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How to build a great school leadership team

How to build a great school leadership team

Leadership teams at every level of schools are the engines that drive forward the activity of the organisation; without them, schools would, quite simply, not function, let alone strive for excellence. Imagine the unsettling chaos that would ensue if every member of staff just rocked up to school every day and just did what they felt best, however well-intentioned and committed they were … without structures, a shared and common purpose, and a direction, the collection of individuals who make up a school staff, no matter how amazing they are, will never be as phenomenal as their collective effort. Teamwork matters in schools; and in school leadership teams, the whole really can be greater than the sum of its parts.

School leadership teams, however, are complex beasts, and need careful nurturing if they are to fulfil their potential, and achieve what they are capable of achieving. Theories of effective teams abound, and are absolutely worth reading about and exploring; from a very practical perspective, however, consider this 3 step process to get you started:

Step 1: Identify your purpose as a team. Because of the hierarchical nature of schools, and the structures that are recognisable from school to school (eg ‘School Operations Team’, or ‘Heads of Department Team’, or ‘Senior Leadership Team’), we often fail to identify exactly what we need this team to achieve in our particular school, at this precise time in its journey of continual improvement. Start by thinking carefully about why your team exists, and what it is really there to do. Try capturing the purpose of your team, articulating it clearly and succinctly, and then check that everyone in the team agrees with it … you might be surprised at the different assumptions that people have. Nailing down your purpose, though, is essential: it is, in fact, a prerequisite for determining your team strategy, and ensuring that you function really effectively as a team. If you don’t know where you are all going together, then the chances are much slimmer that you will actually get there.

Step 2: Understand your people. Everyone is different, and every member of your team will have unique attributes that they bring to your goals. Some of this you will know; much more, however, lies beneath the surface, in hidden talents and hidden motivations and is definitely worth unearthing, and – in many cases – igniting or re-igniting, for the benefit of the team. When people are enabled and empowered to do what they are really interested in, they can bring remarkable energy to teams, so it makes huge sense to find out as much as you can about them. One of the most powerful ways to understand people is to use a psychometric test of some kind, to help illuminate how your team members prefer to behave, and what particular value they bring to the team. No single team can possibly contain all the expertise, and all the diverse perspectives and approaches to thinking and learning that you might possibly want, so knowing what you do have, and the value that each individual brings, will help you to identify your particular strengths as a team, and what you need to watch out for (eg gaps in your skills and perspectives)

Step 3: Agree on your processes. Teams fail when they do not communicate effectively, because communication is how you connect with one another. How and why you communicate is just as important – if not more so – than what you communicate, so take time, once you have understood your people, to work out and discuss what you need, collectively, in terms of communication, in order to be able to function well together. What kinds of interaction work well for you, and – given that you will all have different preferences - what kind of common ground can you find that will help you engage really effectively and positively with one another? Spending time together will make a difference – but do remember that some of your team will work best when they can work alone, so you need to establish a balance that works for you.

Of course, all of these steps are underpinned by a shared set of values, which you should possess as a school, and to which you should have committed as a team … if you haven’t, then of course you must start – urgently - with these first. Values will be the bedrock of your decision-making, and of how you perceive one another, so do not take them for granted, but rather embrace them, consider them, return to them frequently, and endeavour to live them in practice. It is amazing how much easier it is to make decisions when you have clear, visible values to which you can all refer openly and by which you are all guided.

Above all, spend time thinking about your team, and questioning what you do together, and why. It is easy to take teams for granted … the very best teams, though, enjoy being self-aware, and are constantly seeking to improve. Be one of these teams! And enjoy!

Dr Helen Wright is a highly regarded global leader with an energetic career spanning 3 decades in UK and international education. She led schools for over 13 years until 2014, and now recruits, coaches and advises school leaders and Boards internationally. She will be speaking at GESS Dubai in November 2023 and can be contacted at