Running a senior leadership team can be a dangerous business. I’ve seen it all: bitchy nicknames, undermining emails, spreading false gossip, taking credit for other people’s work, actively briefing against collaborating with colleagues and sinking potentially great initiatives before they’ve barely been launched – not to mention chocolate Hobnobs being thrown across the room at me (yes, this really happened once).
When things go wrong in a senior leadership team, they really go wrong, to the point where flying Hobnobs are the least of your worries. At their worst, persistent disagreements and frayed tempers among members of the SLT can develop into a permanent culture of dysfunction. And a dysfunctional senior leadership team can tear a school down.
It is important to nip dysfunction in the bud. But how do you go about fixing things?
Sorting out a broken team relies on you identifying those members who are causing problems and working with them on an individual basis to resolve issues. So, here is my guide to some of the key players of a dysfunctional team and how to manage them.
Frankly, this type of character should not be new to you. Most teachers have grown immune to everyone from newspaper editors and caretakers to parents at the gate knowing our jobs better than us. As headteacher, your senior leadership colleagues will be no different. However, this attitude can be damaging for a team as a whole.
Look out for the person who says things like: “When I led that team…”, “I used to…” or “I found it worked better when…” They may think they’re helping, but – like the in-laws stepping in with parenting – all it does is undermine and cause bad feelings. If this is happening to you, try a pre-emptive approach. Before you present an idea to the team as a whole, seek this person out and ask them for their perspective. They will feel that they have been consulted and will be less likely to pipe up unexpectedly in front of everyone else.
The nice-but-ineffective one
I’ve worked with some of the nicest people in the world in SLT. These are the type of people who are all about the children and who have the values of the school running through them like lettering through a stick of rock. However, if they are also being paid £60,000 or so, senior staff need to do more than just be nice. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about these people. My advice would be to encourage them to channel that niceness in a direction that will benefit all, such as leading on staff wellbeing or taking charge of the friendlier elements of pastoral support.
The clique leader
I’ve worked with quite a few senior leaders who have retained a primary allegiance to their previous teams. On the surface, this might sound honourable, but it can be incredibly divisive.
These are the people who arrange lunch duties to allow them to go out with their friends and who pre-warn certain teams about unannounced quality assurance activities. They pass on confidential information about staff and children, share private disagreements, and like to make it known that they had absolutely nothing to do with any unpopular decision.
The first step to getting this person back on track is to recognise how easy it can be to fall into this behaviour. The SLT table can be a lonely place, especially if you have been promoted from within the same school. When I was internally promoted from head of department to senior leader, it took me about three weeks before I stopped spending spare lunchtimes in the staffroom.
Wanting to keep your tribe is understandable – but your ultimate allegiance must be to SLT. Explain this to the person sensitively and with empathy and they will be more likely to come around.
The ‘you’ll never be good enough for me’
Perhaps you’re too young. Or a little more mature than them. Possibly you were a Sendco (and, after all, what do they know?). Maybe you’ve come from the wrong sort of school, trading a grammar for one in a deprived area, or a state school for an independent. Sadly, I have even witnessed staff unhappy that the new head is a woman, because only men can convey the necessary authority, of course.
The only thing you can do here is to simply be as good as you can be. Some minds will change, those minds will change others, and, ultimately, that one lone voice suggesting you aren’t good enough will be drowned out by all the others telling you that you are.
The one who didn’t get that promotion
They may make a show of “no hard feelings” over the job they wanted that was given to someone else, but beware. I once watched as an assistant head, passed over for the post of deputy, ran a campaign against the person promoted instead. It consisted of whispers before the person had even stepped through the door and spreading rumours about how they had flirted their way up the ladder.
By the time the culprit was identified, the deputy had moved on to a new post; one where their professional reputation had not been assassinated before they’d even started. The school lost a bloody good leader. But what could have been done to stop this?
The culture of a team starts at the top, so heads need to lead by example and adopt an approach of utmost professionalism, never allowing any covert or underground maliciousness to fester, particularly around the sensitive issue of internal promotions.
Anticipate that someone passed over for a promotion might feel negatively about the experience. Speak to them directly to prevent any nastiness before it gets started.
Admittedly, fixing a broken leadership team is not an easy process. But expectations for senior leaders have to be high, and rightly so. Every school needs a brilliant senior team that collaborates together and shares values and vision. Anything less than this needs to be rectified – and for that there is no quick fix.
Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and an experienced school leader. She tweets at @keziah70