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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

The Secrets of Extraordinary School Leaders 1: A Clear Line of Sight

One of the key differences between good and great school leaders is the level of clarity they achieve through their 'line of sight'...

As a school leader, Susan was new to Principalship. The many years in Deputy (aka Assistant) Principal roles she’d accumulated meant she understood the mechanics of how to run schools quite deeply - the intuitive ‘gut feel’ of knowing how to keep all the plates spinning - staff, student and parent needs. She knew when to intervene and when to stand back and let self-generated solutions work their own way out in the classroom.

But Principalship was proving to be an unexpectedly difficult challenge. Susan was not just expected to be a great mechanic - able to keep things running smoothly but also now a car designer and manufacturer - able to create new systems and structures for a school undergoing transformational change.

Principalship often proves to be an

unexpectedly difficult challenge for

experienced middle leaders...

Like many new Principals, Susan got her first gig in a short-term acting role at a school in turmoil due to the previous Principal taking leave amidst a series of complaints and investigations. Like many acting Principals Susan wisely chose not to make any major changes in the short-term and simply managed day-to-day issues supporting staff and keeping the ship steady. But, like many acting Principals, her original ‘short’ stint as leader of the school extended into a much ‘longer’ role with an indefinite ending and the need to ‘fix’ problems properly became increasingly urgent and necessary for the long-term benefit of the school.

First and foremost was the roles and structure of the leadership team itself. Whilst the leadership team had become much less hostile and more harmonious in working together to keep the school running and resolve the day-to-day crises and challenges, there was no real progress implementing the school's strategic plan. There was also a sense of confusion among staff about who to turn to for help and many issues were ‘double handled’ (or triple handed) instead of being quickly, simply and effectively sorted out by the responsible member of the leadership team. 

...many issues were ‘double handled’

(or triple handed) instead of being quickly,

simply and effectively sorted out

by the responsible person...

So… Susan scheduled a couple of hours with her team to clarify roles and responsibilities in a bid to create more effective leadership team systems and structures so (1) staff (as well as students and parents) could seek help and raise concerns more effectively and efficiently; and (2) the strategic plan could be broken down into its key components and relevant actions assigned to members of the leadership team who already had a natural accountability link given their role and responsibility and were thus more likely to integrate this strategic work into their business as usual activity.

Mistake 1: Confusing People Leadership with Data Leadership

Rule 1: The Primary Purpose of Organisational Charts is to Manage People Risks

As the discussion with the leadership team on roles and responsibilities progressed it became a contest about who was doing the most, as one by one each leader outdid the previous one when asked to outline their role and responsibilities. This exhaustively busy set of lists summarising everything everyone was doing whilst creating a degree of empathy among team members for their shared sense of busyness did not actually create any greater clarity for staff about who they could turn to for help on different issues. Many ‘issues’ had ‘sub-issues’ which were the responsibility of several different leaders and there was a reluctance to consolidate responsibility onto a single leader who may or may not know everything about it (despite the obvious fact that members of the leadership team could share knowledge and train each other further on specific tasks). Once Susan raised the need to share information and succession plan better everyone agreed but still hesitated - no one wanted to let go of the routines and knowledge that had now become simple habits - even though these ‘habits’ were the same things they constantly complained about.

As the discussion with the leadership

team on roles and responsibilities progressed

it became a contest about who was doing the most...

What to do? As Susan sat amidst her leadership team in the stalemate of busyness and reluctance to shift professional boundaries and portfolios she had a lightbulb moment! It occurred to her that the entire conversation was happening the wrong way - it shouldn’t be so much about distributing workloads from the perspective of ‘topics’ of responsibility but rather about distributing workload from the perspective of ‘people management’ responsibilities.

With this insight Susan got each member of the leadership team to place a ‘P’ for People leadership or ‘D’ for Data leadership next to each of their lengthy bullet point lists and was able to refocus the discussion into two parts. Firstly, she discussed the P lists (which were her main focus in terms of simplifying staff support) where the team was able to quickly reach agreement about a number of key issues (without having to compromise their ‘D’ expertise) and then secondly the D lists which could be managed through dashboards and data conversations as opposed to making significant changes to roles, responsibilities and reporting lines.

