The Learning Accelerator Blog/Step 3: Powering Up - Developing a Team Focused on Collective Action

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Step 3: Powering Up - Developing a Team Focused on Collective Action

by Nicole Assisi & Shelli Kurth on June 30 2022

“In organizations, real power and energy is generated through relationships. The patterns of relationships and the capacities to form them are more important than tasks, functions, roles, and positions.” – Margaret Wheatley.

In any industry, the team of people we work with matters, and in schools, where the goals we are working toward are often far-reaching, nuanced, and human-centered, creating a team committed to a common vision really matters. The team we cultivate is critical to accomplishing the work, and its diverse strengths and ideas can either greatly contribute to – or greatly distract from – moving toward that vision. When teams feel supported, aligned, and collaborative, they create sustainable change and healthy culture in schools.

In the first installment of this series, we talked about the importance of elevating voices, acknowledging the history of an organization, and creating a collaborative forward-looking vision. In the second installment, we encouraged leaders to dive into the work without overthinking and to leverage small wins along the road toward large-scale change. We continue this series by digging into the importance of the team itself, which can be supported through building relationships that facilitate success, distributing leadership with trust, and working together toward a common vision.

Building a Powerful Team

Building a team does not end when the hiring is over; in fact, the hiring process is just the beginning. Once you know who is in the work with you, you can create opportunities to build trust, communicate freely, and understand one another in ways that push the work further. Whether you are a new leader or a veteran, every second you invest in team-building is integral. The old adage, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, bring a team,” is amplified when creating change within your organization. Even if you have spent years in the same community, building and maintaining strong connections is critical during a period of change.

Throughout the chaos of the past two years, many teams have forgotten that this work can be joyful and purposeful. Educators are facing an increasingly complex task of managing both external threats (like COVID and mass shootings) and internal challenges (like teacher shortages and supporting students' emotional wellbeing. Many educational teams find themselves under stress – feeling frustrated, disconnected, and disgruntled with the work and the team. Resist the urge to avoid the conflict or prioritize time apart. Tough times call for intentional team-building – laughing together, working through conflict, and forging a common path forward.

When bringing your team together, remember that one person’s unique superpowers can sometimes be another person's kryptonite. For example, think of the leader who is quick on their feet, but their constant change is burning out their team, or the leader who is great at building strong relationships but is paralyzed to move forward without full consensus. Be aware of how you show up for others. The same things that make us great can sometimes bring us down. An inability to clearly see the strengths and needs of your team can be disastrous. Take time to explore the different superpowers and styles across your team, as well as how these strengths can become weaknesses when overused. You may want to consider working with an external facilitator when the path forward seems especially murky. Outside facilitators can see blind spots, create neutral space for crucial conversations, and help process conflict.

Strategy: Use Compass Points, a short protocol from the National School Reform Faculty, to help you start exploring team strengths and needs.

Pro Tip: Get your own coach and model a commitment to continuous learning. A coach's true purpose is to help you be yourself while developing better skills and awareness. External support, like consultants, can help leaders coach around growth areas and objectively evaluate areas of need.

Tapping External Support: A consultant or coach may be certified to give team assessments such as StrengthsFinder or DiSC and can use these to take team-building work deeper. Engaging external support can be particularly helpful when internal relationships are particularly sensitive, as external experts can provide an objective, neutral voice and a fresh perspective.

Be a Host, Not a Hero

When you are working with a team, it is important to empower those around you as decision-makers, trusted collaborators, and agents of change. People don’t need rescuing – they need inspiration. Margaret Wheatley shares that while we often hope our leaders are heroes, coming in to save the day and do the work, the reality is that this does not lead to long-term change and instead moves away from the critical, adaptive problem-solving processes we discussed in the second installment of this series. Heroes have the answer (often a technical solution) and hold the knowledge. They usually have a plan, and others on their team do as they are told. This process enables a team, rather than empowering it. Distributive leadership is key to providing your team with the tools they need to power up as a collective.

Rather than a hero, strong teams need a host – someone who facilitates the group to contribute to success and progress. Wheatley writes, “They trust that people are willing to contribute and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders know that hosting others is the only way to get complex, intractable problems solved.” In order to move from a hero to a host requires leaders to step back, develop deep relationships, and trust their teams to bring in their ideas, lead, and own the work. Great leaders provide the right conditions and group processes to keep bureaucracy at bay and allow teams to succeed. Most importantly as a host, you can provide your team with the vital resource of time. Use your own capabilities to free up time for your team to work toward change – and defend them when other items creep up that may compete for their attention during these critical times.

Strategy: Use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize items by urgency and importance. This framework helps leaders make the time for intentional work of team-building and helps the team see their work differently.

Pro Tip: Utilize what you learned in our first blog about rounding to keep connected to the work while building relationships. Celebrate success publicly and offer critique privately to put a focus on what works and make achievements visible.

Tapping External Support: External experts like consultants can help keep the focus on priorities. A coach can support transformative processes for leaders, teams, and organizations.

Most of all, don’t underestimate the power of the team. Make time to build your team and develop its power. Leverage the team’s strengths and skills and set aside time to communicate needs. Be a host (rather than a hero) for your team by empowering them with your trust, engaging them in decision-making, and leading toward your collective vision.

If you are interested in learning more about building great teams, we recommend:

  • Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze. Leadership in the Age of Complexity, 2010.

  • Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, Peter M. Senge. In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, 2009.

This blog is part of a series. Read the introduction to the series here.

Thrive is a nonprofit consulting firm composed of education leaders and coaches who are dedicated to sustainable change and transformative learning.

About the Author

Nicole Assisi is the founding CEO for Thrive. She has over 20 years of experience working in innovative education and was a founding leader for multiple high-profile schools. She has been recognized as a “40 under 40” leader in San Diego and was a finalist for the San Diego Business Journal’s CEO of the Year. As a coach and consultant, she supports hundreds of aspiring and established leaders and their organizations in increasing their capacity. Nicole has grown nonprofits from 2 to over 150 staff members and taught at UCLA, Cal State Dominguez Hills, and the University of San Diego. Nicole holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern California as well as two master’s degrees from the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Shelli Kurth is the Chief Innovation Officer at Thrive. Shelli has deep school-site leadership expertise and brings a broad range of experience as a nonprofit founder, grassroots organizer, school leader, and coach. Shelli’s passion for the people she serves has made her a sought-after coach, trainer, and consultant. Shelli co-hosts an award-winning statewide parent education show on UCTV and is driven by a deep belief in equity, access, and opportunity for all through the empowerment of individuals. She is also a national speaker and writer. As a consultant, Shelli brings intuition and joy to her work and is skilled at working through thorny relationships, creating consensus, and moving teams toward greater collaborative outcomes.