Good teams don't play the blame game

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Paul Blum continues his Life in Leadership series

An efficient leadership team will be a major driving force for good in the school. It will help unblock problems and keep the school running smoothly, and it will be a place in which new developments can be carefully planned, implemented and evaluated.

A bad team can be completely dysfunctional, adding to the problems of communication in a school and ultimately disempowering the middle managers and ordinary teachers.

If you are in a good leadership team, then the people you work with will be players capable of forming a whole-school view. They can lead on policy-making and the big picture, but also get the small practical details of implementing a policy right. If the team is functioning well, its members are self-confident and adaptable enough to share responsibilities with each other. They can spin a lot of plates at the same time, multi-tasking within their own job descriptions, whilst still contributing to the work of the whole team. They develop a strong awareness of each other's talents and are charitable in compensating for each other's weaknesses.

But even when a leadership team and headteacher work positively together, there is a tendency to blame other staff in the school for things that are not working properly. The two most regular problems which get this treatment are pupil behaviour and the amount of homework being set.

Leadership teams are no different from a subject department. Didn't every head of department moan about the senior managers, until they became one themselves?

The management jargon for blaming others outside the direct team is called "out-group sourcing" and leadership teams should try to avoid it at all costs, even though it is an understandable human reaction.

The best teams seek to operate a "no blame and shame" policy when discussing critical issues. They are aware of the danger of blaming others for their own failings as a team to lead the school. They are not afraid to think outside conventional lines and probe deeply into why something isn't working rather than "out-group source" it on to the rest of the staff. Such teams have individuals who don't spend their whole time trying to guess what is in the mind of their headteacher and echoing it back to them in the meeting.

The pressure of working in complex school environments means that there is a danger that many decisions taken at leadership team level are not returned to at a later date because they get forgotten. Nobody is sure of their exact role in the implementation of the plan, or when the subject will be revisited.

All leadership teams try to create a timescale and chain of responsibility during their meetings, but none that I have worked on has found a truly effective way of doing it. This is because at any single management meeting there are too many issues to discuss and plans of action to work out.

Agendas become crowded with the highly complex business of just running the school, let alone talking about plans to improve it. Last-minute items find themselves on the discussion list under "Any other business" and there are simply too many topics to consider properly.

In the perfect school, senior managers would find a more effective way of organising agendas, so that important issues get proper discussion and decision-making time.

My current school attempts to get round this problem by having occasional meetings where there is only one item on the agenda and ample time for a full discussion. Like many other schools, we also meet first thing in the morning to work out as much of the daily school organisation as possible, leaving more time for the bigger issue discussions in timetabled or after-school meetings. Basically, the reality of senior management in busy schools is that there is always too much to do and too much to talk about.

Once you start discussing a major educational issue, it always becomes more complicated than you had thought, producing side issues not anticipated.

Summary points:

* A good leadership team is a place where people with very different talents can flourish.

* If the team is working well, members have a personal job description, but also a big overlap with their colleagues, where everybody can work effectively, playing to each other's strong points and compensating for personal weaknesses.

* Effective leadership teams don't blame the staff for everything that isn't working in the school: they take responsibility for empowering teachers to do their jobs better.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in a London school

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