Building effective team management in your school or trust

July 13, 2023

Being able to manage your teams effectively has always been a critical foundation for success. Today, as the recruitment landscape gets more and more competitive, ensuring your staff members are able to work in a positive, collaborative and progressive environment is more important than ever before – but it can sometimes be tough to know how best to facilitate this, especially for developing trusts and new managers.

This month, we caught up with ISBL CEO Stephen Morales to discuss what it means to be a truly effective team manager and how schools and trusts can support staff and identify good practices.

Thank you for sitting down with us today, Stephen. We’ve previously spoken about school leadership, so my first question would be what do you believe is the difference between leadership and team management?

The first thing to note is that if you drew a Venn diagram of leadership and team management, there would certainly be some overlap, no doubt about it.

That said, I think a good way to think about it is to describe a team manager as being very task-orientated; they would have oversight of their team, what their team members do day-to-day, and managing workloads.

A leadership view is more holistic. It’s more about setting the direction and overall strategy of an organisation or trust, rather than managing or steering individual, day-to-day projects.

What does successful team management look like and what are the benefits?

The key thing to remember is that you’re managing a team of people, not just carrying out a managerial function. You need to work hard to try and understand and meet your team's emotional needs as well as their practical needs and establish common ground by finding their safe space. Happy workers make productive workers.

Creating a culture of consensus and collaboration is crucial to getting the most out of your team; if colleagues feel undervalued, they’ll become isolated and alienated. If you have a suspicion that there’s any disquiet amongst team members, don't ignore it – explore the root cause and try to address it by consensus. By doing so, you’ll create an environment where your team is much stronger and can overcome all sorts of obstacles.

How do you think effective team management feeds into other areas such as staff recruitment/retention and student outcomes?

This is a really important question today because we know that there are various causes for unhappiness in the education workforce; part of that is workload, part is not feeling valued, and part is a sense of isolation.

I think part of this is that colleagues aren’t always able to fulfil their function as they’re allowed to drift and get involved in things that they perhaps shouldn’t be, tasks that fall outside of their remit. And I don’t blame the individual for that; it’s a culture that comes down from the top, and suddenly, individuals have a million things to juggle and no room to focus on the work that really needs their attention.

If we’re asking people to take on tasks that fall outside of their remit, for whatever reason, we need to understand that this will have an impact on their overall capacity. It means less time to perform the central function they were recruited to do. Now, if there is spare capacity, that's fine. If not, their core responsibility, the very job they signed up for, begins to suffer because colleagues are being asked to stretch themselves too thinly, and this compromises the impact they can have in the areas where they have niche expertise. Additionally, and perhaps more worryingly, a sustained and unmanaged increase in workload can and does lead to burnout.

We seem to have almost sleepwalked into this situation for a number of years, and it’s likely been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic period. When I speak to school business leaders, the response is consistently that they’re overwhelmed; what started as a list of four or five duties became ten, and it’s still spiralling. It’s a massive problem, not just for the individual taking on these extra tasks and feeling overwhelmed and isolated, it’s a problem for the whole workforce because it means their core function is being undervalued.

We’ve already begun to talk about the common pitfalls people experience when it comes to managing their team – are there any others you see often?

Absolutely. The main pitfall we see is people relying on a top-down approach to management; the autocratic approach has repeatedly been shown to fail. However, some leaders still revert to a very direct and prescriptive management style – often more stick than carrot. This is the old-fashioned approach of "if you don’t do what you’re asked, there are consequences", rather than a collaborative team effort where you understand the value of your contribution and what it means to the team and the organisation, and that's what motivates performance. It’s the difference between fear-mongering and incentivising – and the former is not only lazy, but it’s not going to produce the desired results.

We should be talking more about the valuable role that colleagues play, giving them the tasks that play to their strengths, and then celebrating the successes of each team member's contribution. It should be the case that your team knows they succeed together and they fail together, and should things go wrong, there is support available to help get everyone back on track.

It's a sobering statistic that according to a recent survey carried out by Hays, 80% of school business professionals don’t have a meaningful performance management/development meeting each year.

Using a fear approach to management is incredibly outdated; it’s not effective, it’s not motivational, and it doesn’t breed a culture of belonging or loyalty. If people feel under duress, they’ll jump ship very quickly, and this won’t help the current education recruitment and retention crisis. The new generation of school leaders, educators or business professionals just won't put up with that, and they shouldn’t have to. They have a different expectation of their employer, and in an environment where we're all competing for the best talent, we have to be kind to our people and more understanding of their needs.

Schools and trusts with an effective people strategy will have a significant advantage.

How do you think senior leadership executives at schools and trusts can identify good team management practices within their workforce?

