don’t. Wait for others to share their ideas. Cross off any of your ideas as others say them. After lots of other members’ ideas are on the table, then you can share ideas from your list, one at a time, with ideas coming from others in between.

Frame your ideas as questions, not suggestions: The way to get more team input is not to state your ideas, but to frame them as questions, “What do you think if we were to…?” This way, you are still soliciting members’ ideas and opinions, but ideas and opinions about the ideas you share. It says you are actively seeking and value their input and voice.

And remember, your job as leader is to help set a framework for the work, or parameters for decisions. These are often valuable to share early. It’s just during conversations about decisions and how to implement that framework where you should allow other voices to become comfortable speaking up. The good news is that once teachers, students, and other stakeholders start sharing their ideas, and see that those ideas are wanted, valued, and used, they will be much more willing to speak up.

Mike Muir, Ed.D. has assisted schools for three decades around creating better learning experiences for all students and the school leadership strategies to make those changes happen. He is currently Learning Through Technology Director in SAD 44, Bethel, Maine. Mike is an AMLE past president and a past president of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE). See Dr. Muir’s new book from AMLE, Moving the Needle: Proven Strategies for Successfully Implementing School Change.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.