Building a dynamic and collaborative school culture as a prerequisite to crisis leadership is a focus all leaders should have upon appointment. This collaborative culture starts to evolve when trust is felt, observed, and experienced. Trust develops when open communication, intentional transparency and strategic vulnerability come into play. We talked about these three precursors to trust a few days ago; however, as communication greatly impacts one's ability to effectively lead through a culture of rapid change, it is necessary to spend some intensive time identifying how to create a culture of transparency prior to a crisis ever occurring. Developing communication norms prior to a crisis will undoubtedly impact your success during and after an emergency event.
What does transparency look like?
Prior to my appointment as principal, I had worked with my Executive Director for several years as both a classroom teacher and member of our district leadership team. He knew my strengths, my weaknesses, my work ethic, and my goals. Due to the nature of the previous principal leaving (and having just interviewed and accepted the position of Assistant Principal myself), I didn't undergo an intensive interview, but rather, a chat. He again expressed concerns about my close-knit relationships with staff and reminded me that things would be different moving forward in my new role. There would be several burdens that I would now carry alone, without the support of my peer group and my teacher team.
Although I don't regret the dialogue that we had in that mini board room all those years ago, I do regret that I started my principalship feeling that I suddenly could trust no one and that I had to bear the weight of my new position in solitude and, sometimes, despair. Instead of instilling in me a sense of confidence that my relationships had already laid the foundation for the good work that lie ahead, I was suddenly re-examining who I could (or should) say what to, whether I could continue to have those crucial conversations about curriculum and instruction and whether my Friday Focus would be interpreted the right way. It took me a few years to actually get back to the level of confidence I originally had sitting in that board room that hot July day now three years in the past. What I have found is that yes, although things are slightly different, those close-knit relationships built on a foundation of trust are exactly what has been carrying us through.
Looking back, I think if the dialogue had been approached differently, the long-term impact could have been mitigated to an extent. I don't think that my ED was telling me that I shouldn't continue to be an open communicator, but rather, to be cautious with the level of transparency with which I chose to lead our staff. There is a slight difference there, and a lesson worth expounding upon. Let's take a look at what that means now.
First, let's note that transparency in leadership is not the equivalent of oversharing. In fact, effective transparency is really the art of learning what and what not to openly share. We broke this down a bit in Tuesday's post on how to build a collaborative culture, which you can read here. Effective leaders not only learn what to share, but when and how to share it. Some of this comes with time and experience, but some comes with strategy and thought.
In general, here is what transparency is versus what transparency is not.
Transparency is NOT:
Although it may be easy to fall into the trap of what transparency isn't during a time of stress, a few things can be established from the beginning of one's leadership endeavors to create norms that withstand any crisis:
Regular Communication. Communicate early and often. When possible, do so from a proactive stance. Earlier this week we talked about utilizing routine written communication, such as a Monday Memo or a Friday Focus in order to openly communicate with staff. Regular staff meetings or professional development sessions can also keep the lines of communication open.
Solicit Honest Feedback. Again, as mentioned earlier this week, the opinions of your staff matter. Survey them after professional development, an emotional meeting, or during the change process when they may be experiencing an implementation dip. Solicit feedback through writing and through strategic one-on-one or small group plus/delta sessions. Be sure not to become defensive. Be open to hearing what your community needs for you to hear.
Build Relationships. Pop in and chat on teachers' preps. Do a quick email check-in throughout the week. Attend a virtual social hour or even one in person, even if your stay is brief. Let people see you in your humanness. When you have a relationship already established, you can do big things in the face of unsolicited events.
Transparency is an art form that is worthy of any true leader's endeavor. It is a way to build trust, which in turns builds strong relationships and collaborative, dynamic teams. These teams are what see organizations through in times of crisis. This is where crisis leadership begins.
Linger a Little Longer:
1. Look at the transparency comparison above. In a crisis, how many characteristics of transparency do you naturally display?
2. Again, using the transparency comparison, where do you tend to not demonstrate transparency in a crisis? Are you drawn towards unmerited confidence or false aplomb?
3. What strategy can you implement today to support transparency building on your campus?