The advantages of having a ‘blended’ senior leadership team are explained by Ray Chatwin and Maggie Turner, directors of school leadership and management training specialists SISU Professional

Headship is a risky business. The ‘buck’ stops with the head but the huge workload means that leadership – not just the jobs – must be shared among all members of the senior team and among other teams in the school (or schools). If the head is a ‘strategic’ head with additional external roles such as heading a school federation, or acts as a SIP, there is even more pressure.

However, it is our view that heads with a ‘blended’ team are under less strain and can achieve much more for their students. Teams of this kind seldom come into being spontaneously but must be consciously and methodically developed by the head over a period of time. The payback for this investment can be immense.

For obvious reasons, the workings of ‘top teams’ in business organisations have been a matter of considerable interest for almost 20 years. Some interesting and common findings are that they encounter considerable difficulty in working as a team. These difficulties have been shown to relate to a number of key factors which we consider are also relevant to schools.

Some individuals may simply be promoted above their level of capability. (However, this is not to say that they cannot learn how to work as an SLT member given the right support.) Team process shortcomings can also frequently be a problem. This may mean that people simply do not work well together. It may also mean that meetings are largely a waste of time because of inadequate agendas – such as too many items, AOB taking over the whole meeting, poor chairing and time-keeping.

Attending to behaviour
The processes and discussant behaviours of the team may also need attention, for example there may be a clear pecking order; a failure to build on the contributions of others; interruption and vociferous and opinionated members dominating the meeting.

Three further factors that have been identified are internal rivalries, ‘group think’ and fragmentation. ‘Group think’ is a situation in which the social needs of the group take precedence and there is a reluctance to face challenges. The result of this is often flabby decision making in which the search for over-easy compromise replaces the need for rigorous discussion.

‘Fragmentation’ can be interpreted as the situation in which a member of the team is to all intents and purposes non-existent until he or she hears the name of their own particular area of responsibility mentioned and then comes to life. There is thus little contribution to decisions that affect the whole organisation. In the context of the school, these shortcomings weaken the role of the SLT as what should be the head’s ‘privy council’.

It has also been noted that less than adequate performance on the senior team in businesses is not related to basics but to higher-level skills such as having a strategic perspective and ‘higher-order’ interpersonal skills. This means the ability to see the ‘big picture’, what the constraints and enablers are and the capacity to guide the organisation forward over the next three to five years. It also means the ability to work well with and to motivate and inspire a wide – and ever widening – array of people whose support is necessary to get things done.

Managing complexity
It is also true that senior teams in both business and schools are not just ‘teams’ in the general sense, because the focus for their decisions and actions is strategic – and long term. As a result, significant levels of complexity must be managed.

Furthermore, for individual members of the school senior leadership team, the context is considerably less supportive than it was when they were middle leaders of departments – because the source of their credibility has changed and they are no longer supported by a subject-based team.

The school senior leadership team must also have ‘political’ understanding regarding the way alliances must be built and rebuilt across the school – as well as consensus being constantly sought from a vast number of stakeholders. Members of the team need a good understanding of the decisions they are involved in and need to support them on a daily basis. The effort to communicate accurately throughout the school – without which those with grievances can make hay – is an important part of the job.

A hard road
It is clear, therefore, that the transition from middle leader to the school SLT is not always an easy one for assistant head teachers and others and that in some cases it can cause considerable stress and demoralisation as the former securities are removed. It is also clear that, within the SLT setting, there is a crucial role for the head in selecting team members and providing support for them, both at an individual level and in the development of the SLT generally. As we have observed, the bonus for doing this can be considerable – and can be done by any head – including those with an extended role outside the school.

How’s your school doing?
So how well does the senior team in your school work? At SISU Professional, we use a simple diagnostic when we work with senior teams, which acts as a starting point for discussion about its stage of development and which you can also use as part of the SLT development process. It is based both on the work of Dainty and Kakabadse (1992) and on instruments developed by our senior consultant, Dr Ray Chatwin (2005) which have been specifically designed for school senior leadership teams.

Dainty and Kakabadse (1992) suggest that the most consistent findings from research studies on effective teams are the importance of focus (or ‘purpose’) and process (or ‘the interpersonal’). This echoes similar findings regarding the importance of strategic understanding and competence in higher order interpersonal skills discussed above.

They consider an SLT with a clear focus/purpose to be a ‘guided’ team and an SLT with good process/ interpersonal competence to be a ‘mature’ team, with misguided and immature teams at the opposite poles. This leads to a fourfold categorisation of teams as brittle, blocked, blended and blind (see diagram and table, right). It is clear from the characteristics of these types that the ‘blended’ team, which was mentioned at the beginning of this article, is the one towards which all school SLTs should work.

This fourfold typology has the virtue of simplicity but can be criticised on the basis that few schools will be a perfect fit.

For this reason, Chatwin (2005) has developed a more elaborated version of the typology by devising a plotter (see below) and is currently working on an SLT member competency framework. together with diagnostics for individual team members and the team as a functioning unit. Even without the full range of materials, the plotter can be interesting to try out with your own SLT, accompanied by the following task and questions: 1. Allocate our team to a best-fit category and list your reasons. 2. If you do not consider us a blended team, how could we become one? 3. What behaviours would need changing? 4. What skills must be acquired by individuals?

5. What support is needed to improve our performance as an SLT?

Learning from ‘top teams’
The increasing range of demands being made on schools and on headteachers demands a real effort to develop SLTs in all kinds of schools – primary, secondary and special. We believe that this can be done very effectively if we are able to recognise the generic features that are specific to ‘top teams’ in all kinds of organisations and invest time and effort into developing ‘blended’ characteristics.

TYPE – CHARACTERISTICS – QUADRANT Brittle – Poor focus/poor interaction – Misguided and immature Blocked – Strong focus (on results)/poor interaction – Guided but immature Blended – Strong focus/good interaction – Guided and mature 

Blind – Weak focus/good interaction – Misguided but mature 

References:

Chatwin, R (2205) Top Team Plotter. Birmingham, SISU Professional
Dainty, P and Kakabadse (1992) ‘Brittle, Blocked, Blended and Blind: Top Team Characteristics that Lead To Business Success or Failure’ in Journal of Managerial Psychology (1992), vol 7, no 2.

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