That’s a good question; it’s often quite complicated to do. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though.

Firstly, governance. Whether it’s a governing board of a maintained school or a trust board, they should be able to pick up on the environment that exists among the teams within the establishment. It could be picked up through conversations with colleagues, 360-degree evaluations, or interviews with staff members. That said, if there is an issue, you’ll often be able to see the signs relatively quickly; for instance, there’s a high turnover of staff, a high complaint rate, and so on.

Another telltale sign is inconsistent outputs – a kind of muddled approach to management that leaves teams a bit unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing, leading to lots of excuses about why things aren’t working.

All this makes identifying good practice, and being able to implement it, really important. And there are a number of ways to do this. For example, the School Resource Management Adviser initiative involves school business professionals going into schools and looking to identify areas where improvements might be made – are there any structural concerns that could be addressed? If there is a cultural issue, what’s the root cause? Is it weak leadership, poor management, or a combination of both? Does everyone understand the organisation’s common purpose and how they are working towards it?

This investigative approach can work flexibly. It could be a single team within a school, the school itself and how everyone interacts at that level, or even trust-wide. Ultimately, a trust is a group of schools coming together to do their best for their community of learners, and they have a great opportunity to support each other from a variety of perspectives, so it’s important that they don’t work in silos.

When good team management practices are in place, everyone is clear about the organisation’s goals and their role in achieving success as part of a team that collaborates, communicates and respects one another.

What support should schools and trusts make available to help managers establish good practices?

Again, there are a number of ways to support the development of managers. Perhaps one of the most effective support mechanisms is via a mentor or a coach who can help guide and steer colleagues; this is particularly helpful for aspiring or fledgling managers. It’s so important that new managers understand team dynamics, how to quickly identify strengths and vulnerabilities, and the inevitable range of needs of team members. This is not something you can learn from a book; you need to live and breathe the management of people. That's why the support of an experienced coach or mentor is so important. By the way, the coach or mentor does not have to be an external consultant – it can be an experienced and trusted colleague.

We need to support managers to develop the soft skills they need – to know when to listen and how to work towards solutions with their team in a collegiate and collaborative way, not just imposing their will. Then, of course, there’s the additional responsibility that being a manager entails, and supporting them to be able to make informed difficult decisions is also important. Transparency is so important, and managers need to know how to relay decisions in a way that makes it clear why a decision has been made.

When developing their managers, schools and trusts need to understand that management is a skill like any other, and it needs to be honed and refined.

What does their career progression look like and how do managers progress and grow into effective leaders?

What role does ISBL play in supporting effective team management?

Many of the programmes that we deliver through our portfolio of qualifications touch on management and leadership skills, but there are other things we’re doing to support the ongoing development of the SBP workforce.

The first, and most important, is bringing people together. We connect people who are just starting out in their career with experienced practitioners and support the development of those natural mentoring relationships that can be hugely beneficial for people entering the profession. When you speak to experienced colleagues, they’ll always be able to tell you about the person who was instrumental in getting them to where they are now, and they’re often really keen to be able to pass that experience along and support the next generation of managers coming through. We’re incredibly proud to be able to bring people together and make those connections, whether that’s through our regional events, our fellow forum, or among our affiliated groups.

The second thing is the CFO mentoring programme, a DfE-sponsored initiative. This started as a pilot last year and brought 50 mentors together with 50 new-to-role CFOs or CFOs in growing trusts. The impact of this initiative was very significant and positive. We saw mentors having important conversations with colleagues at the start of their senior leadership journey. Experienced CFOs were able to help colleagues [mentees] work through the challenges they were facing. Many conversations focused on developing high-performing teams. How do we incentivise our colleagues? And how do we provide the right support?

We’re now looking at taking what we’ve learnt from this programme and going even further. Our CFO pilot is now embedded in the School Resource Management Adviser programme; this will be rolled out nationally with a lot more opportunities to buddy up mentors and mentees across the entire system.

What are your top tips for effective team management?

You need to have empathy, first and foremost.

You need to listen, to be clear about what you're asking of people and also why you're asking somebody to carry out a task or function. If you're not clear in your own mind why you're asking somebody to do something, or why a task is important, or why it needs to be done within a certain time, it is unlikely you’ll get full buy-in or commitment.

But as I said from the outset, it’s so important to understand where people are coming from. How are they coping emotionally with the work they have, what else have they got going on in their lives, and what are the barriers to them doing their tasks well? How do we clear those obstacles so they can be as effective as possible?

That’s what management comes down to, really: supporting your team and giving them a foundation and environment in which they can complete their work to the best possible standard – whether that’s emotional support, clarity of purpose, guidance, or training.