Urban School District Story.

Perhaps we can best illustrate our approach by walking you through a specific example of how we approach working with a client ...

A medium-sized urban school district -- through its Leadership Development Office -- contacted us early in 2003 seeking our assistance in their efforts to improve their internal 'leadership development' work.  Note that grant money from a local benefactor paid for virtually all of this work -- it did not require a tough decision to 'hire consultants versus hire classroom teachers.'

The Situation

Some years earlier, the District had established a Leadership Model, based on competencies from a leading vendor in the field.  Shortly after that, it had created a three-week Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), loosely based on the model, targeted specifically at 'aspiring principals'.  Completion of the SLI became a gate that candidates had to get through in order to gain consideration for selection as a school principal or assistant principal.  The Leadership Development Office (LDO) had operated the SLI for several years with adequate results.  LDO felt it was time to both update/evolve the content and to consider other supportive services.  All of this needed to fit within and clearly support the overall context provided by the District's Strategic Action Plan covering the next several years.  We offered a proposal to deliver -- for a flat fee -- a suite of major and supporting products, identifying both the individual parts or components and showing how they fit together to serve the larger whole at the same time.  This parts-and-whole serves as a foundational element in our approach.

First Steps

Since LDO could not clearly articulate just what it needed or wanted, we worked with them to develop a list of Goals and Objectives in support of a clearly stated Mission.  We finally distilled that list of Primary Goals down to four items which we asked LDO to rank.  We insisted, however, that LDO rank the list of items not simply by priority.  In our experience, ranking items only by priority results in a uni-dimensional view of a multi-dimensional problem.  (Organizations typically take on the most important item first -- unfortunately, the most important item nearly always poses the greatest challenges, taking the most time and resources ... and easier items, the 'low-hanging fruit', go un-harvested.)  LDO determined that while their passion wanted them to focus on one Goal (i.e., offering a series of high-quality workshops), a longer view of the situation revealed that they would reach that Goal more reliably and sustainably by putting another Goal first (i.e., reinvigorating their Leadership Model as the local 'gold standard' for performance).
At the end of this first phase, we delivered

  1. the Statement of Goals and Objectives,
  2. a Framework of Leadership Development and Support (specifically moving beyond just aspiring principals),
  3. clarification of the differing focus and complementary roles of two internal departments,
  4. a Catalog of Workshops in support of the specific competencies in their Leadership Model, and
  5. an improved mechanism for selecting candidates for the SLI.

Again, we strove to ensure that we carefully attended to the balance between the parts and the whole.

Subsequent Activities

Based on their satisfaction with our initial efforts, LDO asked us to help with the next steps.  These included the actual development and delivery of the Workshops, a method to evaluate staff members' performance vis-à-vis the Leadership Model, a plan for addressing on-going personal professional development in terms specifically of the Leadership Model, and updated content / format for the SLI.  Once again, we approached these as products to deliver for a fixed fee.


The District's Leadership Model included seven clusters of competencies.  We recommended that we organize the Workshops around the clusters.  We thus created seven workshops with each one focused on the three-to-five competencies within that cluster.  We also noted that a thoughtful examination of the clusters revealed a natural sequence, from an emphasis on intrapersonal facets within the leader her/himself, expanding outward to interpersonal facets, then to larger group/organizational facets.

Performance Evaluation

We quickly noted that while schools offer rich feedback for the students, they seem to offer little feedback for the adults.  Since the District had already created its definition of leadership (i.e., its own Model), and since they had built their model on a broadly-used suite of competencies, it seemed prudent and straightforward to use a 360-degree feedback instrument based on that Model to determine how well staff members performed.  We urged LDO to (a) offer the 360-feedback as an optional service, (b) make it available only to those who freely volunteered, and (c) clearly make the case that the feedback formed the basis of personal professional development with absolutely no connection to issues of retention or compensation.  Further, to increase the sustainability of this service, we strongly urged that a key LDO staff member become certified to do a significant portion of the analysis and interpretation of the feedback survey results.  That is, we wanted to increase the District's own internal capacity to offer this service and not become overly reliant on external consultants.  (LDO continues, however, to use external consultants where issues of hierarchy or personal history might impair the usefulness of the feedback, as well as to keep the workload manageable.)  As of the summer of 2005, some 100 staff members -- including both school-based staff (e.g., principals, assistants, teachers) and central office staff (e.g., directors of staff groups, assistant/area superintendents) have gone through the 360-feedback process.

