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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

HPS Leadership Shares: Building Middle Leader Capability in Large High Schools with Judi Newman

In the HPS Leadership Shares series we interview education leaders nominated by their colleagues and peers as exemplars of excellence in building high performance schools.  

Judi Newman is an educational leader I admire – both for her patience and commitment to supporting middle leaders and teachers to deliver the best possible education experience to students; and her ability to think and act strategically in managing large workforces, and even larger numbers of students and parents that are ‘business as usual’ for any principal of a large high school or P-12 school.  After many years working as a principal in large and complex schools Judi has more recently worked as a lead principal coach for the Central Queensland region where her depth of leadership experience, combined with her passion for neuroscience focused coaching, has helped many principals move from ‘good to great’.

 In this edition of the HPS Leadership Share series Judi shares her journey as a Principal in building high performance teams and supporting middle leader development in a large secondary school context and some of the important lessons learned in growing her own leadership capability to simultaneously support multiple teaching teams…

The Butterfly Effect 

“A teacher affects eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” Henry Adams

Q: Do you believe teachers are having a larger impact in society beyond the classroom?

A: Yes.  Teachers are leaders, not just in the classroom but they are key to shaping the minds of our young people. This generational influence can have lifelong effects. If a teacher can champion students to believe in themselves, inspire hope in the future and see the possibilities, then their influence goes far beyond the classroom.  Teaching isn’t just about teaching content, as the essential knowledge we require shifts with time.  Teaching is more about inspiring lifelong learners, teaching thinking skills, people skills, and shaping mindsets towards a happy life and a contributing ‘future thinking’ workforce.  

Q: What keeps you up a night?

A:It is important that we recognise each child’s individual potential to be who they are and could be. I wonder at times if some of our children slip through the cracks and their unique strengths are not identified. We are good at seeing that a child is good at math or art, but it is more challenging to spot passions and early characteristics around leadership. Part of building confidence in our young people is to celebrate the small successes along the way and for every child to feel valued. Part of the journey is challenging students to be the best they can be.

Ordinary is not good enough. Our kids deserve adults in their life that provide four scoops of love and support to one scoop of challenge so they don’t go into cruise mode too early. I think sometimes we judge others by their story, not their potential and our young people are only just building their story. They need mentors and coaches in their lives. How do we as teachers tap into the true potential of the individual so they may later follow their passions and what they are meant to be doing? I believe that every child deserves a champion. I believe that if we see something special, masterful or beautiful in someone, than we should speak it, so that it is revealed so clearly, they see it in themselves.  No child should be missed. This is what keeps me awake at night.  

Your Brief History of Time....

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of your life journey in becoming an education leader?

A:I learnt the importance of leadership and being a team player as a child growing up attending the National Fitness club (where I later worked as a fitness instructress). It was here and at my judo classes that I learnt self-discipline and self-determination. I graduated from teaching college and was sent to (then), one of the largest high schools in Queensland, North Rockhampton High School as a first year teacher (which I had previously attended as a student).  

 In hindsight, the transition from student to teacher in the same location taught me that to be a leader it is more important to transition your head space than your physical setting. I was then transferred to a large high school in Gladstone where I threw myself into a range of extracurricular activities to become part of the school community.  

At 25, I was promoted to Head of Department, which sent me on my first formal role in my leadership journey. At the time I was told I was the youngest Head of Department in Queensland and I knew I was very green as a leader but willing to learn. Here I leant very fast that you can be the hardest, smartest working person, but if you don’t build relationships, connect with people and build trust everything will come tumbling down very quickly.

These lessons served me well into the Deputy Principal role and then into the Principalship of a band 10 and 11 high school. My first formal role as Principal was back at North Rockhampton High School.  Again I found myself in an interesting position. Three staff were still at the school where I had been a both a student and a first year teacher. This situation made clear the importance of defining role clarity and boundaries as well as role modelling  openness to continuous improvement as I established myself in the leadership role of Principal.  In this role I learnt to share my leadership and let go a little – understanding the difference between promoting autonomy and responsibility versus the assumption of ‘blind trust’ in the capability of others.  

I have always had a drive to learn, and I finished a Masters of Learning Management.  The research in leadership ignited a keen interest in psychology where I also completed a psychology degree.  My next position was Lead Principal for the Department of Education where most of my focus was on building the leadership capacity of school leadership teams as a coach.  

I completed an executive coaching licence and started a PhD in coaching to build performance of leaders, informed by Neuroscience, Psychology and Learning Theory.  I learnt that coaching is the best tool for coaching other leaders but there is also a place for mentorship and management.  I also learnt that the insights from Neuroscience will underpin and inform my future work as a coach. It is much more powerful to change the way we think for leadership renewal, by rewiring the brain, than to only coach around a goal.  

