“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask” Tim Ferris
So now we have the right balance in the team how do we get it to function well?
Some teams just hum. Seeing them operate is like watching the peleton in a cycle race. While a crocodile of lycra streams along a sunflower-strewn lane, one red-vested group hug tightly around a bend. As they emerge into the next straight, one of the them slips into the front, and the team narrows into a ribbon of red, nose to tail, sucked along inches from each other. Extremely fast and terrifyingly close.
We see a similar dynamic in good teams. A team member takes on a lead responsibility and runs with an idea, attracting resistance to themselves. They push on and pick up the flack, making it easier for others in the team to quietly beaver away in the background, slipstreaming behind the scenes. Then just at the correct moment they step back automatically for another to share the load or take the limelight. The cogs of the organisation mesh brilliantly. Problems get solved almost before they emerge.
Conversely we know teams where a jockeying for position or a breakdown in communication means that nothing good can happen until there is change.
“90% of investors think the quality of the management team is the single most important non-financial factor when evaluating an organisation” McKinsey
Good teams edit: A team with vague purpose is next to useless.
“Clarity is not about the answer, the key challenge for the leader is to know the problem” Jo Owen
A sharply-focused purpose will help to identify what the team membership needs to be. People are resistant to change, but they will follow team-leaders who know how to bring about change with real clarity. Each team’s purpose will be different: Improving progress in history by the end of Y11; building English attainment at A Level; rewriting the KS3 curriculum to give children a deeper learning experience; boosting literacy in Y3-4; even turning the school around. And how long have we really got to do it? Being very clear about timescales and managing expectations will help us in the long term?
Once we are clear about what needs to be done, the next step is drilling down into the 2 or 3 key things that need to happen at the expense of all else. Lincoln was the ultimate editor. He would keep his team focused by developing its ability to identify the one or two essential issues facing them at that time. Once these were established, his ‘Team of Rivals’ had to ignore the other problems not central to the team’s purpose. Rarely do teams allocate the right amount of time to the most important areas; people and strategy. And what do we do instead? Everything that rushes at us. Which all leads to monster meeting agendas and superficial tick lists that achieve nothing but exhaustion.
As Gary Keller says: “When you go as small as possible you will be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”
Good teams are closely aligned: The problem in any strong organisation is that there will be leaders who also have great focus and strong opinions about our priorities, but frequently about different things to us! Individual pet subjects or areas of interest can cloud and confuse. Good team leaders build consensus around the key things. This is more than distributing strategy documents, or tying performance targets together. Articulating a vision which is simple, visual and memorable in a way which brings the team on board will help tackle the 2 or 3 problems which really count. And the planning of this – this very practical ‘visioning’, is probably best done away from the minutae of daily life.
But alignment problems will emerge for teams as the year rolls on. One team I know had reduced teacher workload by eliminating report-writing in the summer term, wanting staff to focus on planning and writing a stronger scheme of work in this released time. But under the pressure of primary transition days, there was friction because people want to focus time on their particular responsibility or project. So a meeting is called to bring consensus, and this helps refocus at a crucial moment. Which eases relationships.
Good teams work their values: The values which counted in selecting the team to take your organisation to success must stand the test of time in how they play out. What will we do when books are not marked? Where do we stand on exclusion? Will we work with the grammar school down the road to provide a better post-16 offer? How will we measure staff performance targets? Not arbitrary bland statements, but real decisions leading to concrete actions based on principles. These will impact how we share out tasks and responsibilities within our teams, and when there is friction or disagreement around these, then there are strong principles to fall back on to structure our decision-making.
We need to hire people who really get the importance of people-skills. When interviewing for middle and senior posts its probably safe to assume that technical skill (build a curriculum, create an assessment system, deep teaching know-how) is an essential, but never underestimate the desirable importance of coaching, persuading and especially role modelling to people. People-skills make the difference. And don’t misunderstand diversity. We want to appoint strong diversity (difference) in our people, but it is key that we hire people who share our intimate set of values (similarity).