...each member of the leadership team

placed a ‘P’ for People leadership or

‘D’ for Data leadership next to each of their

lengthy bullet point lists...

The realignment of the P lists enabled Susan to refine leadership team roles, responsibilities and reporting lines according to the proportional people risks that needed to be managed. This meant Susan had a direct line of sight from her role through the middle leaders into the role of every staff member and vice versa - every staff member had a clear line of accountability and support to maximise their individual performance. No staff member was left out of the professional feedback, supporting and accountability loop.

‘Cool!' thought Susan - she now had a leadership team roles and responsibilities chart which enabled every staff member to know who to report to for what as well as a dashboard reporting system keeping track of the data that needed to be managed! Over time this certainly created a new sense of calmness and focus among the leadership team and staff. The seemingly never ending cycle of crises finally abated and all was good… sort of… until the data showed student gains were not good enough… 

What the….? How come our results are not improving? Our behaviour problems are down, our attendance is up, staff satisfaction is high - what’s going on?

Susan’s Regional Director was unhappy and had scheduled a meeting the following week. Susan called the leadership team together to discuss the poor results and develop a plan. Why was everything working so well day-to-day in the school yet not showing up in the student assessment data? Perplexed the leadership team discussed the situation at length.

Why was everything working so well

day-to-day in the school yet not showing

up in the student assessment data?

As they introspectively began going around in circles trying to find a logical explanation for the results and some practical next steps Susan found herself repeatedly referring to the literacy data - specifically the reading and writing data. These results were not at all what was supposed to be happening. Did the teaching staff implement the curriculum as per our strategic plan? How come no one knew for sure whether this was done properly? More worryingly, how come Susan herself did not know given how important this was to her own career as a Principal?

Mistake 2: Proportionality of Focus Misaligned Towards Business as Usual and not Strategic Risk

Rule 2: The Primary Purpose of Leadership Dashboards is to Manage Strategic Risk (not Business As Usual)

This realisation led to the second revelation for Susan, namely that when designing leadership team role dashboards they need to align proportionally to the strategic risks that need to be managed. Susan was learning the 50:40:10 rule the hard way...

...local level school leadership team

dashboards should be focused 50% on students,

40% on staff, 10% on parent & community engagement...

You see Susan’s leadership dashboard was simply a copy of the headline indictor reports given to her by the central office of her education department. These were what we call '80:20' Dashboards - 80% student data (academic, attendance & behaviour), 20% staff  and parent satisfaction data. 

These 80:20 Dashboards were distributed to Principals once assessment results on key school performance indicators were lodged centrally and had a level of fidelity needed to comparatively assess 'inter' school performance on a statewide basis which was not necessarily the same fidelity needed to assess 'intra' school performance on a more complex range of within school variables. 

80:20 Dashboards have a level of fidelity

necessary to comparatively assess 'inter' school

performance which is not same the level of fidelity

needed to assess 'intra' school performance...

Standard 80:20 Dashboards typically do not provide measures of quality teaching, nor regular measurement of staff wellbeing, nor measurement of effective teamwork or participation in school community – all critical indicators of a healthy teaching and non-teaching workforce. These workforce level measures should be a critical part of Leadership dashboards. Student data is also focused narrowly on academic and attendance and behaviour data when broader school participation data and wellbeing data is far more valuable at a local school leadership level. Parent and community engagement is focused primarily on ‘satisfaction’ which does not yield insights into the local community demographics, socio-economic trends and inclusivity (or otherwise) of the P&C network – all key indicators of enrolment, participation and student and family wellbeing necessary at the local school leadership level.  

Whilst Standard 80:20 Leadership Dashboards are fine for between school and state-wide comparisons we recommend School Leadership Teams develop and use more advanced 50:40:10 dashboards which provide higher fidelity in monitoring local level school performance indicators.  School leadership team dashboards should be focused 50% students (academic results / attendance & behaviour/ wellbeing & engagement) 40% on staff (engagement/ wellbeing/ team work/ professional development), 10%  on parent & community engagement (satisfaction/ engagement/ local economy).  You can see in the example below the spread of performance indicators that are easily able to developed across the three categories of Students/ Staff/ Parents & Community.

