Culture: The Invisible Umbrella of Effective Instructional Leadership Teams

Culture: The Invisible Umbrella of Effective Instructional Leadership Teams

In the Summer 2019 issue of the ASCD Educational Leadership (EL) magazine, I discuss the intentionality that makes Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) effective. In the article, Bringing Intentionality to Instructional Leadership Teams, I examine how effective teams are

  • intentionally organized,
  • intentionally facilitated; and
  • intentionally supported.

These three components must be viewed and implemented collectively rather than in isolation. When they are at work simultaneously, several positive things happen.

First, meetings become much more focused. With a clear structure for identifying and discussing next steps and for solving issues, ILTs truly become the lever for making change happen.

Second, the ILT meeting structure provides discipline to get the work done. There’s a set time and place to meet, members know their roles, and there’s a clear set of incremental goals to meet. 

Third, these three components together provide a framework for accountability. With team members authentically engaged and invested in the process of change, they gain a clearer sense about their individual responsibilities to the work as a whole.

It’s been exciting to watch how instructional leadership teams with these components in place can help schools gain incredible traction on their biggest challenges—and experience the wins they’ve been seeking.

Team Culture

One aspect that sits as an umbrella above each of the intentional components described in the EL article is team culture. Culture is often times amorphous and can feel invisible.  It’s regularly described as something that “you just feel” either in positive or negative ways. Culture impacts the way in which team members work together and ultimately the success of any given team.

Given the importance of culture, I thought it would be timely to discuss how to make culture building an intentional act, just as the other components of effective ILTs are intentional.  At Insight Education Group, we’ve been studying culture for some time and trying to define it so that we can intentionally work on culture internally and with our external partners rather than just hoping that culture materializes as a result of working together.

What I’ve learned is that culture happens whether you pay attention to it or not. So you can roll the dice and hope a positive culture organically emerges, or you can intentionally work on culture to positively influence the type of team interactions that propel organizations and their missions forward in positive ways.

The Keys to Generate Cohesion and Cooperation

One particular resource that I’ve found helpful in defining culture is The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. Coyle goes inside some of the world’s most successful organizations including the U.S. Navy’s Seal Team Six, IDEO, and the San Antonio Spurs and reveals what makes them tick.

Coyle demystifies the culture-building process by identifying three key skills that generate cohesion and cooperation, and explains how diverse groups learn to function with a single mind.  The three skills are: 

  • Build safety;
  • Share vulnerability; and
  • Establish purpose.

Each of these skills has direct application to the work of ILTs, which is why I have found them so helpful in our work.  Let’s explore each of the skills a bit more.

Skill 1: Build safety.

Coyle describes building safety as “the type of skill you can’t learn in a robotic, paint-by-the-numbers sort of way.  It’s a fluid, improvisational skill—sort of like learning to pass a soccer ball to a teammate during a game. It requires you to recognize patterns, react quickly, and deliver the right signal at the right time. And like any skill, it comes with a learning curve.” 

When I think about how this applies to ILTs, I immediately picture two types of meetings.  Both meetings use a structured agenda and have intentional organization and intentional facilitation as I described in the EL article

However, one meeting is more productive than the other. The more productive meeting reflects a team that has discussed the importance of building safety, practiced doing so, and regularly reflects on how to get better at creating a safer environment. It’s the intentional focus and reflection on safety that sets these two meetings apart and makes one feel different, more productive (and fun) than the other.

Skill 2: Share vulnerability.

Vulnerability is particularly helpful when it is viewed as a strength rather than a weakness.  The bravery it takes to admit you messed up, need help, and/or don’t have the answers but are still in search for good solutions is a learned skill.  And when leaders set the tone for this type of thinking, the rest of the team is more likely to be vulnerable. 

Vulnerability is a strength because in order to innovate and get better as an individual, team, and organization, you have to take chances, fail, and learn from failure.  Lack of vulnerability stifles growth because the organization and people within it are no longer learners, but simply doers. 

We know that school improvement is incredibly complex and dynamic requiring constant adaptation. Vulnerability is a prerequisite to meet the adaptive challenges school leaders face. Think about the ILTs you’ve observed, served on or led.  Were members of the team vulnerable?  Did the leader set the tone? 

Coyle provides hope for teams struggling with vulnerability. He taps into the research from Jeff Polzer, the Harvard Business School professor who studies organizational behavior.  Polzer traces group’s cooperation norms to two critical moments that happen early in a group’s formation. They are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. Polzer says,

“These small moments are doorways to two possible group paths:  Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together?  Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?  At those moments, people either dig in and become defensive and start justifying, and a lot of tension gets created. Or they say something like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.  Why don’t you agree?  I might be wrong, and I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.’  What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.” 

 If your ILT is not operating from a vulnerable perspective, think about re-setting, having an open conversation about vulnerability and practice operating from a vulnerable frame using advice Polzer provides about how to act and react. 

Skill 3: Establish purpose.

Establishing purpose may seem like the easiest of the three aspects of effective team cultures but it’s the hardest in disguise!

When I work with ILTs or district leadership teams I often start my engagement with questions related to purpose. 

  • What is your mission and vision?
  • What types of short and long-term goals do you have in place?
  • What does your school improvement plan prescribe as goals for improvement this quarter, semester and year?

Most team members can answer these types of questions.  Most schools and districts have a strategic plan and school improvement plans that outline the answers.  But in many of those schools and districts there’s still an achievement gap, lack of clarity about how to close the gap, and little movement towards goals. 

Why? I would propose that the answer, in large part, can be found by studying how teams engage around their purpose. Creating consistent engagement around your purpose is critical in order for purpose to serve its purpose—moving the school or district from its current reality to a shared, better state. 

Building High Purpose Environments

So what does engagement around your purpose look like?  Coyle describes high purpose environments as those that “send ultra-clear, steady signals aligned with their goals” and classifies these signals in five basic types:

  1. Framing: Successful teams conceptualize a new initiative as a learning experience that will benefit students. Unsuccessful teams conceptualize these initiatives as add-ons to existing practice.
  2. Roles: Successful teams are explicitly told by the team leader why their individual and collective skills are important for the team’s success, and why it is important to perform as a team. Unsuccessful teams are not.
  3. Rehearsal: Successful teams do elaborate dry runs of their work by preparing in detail, explaining new protocols, and talking about communication.  Unsuccessful teams take minimal steps to prepare.
  4. Explicit encouragement to speak up: Successful teams are told by their team leaders to speak up if they see a problem; they are actively coached through the feedback process.  The leaders of unsuccessful teams do little coaching, and as a result, team members are hesitant to speak up.
  5. Active reflection: Between the launch of key initiatives, successful teams go over performance and discuss future improvements.  Unsuccessful teams tend not to do this.

The factors that are not on this list are experience, team member status, and organizational support. Coyle’s research indicates that these qualities matter far less than the simple, steady pulse of real-time signals that channel attention toward a larger goal. The value of such signals is not in their information but in the fact that they orient the team to the task and to one another.

The Ongoing Work of Culture Building

Effective ILTs make the invisible umbrella of team culture visible. They define their team culture and constantly work on it. Meeting agendas and data protocols, while important and necessary, are alone insufficient to effective ILTs. Teams must work equally hard at building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing and engaging around clear purpose in order to realize the true power of the ILT.   

For more information about Instructional Leadership Teams, check out these past blog posts.

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