Teamwork: Redefined

Linda J. Dawson and Randy Quinn, The Aspen Group International, LLC

 Linda Dawson

 Linda Dawson

We have never worked with a board or superintendent who failed to say that they support good teamwork. Who can argue against it? After all, we’re all in this together, all aiming at the same goal, all committed to the betterment of kids and the community. We recognize that our success depends on each other, and success demands good teamwork.

In pursuit of this noble goal, boards and superintendents hold “teambuilding retreats,” hire teambuilding consultants, spend weekends together developing common understandings and agreements, all aimed at arming boards and their superintendents to go boldly arm-in-arm to meet whatever comes their way—together.

This really isn’t meant to poke fun at such exercises. In fact, over the years we ourselves have conducted hundreds of them. And by no means do we intend to diminish the value of good teamwork. The fact is, boards and their CEOs simply cannot succeed without it.

So just are we trying to say here?

Randy Quinn

Randy Quinn

It is this: the traditional concept of teamwork, in which boards and their superintendents get their heads together and jointly decide what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it, may have done more harm than good. The reason? A flawed concept of what good teamwork actually is.

To most boards and superintendents, good teamwork seems to mean that they all agree on the best course of action to take, both short and long term. This agreement, the sharing of common views about what is to be done and how it will be done, seems to constitute “good teamwork.” In fact, if one were to question that concept, one runs the risk of being branded a heretic. Just what is wrong with the ideal of boards and superintendents reaching common agreement about where the organization is going and how it will get there?

Try this: what if the strategies the board and superintendent agree with turn out to be ineffective, or just plain bad? Who is accountable for those bad decisions? The board, or the superintendent? Some will say that the superintendent is responsible, since the chosen direction likely was based on the superintendent’s recommendation. Some will say that the board is responsible, since the board agreed to take that direction. Some will say both share the accountability for the flawed decision.

Is it any wonder why there is more role confusion in public education than any other entity on Earth, public or private? The traditional way boards and superintendents have dealt with each other, i.e. superintendent recommendations for the board’s approval, guarantees role confusion. When both parties play in the same sandbox, making the same decisions, accountability is, at best, confused.

The fact is, some superintendents take comfort in having the board share accountability via this approval process. We call it the “Mother-may-I” method of leadership. Bold and authoritative action is not rewarded in such an environment. Instead, superintendents seek the comfort of the board’s “blessing” of proposed actions, and feel safe to proceed only after the board has given approval.

When most of us were in graduate school, this was the method we were taught: develop your best recommendation, and get the board on board before getting “too far ahead.” Little consideration was given to role clarity and accountability.

What is the Alternative?

Good teamwork does not mean that both parties make the same decision. In fact, it means the opposite: good teamwork means that each party plays different, but complementary, roles.

Think of your favorite professional football team. The quarterback of that team has a different role to play from the number one wide receiver, who plays a different role from the left tackle. The players who occupy these positions don’t make the same decisions; they don’t need the same skills; they don’t even have to agree about which plays to run. Bad things happen when they argue among themselves about which plays to run. And bad things happen when any one of them fails to do his defined job very well.

Think about a symphony orchestra. The first violinist, the trumpet player and the percussionist have dramatically different jobs to do, but when they perform those jobs well,, beautiful music results.

When all players do what is expected of them, when individual efforts complement those of their teammates, good things usually happen. Each player is accountable for doing the work assigned to the position, and there is no ambiguity about what that work is or who is responsible for it.

For a school board and its superintendent to begin thinking of teamwork in such a fashion, they first must be willing to give up some things in order to gain some things:

The board must be willing to give up many of the approvals it traditionally has exercised. It must be willing to get out of the mode of “managing the manager” that such approvals tend to promote. And it must be willing to elevate its focus from the day-to-day operational decisions to issues associated with students and whether they are succeeding as expected.

The superintendent must be willing to give up the comfort of having the board approve all of the important operational decisions that the superintendent and staff should be better qualified to make. The superintendent must be willing to assume added accountability in return for the added decision-making authority. And the superintendent must be willing to be evaluated on the basis of how well the decisions he or she made turned out.

A Three-Team Concept

In the effective operation of any school district, we see three very distinct, aligned teams as necessary. The diagram below illustrates the teams and their interrelationship. At the top is the Governance Team, comprised of the board and the superintendent. The board drives the work of this team by setting the “whats,” the outcomes expected of the organization in terms of both student achievement and operational standards. The superintendent, as the board’s only link to the operational organization and the person responsible for making the results happen, is a non-voting member of this team.

The second team, the Strategy Team, is made up of administrators at all levels, including principals. This is where the “hows” are developed, the strategies to make the board’s results happen. Notice that the superintendent, who was a member of the board’s Governance Team, is the leader of this team and the overlapping entity between these two teams.

The third team, the Instructional Team, is made up of all site-level personnel, and is led by the same principals who are members of the Strategy Team. Principals are the link between these two teams.

This three-team concept is driven by the outcome-level work started by the board at the Governance Team level. This broad direction from the board filters throughout the district, and demands systemic alignment, from the boardroom to the classroom. The line running vertically on the right side of the diagram shows that direction.

The flip side of the alignment cycle is shown by the vertical line to the left, and represents complete accountability from the classroom back to the board. When all three teams do the jobs expected of them, and do those jobs well, organizational success virtually is guaranteed. And the beauty of it is that the three teams will have done very different—but very complementary—work leading to that outcome.

The payoff of looking at teamwork in this way is enormous. Absolute role clarity, clear accountability for decisions, freedom to do the work for which the superintendent was hired, and strong definitions for organizational success all are apparent.

Notice one important element in this different concept of teamwork: high communication. Your football team and the symphony orchestra mentioned above will not succeed, regardless of the skills of the players, if communication is poor. Neither will these teams. Good teammates can play very different roles, and succeed while doing so, but solid, continuing communication is an absolute necessity.

Good communication begins with the board very clearly setting the boundaries on executive decision-making and the outcomes it expects the organization to achieve for students before delegating operational decisions to the superintendent. It flows in the opposite direction, from the superintendent to the board, as the organization’s performance is monitored.


A conversation to have with your board:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we all can agree on the importance of our working together as a high-performing team. In the past, most boards and superintendents have viewed teamwork as an exercise of joint decision- making between the board and superintendent. While those activities were well intended, I think there may be a different concept of teamwork we may want to explore. This is based on an article I received from The American Association of School Administrators, one that intrigued me and spurred in my own mind some ideas about how we might consider doing some things differently. Might I suggest that each of you read the article, as I did, and then we find some time to discuss this very different concept of teamwork?”

Chart Teamwork

Linda J. Dawson and Dr. Randy Quinn are senior partners of The Aspen Group International, LLC P.O. Box 1777 Castle Rock, CO 80104

Email: ph: 303.882.9888 or 478.0125 Fax: 208.247.6084