Johanna is the head of school at Tuscon Hebrew Academy 

Tough Times Don't Last; Tough Teams Do

Last year, faced with a slowly dissolving administrative team in my first year as a head of school, a very wise, successful and invested friend of our school sent me an email to give me strength and support. An excerpt reads: “Be kind to yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in a spiral of decisions you’d made months ago and the ‘what if’s’ had you made other decisions. Learn to refocus your thinking to a vision of how you want things to be and how to get there.”

I decided that I was in the unique position to replace my administrative team with people that I could handpick—a team of people who share my passion for the school and with whom it would be fun to come to work every day. 

By May 1, I had identified team members for the senior leadership team (SLT), hiring 4 out of 5 of my direct reports to begin my second year on July 1. But now what? How many times have we all been placed in a room with people and told, “This is your team”? Sometimes we were lucky enough to actually know the people, and sometimes we didn’t know anyone, yet we were expected to work together as a team for a common/shared goal… that no one ever actually articulated.

I started to draw from my 20+ years of working in Jewish education on and leading different teams. What worked? What didn’t work? What did I love about the teams that worked? What didn’t I love about those same teams? What was my role in the team? What did I learn from my team leaders?

Forming

As a fellow in the DSLTI program, my first instinct was to look to my mentor, Cheryl Maayan, for guidance. I told her I wanted us to start with a shared language since the six of us were coming from different backgrounds and had no history together. Cheryl recommended that we read the book The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. 

Having once been the team member who rolled her eyes at the words “leadership retreat,” I started planning three days of leadership training, off-campus. The value of not having the distractions of campus life, even in the middle of the summer, was something I would cherish and use to our advantage.

I also recognized that there’s a need to get to know your team members on a very basic human level. I started thinking about the things I might be able to bring to the team to help lay that foundation. A search on Amazon Prime yielded a box of cards called Building Blocks for Building Better Teams, with 150 questions to help form closer professional relationships, create better communication and remove personal barriers in teamwork. Over the three days of training and orientation, we started each day with a couple cards, used the cards between sessions on the agenda, and even had some of our lunch guests join us in card picking/question answering. This helped us forge relationships with our parent volunteers, donors, community partners and more. The questions sparked conversations, and personalities began to shine through. 

The three days we spent together gelling off-campus, with delicious food and plenty of time to be present and fully invested, were memorable and groundbreaking for my team. We developed a list of community standards and expectations for ourselves as a team, we each wrote our own “user manual” and shared the best ways to work with us individually, and we explored Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development. As is often the case, it helped to just name where we were. We were forming, and get ready, because next would come the storming, and hopefully soon would follow the norming and then performing.

Storming

In The Advantage, Lencioni highlights how healthy conflict and difficult conversations is essential to get to a place of buy-in and group decision-making. We reviewed the newly adopted school mission, vision and values and had some hefty and healthy conflict debates around what some of those things look like in our school. We were able to go through this process with the shared language from Lencioni and understanding that we were all working towards building trust and a healthy organization.

On day two, we went through an exercise called GPS: goals, priorities and strategies. The GPS helps your organization “find its way.” The first step is coming up with one shared goal. No book can tell you what your school’s goals should be, nor will you achieve your goals if they are dictated and not approached collaboratively. You then decide upon three priorities to focus on that will help you achieve your goal. Finally, you come up with strategies to help support each of your three priorities.

At first, we considered the idea of a “twelve-week year,” where you set a new goal every twelve weeks, take a week break, and then set a new goal for the next twelve weeks. However, we agreed as a senior leadership team that that was too intense, and we set our goal to go through the first semester.

Norming and Performing

In our weekly SLT meetings, we are reviewing our goal, developing real metrics to assess our progress in accomplishing our priorities and goal, and continue storming and debating. Following Lencioni’s advice, we are heavily focused on communicating, and communicating some more, and then over-communicating what we have already communicated. 

We are in the process of taking the Enneagram assessment so that we can use it as a tool to help us better understand each other’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and will have a visiting head of school help us through the process. 

Our next big feat is bringing all our faculty and staff around to understand the work we are doing as an SLT and get them to all work toward our shared goal. We are already experiencing an uptick in morale as our communication has improved and our collaborative efforts have been appreciated.

Our new SLT are all on board to prioritize the health of our school in a very conscious effort, through each of our departmental lenses, together. We enjoy coming to work, we enjoy our weekly SLT meetings, we can have healthy conflict, and most of all we are visibly working as a team to lead our community of faculty/staff, parents and students.

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Tucson Hebrew Academy Leadership Team