Building the Leadership Muscle to Improve Hiring and Retention

May 01, 2024

By adopting core processes that capture and address the individual needs of staff, school districts can alleviate shortages and strengthen retention

Today’s staffing shortages in elementary and secondary schools represent an opportunity to look beyond short-term fixes. Crisis management got us through the pandemic, but with teacher and specialist shortages that are unprecedented and unrelenting, we need a better approach to onboarding, mentoring and ongoing staff development.

For years, many school districts prioritized supports for classroom teachers, but when it comes to classified staff, who make up a significant percentage of school-based employees, coherent processes for onboarding, mentoring and role-specific learning remain strikingly rare.

Too often, district administrators hire special education aides, bus drivers and other support staff and provide little to no support to be successful. Support staff report to work on their first day, their daily schedules learned from a colleague, and they just start. This means the critical support staff directly responsible for student support and safety are left to figure out how to do their work on the job and on their own.

The consequences of a poor onboarding experience, a lack of mentoring and inadequate professional development are significant for the individual, the students and the district. Employees feel out of the loop, undertrained and less proficient at their work. Sometimes, lack of training creates an unsafe environment that results in legal risks and personal injuries.

Organizational leaders need to pause long enough to really see the impact of their current hiring, onboarding and support processes. Improvement only happens when leaders understand the flaws of current processes and then build more coherent processes with the commitment of the full leadership team.

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Listening to Those Closest to the Work

One leadership strategy to support and retain staff is to actively listen to those closest to the work: the team members themselves. Deep listening and strong two-way communication contribute to sound relationships that enable the leader to identify issues before they escalate, address concerns and meaningfully scaffold communication.

The 90-day new employee interview process described below demonstrates how strong teams are built soon after the employee is hired. Strong teams are built through intentional leader actions, consistent support and follow-through.

The 90-Day Overview

The immediate supervisor dedicates individual time with team members 30 days and 90 days into their new roles. The process typically takes 20 minutes. Examples of the 90-day new employee questions are below. Leaders may adjust the words to make the conversation feel natural, but the intent behind the questions should be maintained.

  • Open the meeting with a warm connection. This allows the leader to get to know what is important to team members outside of work. For example: “Marisa, thank you for your time today. I appreciate having the opportunity to get to know you a bit better. Last time we met, you shared that you and your family had just moved. How has your move gone for your family?”
  • Set the stage. For example: “Marisa, I am grateful to have you on our team. We are committed to making sure you have the support you need. As we start, I want you to know that your input is valued and your success is important to our full team.”
Examples of Key Questions
  • How have your first 90 days compared with what we discussed during the interview?
  • What is working well for you?
  • Based on your previous experience, are there things you did there that might be helpful to us?
  • Is there anything making you feel uneasy or that the fit isn’t feeling right for you yet?
  • Is there anything I can be helpful with?
  • Who on our team has been helpful to you?
  • Is there anyone you know who might be a good fit with our team in the future?
Leadership Protocol

New team members want to be seen as capable. Yet they can’t know what they don’t know. Individuals in any new role lack confidence in 20 to 40 percent of the skills they will need to be successful in the long term.

Listening to each team member affords a safe space to share concerns and match the right level of support at the right time. Leaders realize the impact lasts. By valuing individual insights, leaders create an environment that improves sense of belonging, aligns individual support, deepens team relationships and grows organizational commitment long-term.

To strengthen this leadership protocol, align the guidance with the Nine Principles Framework ( for leading organizational excellence, developed by Studer Education.               

—    Pat Greco