Congratulations—You Are a Leader! Now What?
Whether you are new to the school or moving into a position of leadership with more responsibility in your current department, there are some things to keep in mind for a smooth transition. In either situation, the work of a leader is not easy. Shifting from being a member of a team within a department to being the leader of those same people can be complex. Similarly, joining an existing team as an outsider can pose a comparable challenge. The potential for pitfalls exists in either situation; however, there is also potential for significant gains on all sides.
Whether you are moving up in a department or accepting a leadership position in a different school, it is crucial to establish positive, productive, collegial, and trusting relationships with the team you lead.
How should a new leader get started? Try these 10 tips proven in practice:
- Get to know each faculty and staff member. Even if you already know the faculty and staff as colleagues, make time to meet with each person individually. Enter these conversations with the attitude that everyone has something to contribute. Tap into their interests. Listen closely and, when possible, act on some of their suggestions. This demonstrates that you really do hear them and value their ideas and that you see that the historical perspective they can provide is important as you collaborate with them to lead the department forward.
- Do not try to be all things to all people. You have made it this far in your career because you have a set of core values that guide you in life and in your profession. Do not try to be someone you are not. The people you hope to lead will know whether you are insincere. Do not make false promises. Be true to your belief system. This does not mean that you cannot be flexible and open to the ideas of others; it just shows that you are grounded in principles and ethics.
- There should be no surprises. Let your faculty know what they can expect from you and what you expect from them. This discussion should come early in your tenure. In my experience as a leader, I have never asked a staff or faculty member to do something that I would not do myself. I have shown my team that I am one of them by working with them to solve difficult problems and to implement new processes. There are, however, certain non-negotiables. The team should know that you have their back as long as they represent the department appropriately in their teaching practices and in their interactions with the community, partners, and, of course, the students.
- Approach change slowly and cautiously. Involve the faculty and staff in identifying what needs to be modified and what needs to remain the same. Include the faculty and staff in developing the strategies that will be instituted and implemented by them. As Michael Fullan (2011) reminds us, sustainable change has to have the support of those who will implement the change.
- Do not promise more than you can deliver. Remember that change takes time. Do not commit to do more than can reasonably be attained or accomplished in short order. Several years ago, when I was still working in the New York City Department of Education, I was asked by my supervisors to move from the department I had led for 17 years to another office where there had been a gap in leadership. I was told, “We need you in the Manhattan office to do what you have accomplished in Brooklyn.” I was not pleased with this change, but because I served at the “pleasure of” the chancellor, my only options were to accept the reassignment or resign. In discussions with my supervisors, I explained that the culture of the regional office I was currently supervising took years to develop because I had personally chosen, hired, and trained each team member. I indicated that change might only be incremental and that replication of the success previously achieved might not be possible. I also asked for their support if it became apparent that changes in personnel would be needed to achieve success. With this understanding, I accepted the challenge, and I was able to transition to the new assignment with a sense of confidence that I could produce positive results in a reasonable time.
- Start with some simple things. Try to accomplish small, meaningful changes that are easily obtainable, and then capitalize on your early successes. This shows the team you are leading, as well as your supervisors, that you can make a difference. In my meetings with each individual team member, I found that several of them had interests in assuming responsibilities beyond their assigned roles and in making a broader contribution to the department. As a result of these conversations, I made several reassignments to address faculty and staff members’ desires for professional growth. These small changes in assignments led to increased job satisfaction. Over time, some team members demonstrated competency in their field of expertise. This led me to ask them to participate in an internal professional development series by designing and presenting workshops to the team. This strategy demonstrated to the faculty that they had value to the department; improved the collaborative process that was essential for the effective performance of the department’s responsibilities; and broke down barriers that existed between team members performing different functions within the department.
- Be candid. Speak openly about the state of the organization, its future, and the goals you have for the organization as it transforms (Welch and Welch 2005). Part of gaining the trust of your staff is being open and honest with them. They should understand how the department is doing. For instance, in the case of a school of education, the team should know and understand the condition of the school. Together, the faculty should explore these questions: Are we meeting the needs of our candidates? Are our graduates ready to perform as caring, competent, and effective educators? Are graduates becoming certified by the state to work in their field? Are our candidates getting jobs after graduating? Is enrollment on target? Are we admitting candidates with the potential to be successful educators? These and other questions help to involve the team in the decisions that need to be made for continuous improvement to take place.
- Plan strategically and frequently assess to determine whether outcomes are being achieved. Use backward design to help the team reach the organization’s vision by setting small, concrete, and measurable goals along the way. Include faculty and staff to help determine the success of the strategic plan by collaboratively charting progress and making adjustments as needed.
- Supervise effectively. A leader can set expectations for improved professional practice or for the implementation of new approaches in the department; however, I have found that nothing changes without active supervision. Active supervision involves being a supportive supervisor. Engage each individual in a conversation to identify his or her strengths, to outline mutually agreed-upon areas of need, and to detail the support you will provide to assist the individual in becoming a more proficient and effective team member. As a leader I practiced the four t’s: teach, train, tolerate, and, if needed, terminate. As the head of a department, I knew that a leader had to supervise to ensure that change occurred. Supervision was required while implementing new department-wide procedures or evaluating the effectiveness of staff members as they worked on assigned responsibilities. I felt that my role was to help all team members become the best they could be. When new processes were implemented, I provided professional development (teach). I allowed sufficient time for the staff to practice the new processes in real-life, job-related pilot projects. In order to assess their competency, I observed the staff in action, and when needed, I provided additional support and retraining (train). Any staff member who was having difficulty implementing new procedures or was not meeting the needs of our students was given an opportunity to improve (tolerate). However, when it became obvious that, regardless of the support provided, the staff member could not perform up to expectations, that individual had to be let go (terminate).
- Establish trust. Remember that your objective is not to be a friend or to be loved—it is to be trusted. Trust comes from candor, consistency, and not playing favorites.
These guidelines have served me well in my career in educational leadership and the strategies can be helpful to any new leader, regardless of level or profession. I have mentored colleagues and former students who have been appointed to leadership positions in higher education and in the public schools. They have successfully used these strategies and found them to be valuable in establishing meaningful and collaborative relationships with faculty and staff while advancing the organization’s goals.
Fullan, Michael. 2011. Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Welch, Jack, and Suzy Welch. 2005. Winning. New York: Harper Business.
Dr. Alan Sebel is an associate professor of school leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education at Touro College in New York City. Before joining Touro he was a deputy assistant superintendent in the New York City Public Schools.