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Expertise is Not the (Only) Answer

Professor Monica Higgins takes a new look at teamwork in education leadership
Professor Monica Higgins

From their earliest training, teachers learn that success in the classroom requires self-sufficiency and expertise. But beyond the classroom, where education administrators must stretch scarce resources, satisfy multiple constituents, and juggle conflicting priorities, a different skill set may be needed. Drawing on her background in organizational learning and leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Monica Higgins is helping school and district leaders find solutions to their toughest challenges through collaboration and entrepreneurial thinking.

“Teaching is essentially an autonomous profession,” says Higgins. “It's a culture where individual expertise and independence are rewarded. When you close the door to the classroom, you need to be in charge.” Since joining the HGSE faculty in 2007, Higgins, whose research focuses on leadership development and change in organizations, has been helping education administrators find new ways to address challenges outside the classroom, in situations where being “in charge” may not always be the best approach. “In interactions where they have to exercise influence without having formal authority, educators need to have excellent teamwork skills,” says Higgins, who spent 11 years as a member of the Harvard Business School. “Finding solutions to many of the issues school systems face today — shrinking budgets, outmoded facilities, underperformance — requires buy-in from multiple constituencies.”

Collaborative leadership

Most recently, Higgins has been studying the effectiveness of senior leadership teams from large urban school districts across the United States. “Almost as soon as I arrived here, I was invited to teach a session on team building in an executive education program for school superintendents,” she says. The session was enthusiastically received, and since then Higgins has been working regularly with groups on team building and collaboration. Many of her engagements take place as part of two HGSE-based outreach programs, the Executive Leadership Program for Educators (ExEl) and the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP). Higgins has been struck by the prevalence of the expert-based model of leadership among educators and administrators. The author of Career Imprints: Creating Leaders Across an Industry (2005), which highlights the influence of early career experiences on the leadership styles of executives in the biotech industry, Higgins sees some parallels in the field of education. “Early professional experiences can have a powerful effect,” she says. “In education, where professionals begin their careers in the classroom, expertise is highly valued and rewarded. Yet, when school leaders need to work with parents, community leaders, or administrators from other districts, being an expert might not be as effective as being able to listen and learn from another person's point of view, or to question one's own assumptions.” Currently she is studying how senior leadership teams function in order to help them begin to move toward a more collaborative model.

Creating effective teams

Utilizing assessment measures developed by Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman, Higgins has been gathering data on how the senior leadership teams in programs such as PELP work together: the extent to which they feel they are a “real team,” whether they believe they share a common vision, and how firmly they are committed to working together. She also asks for information about team effectiveness and outcome variables. “The questions are set up so we can compare how the senior leadership teams in education rate themselves vs. teams from other fields that have taken this survey in the past,” Higgins says. One important contributor to effective teams is the availability of coaching, an area where the survey results point out distinct differences between the PELP teams and teams in other professions.

The ideal is that you want an environment where people can put forth new ideas, ask for help, and question the status quo — while still being accountable for reaching challenging goals.

“These teams have some deficits when it comes to coaching,” she says. “In terms of the availability of coaching and the quality of coaching directed at reinforcing good behavior, improving interpersonal relations, and improving work processes, the PELP teams rate themselves less highly than leaders in other fields.” What does that reveal about the nature of these teams? “I really do think it has something to do with the way we're brought up as educators,” Higgins says. “We're trained to critique; we're supposed to have the answer. That's a very different model than professions where people don't always have the answer and need to reinforce others' positive contributions.”

Creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking

Another aspect of Higgins's work focuses on helping education administrators create environments that are “psychologically safe” for creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking. “That term comes from Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, who studies ways to encourage entrepreneurial thinking in business organizations,” she says. “It's equally relevant in public education, where we urgently need to find ways to support creative approaches to entrenched problems.” By asking the teams of public school principals to assess how well their organizations learn, Higgins is beginning to identify some of the barriers to entrepreneurial thinking in educational settings. “The ideal is that you want an environment where people can put forth new ideas, ask for help, and question the status quo — while still being accountable for reaching challenging goals,” Higgins says. “Our preliminary data show that while there is a fair amount of experimentation in these organizations, there is relatively little evaluation of the outcomes, questioning of underlying assumptions, or after-action reviews. In short, they aren't learning as much as they should from testing new ideas. “My sense is that this could be linked to the current emphasis in our public schools on accountability and results," she says. "People do not feel psychologically safe, they're anxious, and that keeps them from probing deeply into what works and what doesn't.” A significant challenge for school leaders is to cultivate an atmosphere where testing — and sometimes invalidating — innovative ideas is an accepted part of the creative process.

Entrepreneurial leadership

Higgins is pursuing the theme of entrepreneurial leadership in her work with students at HGSE, where she teaches a course called Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning. “It's been very encouraging to see such a high level of interest in creative leadership and entrepreneurship among students here,” she says, mentioning the activities of the Bridge Group, through which more than 150 students have demonstrated an interest in developing entrepreneurial initiatives in education. “I think what's happening is that the next generation of educators is embracing the notion that to do well in their careers, they need not only strong capabilities in instructional practice, but also the capacity and confidence to engage with others in productive collaborations,” Higgins says. “The ability to approach challenges that way is an essential element of strong leadership, especially in a field where the stakes and hurdles are as high as they are in education today.”

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