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Wishing for a Leadership “Do-Over”

By: Dr. Cindy Elsberry on April 12th, 2018

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Wishing for a Leadership “Do-Over”

Innovative Leadership  |  Decision-Making  |  Teams & Culture

If there was ever a time in my career as a school and district leader that I wish I could have a “do-over”, it is now.

Why, you might ask?  Well, I just finished this fascinating new book about teaming.

In fact, as I read through Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black’s recent book, The NEW School Rules (NSR), I was taken back by how clearly they identified the dysfunctions that occur so often in school district work. They point out what I experienced time after time. Teams I led, and teams I was a member of, worked so hard to develop plans to solve our problems.  We had, what Anthony and Alexis refer to as the “effort of the engine.” But, we weren’t addressing the underlying structure, processes, and rules that our teams were using to focus and shape our efforts. Looking back, we missed in three key ways.

First, we operated with the mindset that we needed the perfect plan; when we should have structured ourselves to manage and prepare for iteration.  That is to say, we were trying to be fail-proof which meant spending time planning for every contingency, when we needed to spend more time practicing and strengthening our abilities to be agile in the face of change.

Secondly, we encouraged a culture of consensus, one where we couldn’t move forward without everyone’s buy-in. And this s-l-o-w-e-d u-s d-o-w-n.  Anthony and Alexis recommend managing roles in a way where there are clear accountabilities – so that someone on the team has the authority to make a decision and so decision-making isn’t mired in waiting for consensus.

Third, we had static teams which meant that at times these teams were underutilized or overburdened; sometimes they didn’t have the right expertise, or they didn’t leverage our shifting interests. Seeing things more clearly now, for each new initiative, we could have outlined new roles and their associated accountabilities, then built teams based on people with both the skills and interests in fulfilling them. Then as these teams were no longer needed, we might have dissolved or reshaped them as we would if we were a Hollywood film production team.

Based on these reflections, my 12 years as a superintendent and three years coaching superintendents, I would recommend everyone start with two initial self-reflection questions:

  • Are our current plans helping us achieve the goals we intend? If not what is it that would get us there?
    • My guess it that you have to mobilize an entire workforce. And, if your district is anything like mine, you may have 10,000+ people you have to get on the same page.
    • Get them on the same page by using experiments from Chapter 6: Sharing Information.

2) Can we improve our meetings?

    • I recall going from meeting to meeting hoping our teams were engaged, that they found value in coming together, and that they were clear on their actions.
    • In Chapter 2: Teaming, The NEW School Rules recommends some simple steps to change the culture of meetings; in particular, see Experiment #4.

The common sense ideas in NSR are so clear and compelling I want a chance to apply them. And, since my role has changed and I am no longer leading an organization, the opportunity to employ these concepts is possible, but limited. So though I can’t have a do-over as a district leader, I do plan to employ these rules in my own daily work: “plan for change, not perfection,” “safe-enough to try versus consensus,” and “define the work before you define the people.”

About Dr. Cindy Elsberry

Dr. Cindy Elsberry is the former Superintendent of Horry County Schools in South Carolina and is a member for the Achieve3000 Educational Leadership Counsel. As a diverse, high-poverty district, Horry County Schools won national acclaim for its digital transformation under Dr. Elsberry’s leadership where she partnered with Education Elements to launch their Personalized Digital Learning initiative and was rated as one of the state’s highest- performing districts.