Building A Collaborative Culture for Change: Establishing the Leadership Environment

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This is the second post in a three-part series contributed by the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) to explore the challenges of and possible solutions to building collaborative leadership within school buildings, districts, and states.

By Neil Gupta and Tricia Ebner

Building A Collaborative Culture for ChangeIn our last blog post, we emphasized the need for leaders to develop a collaborative environment and identified three challenges they must overcome. But now what? What kinds of changes are necessary to make this a reality? In this post, we will provide three strategies for establishing a collaborative leadership environment.

Strategy #1: Flatten the Leadership Structure

In many schools, there is a specific hierarchy of leadership: the principal as the leader of the building and the superintendent as the leader of the district. There can be a number of layers or levels between the leader and the “rank and file” of the staff. Although the rigid linear structures in place are created to expedite the work, they also separate those who make decisions from those involved in the daily classroom interactions.

Effective leadership structures should provide a collaborative leadership approach, so those hierarchal levels need to be flattened. This means there need to be voices at the table representing all aspects of the organization, from support staff to teachers to those traditionally viewed as building or district leaders. Even parents and students should be considered. The goal is for everyone’s voice to be valued equally.

What It Looks Like: Leadership in this approach isn’t a reactive body. Instead, the team sets shared goals and then maps out a path for achieving those goals. The implementation and monitoring of the action plan is central to the leadership team’s work. Everyone involved provides constructive, critical feedback about the plan. In addition, buy-in for the plan increases when all stakeholders participate in the decision-making process.

What It Doesn’t Look Like: The administrative leadership team makes all decisions and provides one-way communication.

Strategy #2: Encourage Collegial Dialogue

A collaborative leadership approach means that everyone involved is given regular feedback—both constructive and critical—with the goal of improving practice in his or her daily work. Just as teachers aren’t always comfortable receiving critical feedback from parents or students, building and district leaders aren’t always comfortable getting the same kind of feedback from staff members. Everyone involved in collaborative leadership, including those with administrative roles, needs to be open to feedback that will foster learning and growth. Because this kind of approach can be intimidating, protocols such as those used in the critical friends approach can be useful. It is helpful to establish group norms from the beginning and then review them at the start of each meeting. The goal is to create collegial dialogue that allows everyone to openly provide feedback in a nonthreatening manner.

What It Looks Like: Dialogue includes alternative points of view and positive and negative feedback is shared. The dialogue is focused on the work. Protocols such as the tuning protocol, including warm and cool feedback, are used.

What It Doesn’t Look Like: The only feedback given is positive because participants fear speaking up.

Strategy #3: Push the Envelope

One of the best reasons to use a collaborative leadership approach is because the organization wants to move forward in a clear, specific direction and there is a desire to go beyond the “status quo.” This means members of the team must be willing to take risks and try new approaches. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, shares his belief that great leaders have “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” (BHAGs). Effective teams create collaborative learning environments that develop BHAGs as a way to enlist collective efficacy for improvement.

What It Looks Like: Ideas are shared, including research and anecdotes about initiatives the building or district is trying. Evidence of work on the initiative is discussed, including successes and stumbling blocks. Everyone celebrates and problem solves together. Everyone knows the direction the organization is moving and can explain the overall goal and the contribution he or she makes to that goal.

What It Doesn’t Look Like: One person creates a list of tasks and issues assignments to the others, or the team plays it safe by simply keeping up with daily tasks and maintaining habits without a sense of larger purpose or attention to problem solving.

A culture of collaborative leadership is exciting and brings synergy to an organization. Over the past four years, we have been part of a team of educator leaders from across the state, and this kind of approach has enabled the group to leverage each member’s expertise and strengths. For example, we have shared our insight into the needs of gifted children and have provided expertise in curriculum, assessment, and staff development. By flattening the leadership, encouraging collegial dialogue, and pushing the envelope, the group became a cohesive team focused on reaching goals rather than fulfilling the expectations of job titles or roles. The benefits are worth the time and energy spent developing collaborative leadership.

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Ohio educators Neil Gupta, a district-level administrator with over 10 years of administrative experience, and Tricia Ebner, a middle school gifted classroom teacher with 25 years of experience, have worked together at the state and national levels on assessments and instruction for the past four years.

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