Expanding organisations such as MATs have a values challenge. It may be that those beliefs which a Trust forged together in its tight crucible when small, risk becoming so dilute that they are meaningless. Instead of inadvertently creating a motley collection of schools with no golden thread, the best Trusts ensure that students, staff and parents know precisely what they stand for. What the team values, celebrates, strives for.
In good teams you feel the culture: The way a group operates is fascinating. We see its positive power working inside World Cup winning teams, successful families and great businesses. We know exactly what it looks and feels like when we’ve got it, but how do we achieve it? A well-rooted and established culture in an organisation feels just right – like it’s been there forever. Group culture has physical presence – if we stand back and watch we see lots of eye contact, close proximity and energetic meetings. Incisive questions, deep listening, warm humour, handshakes, people mixing with all parts of the organisation (versus a climate of stifled hierarchy). In other words great chemistry. It is both very exciting to watch and yet creates a sense of true security. It is infectious.
Actually it is collective efficacy: Where we receive helpful information about our impact as teachers, where we have a shared language about what will make a difference to children and where we model this regularly to each other then it is likely that ‘collective efficacy’ really exists in our schools. It is more than a buzz. Its a buzz with purpose.
The weakest link or the strongest improver? Strong teams forge protection around the newest recruit or the NQT who feel this force for good. There is a refocusing of practical help, which supports and coaches and deals with inevitable mistakes. The potentially weakest link in the team becomes the strongest improver.
Good teams ask deeper questions: When we are looking at a really tricky issue, often we don’t have the right answer at our fingertips. It becomes even harder when we are not sure if we are even starting with the right question. Good teams think harder about the questions they ask. Recalibrating questions helps attack the root causes of the problem rather than the symptoms:
Perhaps the question that we are wrestling with is: How do we make sure that more of our pupils get a higher grade in science (substitute any subject here)? Sometimes expressing this simply is important.
Maybe a different question could be: Who were the surprises last year who achieved their grades against expectations. What did we do that worked?
A longer term question could be: Why don’t our students know as much science content as the subject down the corridor/school down the road/across the country?
So instead we might ask: How have we made science content easier to learn? What are the content deal-breakers that are at our disposal (Knowledge Organisers, QLAs, textbooks, the panoply of websites, Low Stakes Assessments, Tassomai)? Are we using them consistently across groups?
Or perhaps: Does our KS3 system of assessment allow us to build knowledge over time?
And so the question: Where is the best practice for building content knowledge which converts to higher grades in our school/family of schools ?
Could probably be rephrased: Which teachers are particularly skilled at getting each child to know how to write a grade 7 answer?
And might be better as: What do these teachers get right in the way they train and support their teams to understand this process, and what can we learn from them?
And a longer term question? Of course in the long term we need to think about what shifts schools forever. We know that recruiting good science teachers is a Sysyphean task, so we might rethink this as: How do we create such an exciting culture around science learning that this becomes a place which draws in the best of the new recruits?And finally: If ‘specialist schools’ were in vogue now what specialism should your school be? I think leaders who played the specialist schools game best in the past used it not as a celebration of best practice but actually as a vehicle to invest in the next department which needed tnew classrooms, labs or better quality recruitment. Asking probing, honest questions about our strengths and weaknesses means investing in the gaps. It brings irreversible change.
Good teams run few meetings well: Probably the best outward expression of a leaders’ style and of the development of the team is the way that meetings are set up and planned; both team meetings and one-to-ones. Is it always listening to the leader, or is it a genuine sharing of knowledge and people’s contributions? So much time in staff and department meetings feels purposeless, which makes everyone feel devalued and damages goodwill. In Kill Bad Meetings Hall and Hall shine a light into wasted time. 50% of meeting content is not relevant to participants and does not need to be discussed collectively, and 20% of participants should even not be there. They argue that in fact 20% of meetings should be shelved. Andy Buck insists on the power of the regular, developmental conversation being “at the heart of what really drives improvement and performance.” His Features of Great 1:1 meetings is one I return to again and again. Engaging our teams in real activities that are actually of benefit to day to day roles but is so important.