Why 50:40:10 I hear you ask? Well, when it comes to managing risk, a leader should spend at least half their time focusing on the quality of outputs for customers (the whole reason they are in business in the first place - and the main performance indicator they are personally judged on) followed by a major focus on the quality of inputs from staff (necessary to maintain  supply of quality customer outputs) followed by much narrower (but none-the-less diligent) focus on outside factors influencing customer behaviour. As a principal the end game of performance rests upon student outcomes (outputs) which is largely determined by staff behaviour (inputs) along with parent engagement (influencer). Thus 50% student, 40% staff, 10% parent becomes general guidance to create a proportional focus for leadership dashboard design.

Relying on the traditional 80:20 dashboard

most school leaders use was the culprit

behind the failure to notice a range of early warning signs.

When Susan assessed the fidelity of her 80:20 Dashboard compared to the fidelity of a 50:40:10 dashboard it became obvious that relying on the standard 80:20 dashboard most school leaders use was the culprit behind the failure to notice a range of early warning signs regarding lack of growth in literacy data (and the precursor activity of ensuring staff implemented the literacy program effectively). A better grasp on the wider trends critical for the success of such strategic priorities using the 50:40:10 approach (with an increased focus on staff activity) would have prevented the strategic blind spots occurring in her line of sight and improved the likelihood of success for key strategic initiatives without disrupting the day-to-day focus of running the school. 

Line of Sight for School Leaders: Bringing It All Together

School Leadership is a very tough gig. It takes enormous skill, patience, resilience, empathy, insight (and a long list of other positive attributes) to become an effective middle leader in a school – to be able to intuitively keep the engines running akin to the skilled mechanic working on cars. The jump up to principalship is not merely a next step but rather a leap into a much bigger universe where you have to design and build the cars as well as service and repair them. Good school leaders adapt their middle leadership skills to be able to keep their fleet of cars serviced and repaired but great school leaders undergo a whole new apprenticeship learning how to design and manufacture – they keep the current cars running whilst designing and building the cars of the future and upgrading the fleet they have with a purposeful and well timed program of transformational change.

The jump up to principalship is

not merely a next step but rather a

leap into a much bigger universe...

Of the five disciplines of Extraordinary School Leaders we know that Discipline #1: Over-communicate Vision and Action requires both the 'Development of a Compelling Vision' and the 'Establishment of a Clear Line of Sight'. In this article we have unpacked the critical success factors of establishing a 'Clear line of Sight'. The need for leadership teams to distinguish between ‘people leadership’ and ‘data leadership’ – with organisational charts focused on ensuring ‘people leadership’ responsibilities are clear not just to the leadership team but to all staff to prevent any confusion of double handling of issues. We’ve also seen how extraordinary school leaders take this one step further in clarifying leadership strategy depending upon the activities being undertaken through collaboration maps and the added benefit this brings staff who may work across multiple teams and groups.

When it comes to Data Leadership we have seen how establishing leadership team dashboards enables the wider range of priorities and projects to be monitored across the different members of a school leadership team and the importance of focusing leadership dashboards appropriately around strategic risks. We’ve then taken this to the next level by introducing the idea of lead indicators to dashboards – something we’ll unpack in much greater detail in the next article.

How clear is your Line of Sight as a school leader?

How clear is your line of sight as a school leader? Do your organisational charts and structures enable you to see each role in the school clearly through the lens of a simple and effective line management structure? Are staff hyper clear on who they report to for different types of issues? Do you have zero (or very limited) double handling of issues maximising time and energy for each of you leadership team to proactively advance the schools strategic agenda? Do you have dashboards that give you data on your strategic risks using a 50:40:10 perspective or do you rely on the traditional 80:20 approach leaving blind spots in the implementation of your strategic plan? How often do you look at your data and how do lead indicators inform your ability to prevent unexpected negative results and maximise emerging positive trends?

Of all the disciplines of extraordinary school leaders, LINE OF SIGHT for whole school performance rests squarely on the shoulders of the Principal and cannot be delegated away nor neglected in lieu of other priorities. Take some time now to assess the line of sight you have in the school you lead and start a conversation with your leadership team about further increasing the clarity of your vision!

Onwards and Upwards!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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