From School to District Leadership: Answering a Question

Saturday night, over dinner with friends, I was asked what it was like to now be working at the District Office. Knowing full well that any deep response, after two bottles of cab franc, was going to lead to that polite “I’m maintaining eye contact with you but I’m thinking about the laundry I have to do tomorrow morning” vibe, I kept it light. I told them that it was ‘quiet’ and that I bizarrely missed the presence of the 14-year-old girl crying in my office over the most recent Facebook post.

However, as I sit here today, engaging in my midday Monday musings over a cup of coffee and thinking about the upcoming edcamp Leadership BC, I am beginning to give the question some honest reflection. Very recently Michael D. Watkins in, “How Managers Become Leaders,” put forward a series of seismic shifts that occur in leadership focus and skills when experiencing a move to a larger stage. I am finding that my move, although not the stuff of plate tectonics, has brought about some of these shifts in the way I do things (and how I view my new role).

From Specialist to Generalist

I no longer lead one school but instead oversee a range of district-wide functions. Being relevant in a “program/learning impactful” way, whether at a school or District level has always meant the balancing of multiple initiatives at the same time. However, in balancing many District portfolios, I find myself having to become a “knowledgeable” generalist rather than an in-depth pro-d specialist. The challenge is moving into areas that are outside of my comfort zone (funny but isn’t this what we ask of our own students when they pursue inquiry?).   As a knowledgeable generalist I am learning to be comfortable with discomfort and at the same time not fall back to the safety of managing the secondary school functions I know so well while undermanaging the others that are new to me.

As well, within these portfolios are the people who drive the distinct managerial subcultures of the District. A conversation with Finance and Purchasing may flow to a Sergeant Joe Friday “just the facts ma’am” rhythm whereas my discussion with Itinerant Band Teachers will follow a different, perhaps more eclectic beat. The tones and delivery will differ but, as Watkins makes clear, “leaders must know the right questions to ask and the right metrics for evaluating and assisting people to manage areas in which they themselves are not experts.”

From Analyst to Integrator

Unlike in schools, most of the day-to-day business and data I manage arrives at my desk already embedded with multiple analyses from various stakeholders. My role has become one in which I try to manage and integrate the collective knowledge of these analyses and (this is the piece that I have come to appreciate the most) understand how to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for my decisions. The difference now is that the explanation no longer takes place in my office with one teacher but rather in a Board office with multiple stakeholders (each of them ‘armed’ with their own respective data).

From Tactician to Strategist

One of the big transitions in leadership from school to District is that here, activities are not as concrete, results are not immediate and tactics are continually shared, discussed and altered. Tactics seem to present themselves in the form of meetings. It’s not unusual to have 6 one-hour tactical “sessions” in a row from 8 am until 2 pm.

Now, more than ever, I am learning to be present as a tactician and to view the information I receive under the lens of a strategist. How can the portfolios I manage collectively support these strategies? How can I move forward cleanly and avoid redundancy or duplication of services? How can I connect the various initiatives and in doing so create systemic momentum around new ways of doing?

Think of it this way: the tactics are the plot of a novel and the strategy is the theme. This appeals to my literary sensibilities!

From Bricklayer to Architect

I’m no longer building a school but helping to design and alter the learning architecture of my school district – its strategy, structure, processes, and skill bases. The key, at least for me, is not to get caught up within the aesthetic ruminations of architectural planning (tricky word playing over a theoretical corpse that used to be a good idea). Instead, my role is to combine the talk (the planning) with a bias towards action and the “role up the sleeves” mentality of the bricklayer: a very precarious balance to achieve.

From Problem Solver to Agenda Setter

A school principal not only focuses on solving problems but also leads his or her staff in defining issues that their respective community should be adressing. At the District level, this same reality exists; however, the key now is to ensure that the agenda is focused at a macro level and that initiatives introduced make sense so as to avoid the common pitfall of goal displacement: lots of great ideas but nobody moves forward and those that do get overwhelmed.  Keep the agenda focused and ensure that the support creates multiple participation patterns that tap in to the multitude of learning styles and expertise within the District – experiences that have within them the opportunity for all stakeholders to problem solve while engaged in the creative process of supporting learning.

My cup of coffee now extremely cold, I’m smiling to myself thinking of what my friend would have thought of this lengthy response. Knowing him, he would have smiled, put down his glass of wine and stated that it was “merely a rhetorical question.”