In good teams the best ideas Win: (and not hierarchy for its own sake). The most secure leaders are open to great ideas about how to do things differently. Better maybe. Unafraid to be questioned. Not always right. Prepared to listen. Caroline Webb urges us to actively seek dissent within our teams, quoting Eric Schmidt of Google:
“In meetings I find the people who haven’t spoken, who are often the ones who are afraid to speak out but have a dissenting opinion. I get them to say what they really think, which promotes discussion, and then the right thing happens.”
Good team leaders coach, instead of offer solutions: It certainly helps if teams have an expectation that they plan thoughtfully for 1:1 meetings. We might typically bring two lists of issues to discuss: 1) these are the things I have done and the reasons behind my decision, and
2) I need to help with these thorny issues.
But if we always come to meetings with our line manager with answers nailed, then both partners lose the opportunity for reflection and growth, and a better constructed, jointly-worked solution. It is this essential dynamic, which is at the heart of great teams:
…I struggled and was anxious about something
…We thought the problem through together
…We came to a stronger solution.
Maybe we encourage people to offer solutions too readily. Instead ask better questions.
When psychologist David Hofmann, who investigated BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion oil spill, challenges teams about problems and solutions, he believes the business-mantra “Don’t throw me problems, bring me solutions”) maybe too easy. Although it is a sound principle for leaders who want colleagues to think for themselves rather than just moan, there may be less effective than we think. Hofman, who worked on improving NASA’s safety culture after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, is an authority on creating organisational cultures which detect, correct and prevent errors. He believes that where leaders rely on solutions too quickly then becomes a culture of advocacy, which restricts strong thinking.
Good teams are teachable: We want to work with people who are open to new learning and who can then put that learning into practice in the pressure-cooker of work. Clive Woodward says the best teams rely on teachability: they are eager to listen, willing to learn and looking to continually build on what they have already achieved: sponges who absorb new ideas try to adapt and learn. Then it is about applying this learning, ‘thinking clearly under pressure’. We cannot perform under pressure if we haven’t already experienced the situation beforehand. Teams need to anticipate all eventualities. One team introducing the technique of incremental coaching asked themselves, as they planned dates into the calendar, “What will we do if we reach the situation where a colleague is unhappy with their two succinct elements of feedback and want a different coach?” So they incorporated that next step into their planning.
Good teams use the bench: There has been a revolution in the perception of reserves or substitutes across a wide range of sports. In rugby they are now known as ‘finishers’, in NBA basketball people talk about the all-important ‘6th man’, the one who makes a significant contribution to the team’s success but isn’t one of the 5 starters on the basketball court. John Maxwell identifies the two groups in our organisations; ‘starters’ (frontline people who directly add value to the organisation) and ‘the bench’ (who indirectly add value). We need to develop those currently on the bench. We all spend time on the bench. They are the future, they make a huge contribution to the health of the organisation and there are more bench players than starters. In schools, because they are more distant from the chalk-face and with a primarily support-role, non-teaching staff often miss out on valuable development . But the best leaders identify the strengths of every colleague, celebrate what they do, extract the best of what they offer and develop them to become better. There are so many better ways that we could harness peoples’ different skill-sets, from the ‘expectations-setting’ stage to the ‘nailing-results’ phase.
Great starters are not enough to secure victory any more. For our team to perform well over the stresses and strains of the year, we need strength in depth. Call it succession planning, talent-spotting or just plain good sense we build the team for the long term. A good team with no bench will collapse.
Sometimes people drop out of a team to try to accomplish goals on their own, but they find that they miss the synergy of being part of a cohesive team. As John Wooden UCLA coach says: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team”.
Teams, when they put each other first, win.
MORE LIKE THIS/GREAT TEAM-READS:
How to Lead – Jo Owen | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Originals – Adam Grant | How to Have a Good Day – Caroline Webb | Winners – Alistair Campbell | The Best Place to Work – Ron Friedman | High Performers – Alistair Smith | Legacy – James Kerr | Kill Bad Meetings – Kevan Hall & Alan Hall