Leadership Life Lessons....

“Experience is the best teacher of all.” Harry Callahan

Q: What were some of your key early career leadership learnings and experiences?


  • Find a good mentor and coach that will challenge you and grow you.  I have always been fortunate to have a wonderful mentor and coach throughout my career.  These men and women have made a huge difference to who I am today.  

  • Work at building your self-awareness and know your strengths and edges.  Continually work on smoothing your edges.  If you don’t, others will only see your edges and not be able to see your strengths.  If others are focused on your edges, then you won’t be in a position to influence and leadership is about influence. 

  • Put the why in first – know your purpose but don’t forget the ‘who’, meaning the connections and trust you make with people will be the key to success.  Know and look after your people. Put people before product.

  • Focus on what you can only do and delegate the rest.  Don’t try to do everything. Do one thing well and deeply at a time.  

  • Make your decisions by anchoring into a place of certainty such as role, accountability, values, evidence and integrity.  Don’t be tempted to base your decisions on the loudest voice or the trend at the time. At each school I have used protocols to shape desired behaviours at meetings.  I have also had a clear decision-making model.  This has saved me many sleepless nights.  

  • Know you can only control your own behaviour.  If you don’t like something change it or change the way you think about it. Address the hard stuff directly and swiftly.

  • Don’t define yourself by being busy.  Time set is a mindset not a resource.  There will always be more to do than you have time to do it in.  Put your big rocks in first. 

  • Keep learning. Don’t let what you know keep you from learning. Be prepared to unlearn and relearn.

  • Know that culture is much stronger than tactics.  A leader needs to work on the mental models of staff to mine for shared common beliefs before they bring in change.  I have learnt the hard way that a leader needs to help people through change and not just expect people to keep up.  No one will thank the CEO when you bring in change because no one likes change. 

On Being an Effective Principal in a Large High School….

“I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession.” John Wooden

Q: What are some of your key leadership learnings as principal in building middle leader capability and leaders in the transition from teacher to Head of Department?

A: I spend a lot of time with new leaders at different levels of the organisation.  Some of the transition challenges they have revealed which in turn have shaped my own approach to leadership development are:

  • Allow time for the brain to rewire to see the big picture...

It is a big step from classroom teacher to Head of Department. The transition requires a new head space.  What I see when I coach groups of new Heads of Departments is the challenge they have with seeing the big picture.  They are wired to think like a teacher so for a time this is what comes naturally.  As coaches we need to allow our new leaders to take the time to build new wiring to step up their leadership. Change doesn’t happen in one conversation.  The brain rewires over several conversations with sleep in between. It takes time for teachers to take a step back off the dance floor onto the balcony.  Going from controlling everything themselves at a classroom level to influencing and inspiring others to do the work in a consistent way is a challenge at first.   

  •  Make the time for the leadership work...

One Head of Department I met said he wasn’t getting any momentum in his results and he complained that he ran out of time to do the things that needed to be done. I asked him to write everything down that he did in a month. He kept a log. Only 10% of his time was being spent on the important priority work. In his case he was being seduced by the busy work and the stuff he liked doing. His work was nearly all operational. A leader has to be a good manager but if we are always managing we will always only be reactive and putting out fires. We need to make the time for the leadership work so we can be proactive. We worked together to find the time to do the improvement work. We put the important work in first.  We address the important influential conversations first.  

  • Ensure clarity of role...

A good starting point when you start with a new team as a new leader is to ensure everyone in the team can articulate the vision and everyone has a clear picture of their role and purpose.  A new Head of Department was telling me about how lovely and hard working their team was but she was concerned that they never seemed to get close to improving results.  I asked the new HOD how much time had she spent on clarifying the team roles.  Did every team member know what to do and exactly how to do it?  Did every team member know what their success criteria was and how they knew if they were successful in three, six and nine months time?  Did they know what success looked like in two years time?  We drew up a team accountability chart and six months later she said the team had made more progress than they had in the last five years.  

  • Don’t tell me show me...

Another issue that arises around the challenge of transition from teacher to Head of Department is the concept of ‘follow through’ and ‘monitoring’.  As a teacher you are accountable for your own work.  As HOD you are now accountable for a team.  This is a whole new way of working.  I leant too late, that we should always check on progress and not just expect everything to be done by leaving the checking at result time.  My motto is “Show me, don’t tell me.”  A new leader needs to find the courage to monitor (not micromanage) the work ahead by having direct conversations and coaching sessions with their team members.  Feedback should be a vital part of the monitoring cycle.

  • Share your leadership...

