Feature                                                  Pages 26-29


The Logic of Multiplication in Management

How does a school system leader tap into the latent talent that sits inside the district?


At a time when expectations are rising while funding is plummeting, doing more with less has become standard operating procedure. Administrators from all corners are feeling the burden — if not in navigating a complex funding formula, then addressing teacher quality or ensuring all students graduate college and career ready.

Foster Keynote
Elise Foster (center), education consultant with the Wiseman Group, has presented at an AASA women's leadership conference.
The natural responses from education leaders weighed down by enormous challenges and work demands include the following:

  • We are already overworked.
  • Our most effective staff are even more overworked.
  • The only way we can make these changes is through the addition of more resources.

Instead of pinning one’s hopes on a cavalry of additional resources, a school or district leader might ask, “Are we getting the most out of our staff?” This is a very different question than “Can our staff work harder?” The former is the kind of question that confronts basic assumptions; it is a question of “multipliers,” leaders who use their own intelligence to grow others, literally making the people around them smarter and more capable.

In our book The Multiplier Effect, we contrast this type of leader with “diminishers,” leaders who drain intelligence and capability from those around them.

In our research, we found too many administrators across K-12 education, business and nonprofit organizations don’t capitalize on the first lesson of management: The job of an administrator is to flow work to the team and then keep it there. When administrators take back work, not only do they end up doing all the work (which they inevitably come to resent), they deny their team the natural learning and accountability needed for personal growth. Because these leaders don’t use the full complement of talent and intelligence available to them, capacity sits idle in their organizations, and they tend to become micromanagers. To counter this, they overwork themselves and continue to ask (or secretly hope) for more resources, wondering why people aren’t more productive and are always letting them down.

The alternative role to the micromanager is that of the “investor,” a leader who engages people through delegating and extending assignments that stretch capability. They grow the people around them, which grows their school’s ability to tackle the next major challenge, creating a virtuous cycle of success. With multiplier logic, we might just find, like others did in the Eastern Carver County, Minn., and Albemarle County, Va., school districts, that our schools’ new challenges can be met, not by pressing for more resources, but by better using the brainpower that exists in our organizations.

Empowering Others

While navigating the maze that is educational funding, you undoubtedly ask yourself, “How can we allocate the funds in an equitable and impactful way?” A traditional model is one where the district’s administrative team huddles up, discusses the projects and funding recipients, and then announces the allocations. Many times the resources are simply allocated equitably to all staff, leaving limited resources available to truly implement transformative initiatives.

In 2013, under the leadership of Superintendent Jim Bauck of Chaska, Minn., the customary model took a backseat in the allocation of one-time funding for the Eastern Carver County Schools’ districtwide PowerUp technology grant program, which asked teachers to transform classroom teaching and learning to be more relevant for students of the 21st century.

By handing over ownership to a panel of staff and administrators, which determined the criteria, evaluated more than 70 submissions and selected the nearly 25 winning projects, the school district experienced tremendous results. “The excitement is unbelievable, and we’re doing projects that would not have surfaced without this approach,” Bauck says.

The forward-thinking staff in the 9,100-student district, located southwest of the Twin Cities, saw the upside possibilities of engaging others and handing over ownership throughout the district.

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Jim Bauck (standing), superintendent in Chaska, Minn., believes in giving ownership of school-based initiatives to the teaching staff.
Previously, teachers were involved, but now it was their responsibility to generate the idea, demonstrate need and have a plan to implement their classroom initiative. Teachers no longer were doers. They were owners.

As teachers’ contributions grew, they cited a much stronger connection to the school district’s mission. They recognized a personal change as they modified their classroom teaching practices and invited similar accountability from their students. “This experience has changed me as a teacher,” says Jim Vangerud, an algebra teacher at Chaska Middle School West, who proposed a funded project to create a flipped classroom. “I have surrendered some control in my classroom in exchange for a higher level of student engagement. I do less telling and more questioning, so they feel the satisfaction of arriving at solutions on their own.”

Employees operate at their best when they are in charge and held accountable for their work. When the administrative team ceded control, putting someone else in charge, it enabled teachers and students to operate with confidence and reaped the benefits in terms of student engagement and highly effective technology implementations.