On-Going Professional Development

Feedback only has value to the extent that it informs future actions.  Based either on the results of the 360-feedback or less formal recommendations, LDO decided to offer one-on-one coaching to interested individuals.  Once again, we assisted in keeping this separate from any sort of 'corrective action' taken as a consequence of substandard performance. 
We called this Competency Coaching -- it focused on just one or two of the competencies contained in their Leadership Model.  In some cases, the coaching comes best from an external resource.  Again with an eye toward sustainability and creating internal capacity, however, we helped them establish a system where internal staff (seen by their peers as skilled in a particular competency) do much of the coaching on a voluntary basis.  This creates ties across organizational boundaries (e.g., a central staff member coaching a principal on Time Management) and creates greater understanding of the significant differences between the various components of the District.  The coaching focuses on specific competencies and generally requires a commitment of four-to-six hours over the course of several weeks.

Updated Summer Leadership Institute

When we sat down with LDO and looked at the content of the SLI, we noted that the connection between some segments and the overall Leadership Model seemed tenuous, at best.  Much of it seemed abstract and theoretical.  And much of it, while potentially valuable, seemed premature -- that is, it introduced the participants to a network of useful people but too far in advance of a real need since these candidates did not currently occupy positions as principals. 
We helped LDO develop a list of several dozen actual and challenging situations that school principals had encountered.  We softened the edges to make them a little more generic.  We developed a mythical town with seven high schools, each with its own makeup -- test scores, demographics, reputation, community relations ... LDO facilitators now create three-person teams, based on early results from Myers-Briggs profiling and Emotional Intelligence information, with each team becoming 'the principal' for one of the high schools.  Then, about ten times during the SLI, certain Critical Incidents occur.  Each school/team must determine how it will respond to the incident, taking into account its unique set of skills and its unique situation.  During the de-briefing, each team can question the others about the rationale for the chosen response. 
In addition, LDO dropped or shortened a few topics within the SLI to make room for new material.  The new material, including assigned readings, draws in solid research and rich experience to shape the overall SLI.  One unique additional element involves a visit to a highly-successful local nonprofit.  This offers the principals the opportunity to interact in some depth with someone with a comparable budget and comparable challenges (e.g., funding issues and addressing state regulations) but outside the world of public education.

Ongoing Support

The District had in place, specifically for school principals, a performance assessment instrument intended for use by the area/assistance superintendents.  Unfortunately, the instrument called for highly subjective appraisal of facets of principal performance that would require extensive time spent monitoring the principals in action.  As a consequence, the instrument did not see broad and consistent use.  We worked with the District to devise a more sophisticated yet more straightforward instrument.  First, however, we had to engage in a thoughtful dialog about the intent of the assessment -- some fundamental premises that would guide the development and deployment of the assessment.  That effort remains a work-in-progress as of the Fall of 2005.
To address a situation that arose at one specific school, the District asked us to serve as part of a team.  Our role in that response involved three primary activities:

  1. conducting our Organizational Effectiveness Survey to help diagnose the nature of weaknesses in the school-as-an-organization,
  2. conducting Systems Thinking workshops to determine what might cause the problem and how the school staff might intervene to ameliorate the problem, and
  3. extensive one-on-one coaching with a key player within the building.

To help publicize its efforts and successes, the District asked us to prepare and submit for publication two articles.  The first focused on the Summer Leadership Institute and its place in preparing aspiring principals.  The second focused on the need for an integrated, across-the-District approach to leadership development.
We continue to deliver the Workshops focused on the clusters within the District's Leadership Model.  We continue to perform a portion of the 360-feedback analysis and interpretation.  We continue to perform some of the Competency Coaching.


As a consequence of

  • our attention to delivering actual products (to be owned and operated by the District) as well as services,
  • our goal of helping the District develop its own internal capacity to develop the next generation of leaders, and
  • our insistence on measuring whether the efforts produce the desired changes,

we believe that the District has effectively shown its funders that it uses their money wisely and effectively.
(Notes on the measurements we employed are available separately.  The actual detailed results belong to the District.  If you have interest, we can put you in touch with someone in the District who could answer more detailed questions.)

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