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Leadership and the Rowboat

Part 4 of 4 in the series on school transformation by Erich Bolz, VP of Research and District Development at The CCE.


“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

Patrick Lencioni, Author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team


Leader not directing his rowing team.
The perils of leaders who can't get their team rowing in the same direction.

You may recall in the first three earlier pieces: The Tired School Improvement Initiatives Won’t Transform your School But This Will, and Consider Measuring and Minding the I vs. They Gap, and Leadership Isn’t Magic, But These Two Skills Are Pretty Magical, we discussed how a policy-driven overreliance on student achievement data and structural implementation (think MTSS, PBIS, and any other flavor-of-the-month alphabet soup initiatives) has not led to national student achievement results we had hoped for. Most recently, this series focused on the phrase, “management by walking around”, manifesting in the discipline of regularly asking each staff member a well-crafted 1:1 question and again left you all hanging on how to put this all together.


We submit, once you buy the well-studied and implemented science behind organizational development (a discipline illuminated in MBA programs, but not so much in principal prep), recognize the folly of more than two decades of over-focus on high stakes student achievement data as the driver for student outcomes, AND humble yourself in the discipline of asking each staff 1:1 questions, you must be asking, “There must be more to this?”


Indeed, there is… In fact, after embracing all that first three blogs in the series cover, two key components of this proven approach are still to be explored. Converting the themes raised by staff into actionable, measurable improvement efforts, and recognizing going at this alone, without a supportive accountability partner are all that stands between you and your school’s sustained transformation.


We have all heard of action research frequently described as plan-do-study-act cycles. What is different about the approach from Chuck Salina, and Suzann Girtz, Professors at Gonzaga University who share this field-tested approach in their book, Powerless to Powerful, Leadership for School Change are two critical elements they call out explicitly.

The first is the notion of short cycle improvement cycles. Suzann and Chuck organize this work around 45-day improvement cycles. The process begins with framing a quality 1:1 question, and at CEE, we believe the work is best initiated after analyzing the best-in-the-world perceptual data found in our EES Staff, Student, and Family Surveys.


The leader has the responsibility to make public the key themes surfaced in the 1:1 question process, choosing one of them (we prefer) with heavy staff input, as that critical area of focus to facilitate improving the chosen aspect of the school. Note we said facilitate, as we are adherent to the work of Heifetz, whose central thesis is leadership means influencing the school community to face and solve their problems. Perhaps another blog series could explore the topic, what goes wrong when the principal tries to perform as a heroic leader?


Once the themes are public, the leader should take care of any quick wins surfaced and with thornier issues make the process to improve public as well as the timebound measures to do so. Change can happen rapidly if themes are surfaced, charting a course of action to solve an issues is public, time bound and measurable!


The last piece in putting this all together and achieving results found in the schools identified in CEE’s Positive Outlier Study (https://www.effectiveness.org/research) requires giving up on the invulnerable notion that we can orchestrate these simple to understand, yet complex to implement improvement cycles alone.


Leadership, especially the principalship, is an isolating endeavor, and at times can be painfully so. Young leaders, when facing the challenge of leading alone, often hunker down and fail to reach out to their supportive personal and/or professional network. Educational leaders, for the most part do not employ an executive coach who can, depending on their background, provide a confidential place to vent, and supportive technical assistance.


In fact, nationally less than one in four education leaders take advantage of executive coaching. To read more about the academic and practical basis for taking advantage of this support, widely consumed in the business community, check out the following blog series co-authored by Dromgard’s John Iverson at: https://www.effectiveness.org/blog/blog1-empower-others-to-power-leadership-excellence.


Now, try examining and implementing these four key steps covered in this series:

  1. Reject using lagging summative academic data as the center of your improvement initiatives. Rather focus on, in this order your system’s demographic, perceptual, and contextual data realities on your way to improving achievement.

  2. Embrace culture as job one, and guard against defaulting to the prevailing efforts in our profession to solve the community issues through structural changes. The reality is you are probably not one GLAD training, nor an MTSS implementation initiative away from the promised land of school transformation.

  3. Embrace short-cycle PDSA cycles. Use 1:1 questions to surface themes, make the themes public, empower your community to solve them and make the key themes bearing addressing public, and their solutions measurable. Celebrate quick wins!

  4. Don’t go at it alone. Embrace the support of an accountability coach.

Deep change starts with this approach!


To learn more about how The Center for Educational Effectiveness can assist you in measuring culture, and more importantly become your guide on the side in making cultural changes, please visit: https://www.effectiveness.org/products-services.

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