Where in the school district do you face challenges where the talent and intelligence to solve them already sit inside your organization? What new (or old) issues will your district tackle when you put someone else in charge?

Design Decentralized

When you have a bold vision for your district, it can be tempting to lead the charge. For years, Pam Moran, superintendent of the 13,200-student Albemarle County Schools in central Virginia, has pushed her staff to provide opportunities that prepare students for the job market and college. The push grew stronger in 2012 with the launch of Design 2015, a program in which site leaders were given the autonomy to design their own approach to achieve the district’s mission.

Instead of handing over a list of initiatives from which to choose, Moran invited schools to design and lead their own.

She and her team began by challenging the schools with questions, among them:

“What is your vision for learning?”

“How will student learning be transformed through relationships, relevance and rigor as a result of this work?”

“How will teachers own, lead and invest in this work?”

Then Moran and her cabinet got out of the way. It wasn’t just another initiative; the schools were energized and did things they never even dreamed possible. With no two schools created equal, Design 2015 offered the district a fresh perspective on the intelligence and capability of each individual school. In fact, some of the schools that previously struggled with implementation were the ones that excelled, even surpassing expectations.

Schools in Albemarle County were transformed physically — with the addition of maker-spaces, a hands-on learning environment using new technologies and basic tools, plus flexible furniture. But more importantly, they saw a transformation in engagement. The level of confidence and competence among staff increased in all areas, unlocking hidden intelligence throughout the district. In fact, one elementary school reimagined its traditional library, replacing an imposing checkout desk with a modern checkout kiosk and transforming the librarian’s office into a student’s maker space. Now students from multiple classrooms use the space simultaneously, creating more cross-learning opportunities.

Individual school sites realized improvements, but as important was the districtwide learning. Moran’s administrative team studied the commonalities among the 26 schools’ approach, and these trends structured the district’s lifelong-learner competencies, called the 7 Pathways. By not just inviting schools to implement a plan but also handing over complete ownership, Albemarle County Schools exceeded its own expectations, influencing student learning across the district.

Are there leaders in your district who could overhaul their school if they were given complete ownership? What new ideas will be unearthed when you shift the burden of thinking to your school leaders?

Investor Thinking

Research about multiplier leaders, such as Bauck and Moran, shows when it comes to getting things done, multipliers think like investors. They transfer ownership and shift the burden of accountability onto others because they hold a powerful belief that employees perform at their best when they have responsibility and know someone is counting on them. Investors grow the capability of others by transferring ownership of work to others, and not just any work — but work that stretches individuals, schools and communities.

Where would handing over the reins and giving complete ownership allow your district to excel? Where might you need to give back the work to ensure a project and ultimate responsibility reside with their rightful owner?

To raise the stakes, sharpen the focus and create a positive pressure to perform, you may consider relinquishing control and distributing it using one of the following bite-size experiments:

  • Put others in charge by giving them majority vote. Instead of just delegating work, take it to the next level by letting people know they (not you) are in charge and accountable. Tell them they get 51 percent of the vote with 100 percent of the accountability.
  • Lay down a stretch challenge for your organization. Engage your team by giving it a “mission impossible,” something hard that will challenge the entire organization. Help your organization see what might be possible and then extend an intriguing, vivid challenge. Generate belief that it just might be possible and then give them ownership.
  • Give ownership back to the person it belongs to. When someone brings you a problem you believe he or she is capable of solving, give it back to the individual and ask him or her for a fix. You play the role of coach rather than problem solver. If someone legitimately needs help, jump in and contribute, but then clearly give back ownership.

When organization leaders distribute ownership, they not only deliver results, they build other leaders at all levels. As a school district leader, where are you holding on, bearing the full burden of thinking? What becomes possible for you and your school district when you let go?

Elise Foster is the education practice lead with the Wiseman Group and a leadership coach in Columbus, Ind. E-mail: elise@elisefoster.com. Twitter: @elisefoster. Liz Wiseman is president of the Wiseman Group in Menlo Park, Calif.


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