When a new leader finds himself working with others for the first time in the capacity of leader, they tell me they find it really difficult to share their leadership.  They fear that if they consult too much they will lose control of the ship. When I was a new Deputy I was always nervous about giving the conversation over to the whole team as I was afraid they might make a decision that I could not control.  I soon learnt that if you create a setting where it is easier for the team to actively participate than it is to passively resist then most people will work together effectively. Providing reading, training and airing all perspectives before a decision is made is more effective than telling people what to do. Of course, when you are a new leader it feels safer and is easier to tell people what to do.   

  • Know what the leadership work looks like & what approach to take...

A young teacher who had just won a Head of Department position said that he was glad he had been part of the leadership discussion that day because he had changed his mind in how he thought about leadership. I asked him in what way. He said that he thought leadership was a list of jobs to be done and if he did them well then he was leading well. He said he now realised that leadership was so much more than a “to do” list.  The real leadership work was about: helping people through change, having hard conversations, challenging people’s assumptions, making a difference, shaping culture, strategic thinking, keeping the vision alive, doing the priority work, having purposeful conversations to influence growth and change.

It the ‘how to’ of purposeful conversations which typically needs to be unpacked in much greater detail for new and aspiring leaders than many of us realise.  In particular the various types of approaches a leader can choose in having purposeful conversations. There are three approaches that leaders use to have purposeful conversations with their teams: Manager, Mentor and Coach. As you can see from the Table below, these three basic leadership approaches are not too difficult for most leaders to master. What is far more important for middle leaders to understand is how to ‘match’ their leadership approach to the current level of team performance in order to stabilise the team and support their growth.  Too many middle leaders believe that ‘coaching’ is the answer for everything and that ‘management’ is a bad word but this is just not true.

For example when working with lower performance teams (Level 1 and 2) providing ‘coaching’ to teams that clearly need significant guidance and/ or direction will likely prove fruitless and frustrating for all involved as team members look to their leader for answers, but are only met with Socratic questions. In this situation a ‘Managing’ approach is most helpful. Conversely, when working with higher performance teams  (Level 4 and 5) providing precise instruction and direction (Managing) can be stifling for a team that is performing to a high standard and looking to be challenged to stretch and grow. In such situations a ‘Coaching’ approach is better.

By knowing when to manage, when to mentor and when to coaching middle leaders can maximize the effectiveness of their influence in supporting and stretching their teams to higher levels of performance.  

Building High Performance Teaching Teams in a Large High School

Q: What have been the critical success factors and biggest set backs you have experienced in building high performance teaching teams?

A: Setbacks:  My earliest setback was not being able to let go of the control. I felt that if I consulted too much and shared my leadership and decision making, I could lose control of the ship. I now know there is power in shared leadership. The team will ‘own’ the change if they have been a true part of the development of the change. I now realise that it is my role to create the right setting so that change can happen that is aligned with the priorities of the school. I now realise that if I have done my part well, by ensuring role clarity, clear vision and narrowing the priorities, then I can trust the team to do the work and make the decisions that need to be done.  

To lead with a stick and a carrot is easier than motivating and inspiring others into the right work.  However, if you use the stick than it only works until you need to use it again. People will remember the stick for far longer than they remember the carrot. The stick may get some short-term results but the stick cannot inspire the joy in the work and move a team of people to drive the improvement agenda.   

I also think my biggest success factor is ‘coaching the human not the content’. I have learnt that it is no longer enough to use logic and reason to change people’s minds. People need to experience the change by feeling it.  It is not until they feel it that it becomes a part of them.  The neuroscience would back this up but I learnt this lesson early in my career. I was a first year teacher and was on play-ground duty. I passed my little brother (year 8) and saw that two year 11 boys were bullying him. I asked another teacher to address it, so that there was no conflict of interest. I thought as a teacher that I knew the importance of protecting students from bullying. I did everything in my power to ensure I minimised and tried hard to eradicate bullying. However, it wasn’t until that day, that I really felt it.  In those few moments when I saw my own gentle brother being so upset by the unprovoked nasty behaviour of two boys who should have known better, I felt hurt and that feeling has stayed with me and is part of me.  That day served me well in my future Principalship.  I knew the logic and reason behind the importance of anti-bullying strategies but now I carry it with me.   

Sliding doors – Into The Future....

“I touch the future. I teach.” Christa McAuliffe

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from now – what have the school leaders of today done to create a successful future for both their students and for the education system?

A: I visit hundreds of schools. I work with many school leadership teams. I am in awe of the quality of leadership and training in our State Schools. Every leader I have met wants to make a difference for our young people. 

I know that Principals and other educational leaders as a collective are working very hard to ensure our young people are resilient, well adapted, lifelong learners who believe in themselves, future thinking and prepared for the work ahead in a changing world.  

Thank you Judi Newman!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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