Our Perspectives - Dr Linda Bendikson

The UACEL Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Linda Bendikson writes candidly about her views and offers a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges.  Occasionally, other faculty / team members contribute to this Newsletter is published four times a year.

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Another New Year - another opportunity to be a better leader

The craziness has started and it won’t stop until Xmas.  That busy-ness is one thing that will never change.  Instead, we have to change ourselves.  To be better leaders we have to be totally clear about what it is we are prioritising, because, unless we are clear, we just get overwhelmed with the never ending stream of emails, tasks, people and problems that come our way.  The endless flow of paper and problems rule our lives and often leave us with unsatisfactory results and a feeling of dissatisfaction. 
 
So here is a test:
 
Can you tell your staff the two or three key things you are trying to achieve or improve in student outcomes this year? 
 
These are your real annual goals, and hopefully they are your ‘official’ goals as written in your annual plan as well.  They should be central to everything you do with your staff and students this year.   If they are to be ‘worth the paper they are written on’ you should be able to cite them clearly to anyone at any time.  You can be a better leader by being more focused on a few well-targeted goals and retaining that focus throughout the year.
 
It is likely, however, that many of you will not be able to recall your goals, and that they will languish on paper in a folder somewhere.   And yet goal pursuit is one of the leadership behaviours that has been most strongly supported by evidence as effective over time (Hallinger & Heck, 1998; Locke & Latham, 1990).  Last year we finished analysing data from 32 secondary schools.   While most schools had plans that contained baseline data and targets, many appeared to lack a really sharp focus on a few problem areas, which was evidenced by plans having a lot of goals or targets (specific and measureable goals).  We found that only about half the schools’ leaders could cite the content of their goals with any accuracy. 
 
Our conclusion from this was that, for many, the goals were a paper-based exercise, but they were not ‘working’ for the leaders or their staff.   If they were working for them, leaders would be constantly checking that they were on track to meet those goals.  They would be analysing what was going well and what was not, and adjusting.  They would be meeting and talking about those goals regularly.
 
The whole point of writing goals was therefore lost on many schools.  Goals are how we motivate ourselves to achieve something specific and new.  If senior and middle leaders do not even know what the goals are, they can hardly expect staff to know them and help to achieve them.  And obviously, the more goals one has, the less likely they are to be recalled and worked on by staff.    We found that schools that could not recall their goals, tended to have a lot of them – sometimes up to 30! 
 
Goal theory is essentially a theory of motivation.   The act of writing goals on paper for an official plan is not in itself motivating unless the people charged with leading the organisation are truly committed to those goals and keep them at the forefront of conversations and actions during the year.  If the leaders do not know the goals and do not strive in their pursuit, they can hardly expect anyone else to – thus it is the leaders’ commitment to the goals that is important firstly (Locke & Latham, 1990).   
 
Therefore, a few, well-focused goals and targets are all that are required for most organisations.  Beyond that, goals and targets are nothing more than a compliance exercise.  And if you have to write targets, you might as well make them ones you truly value as being focused on priority problems; not a target for everything on your wish-list.  Slow down – attack a problem or two at a time if you want to be effective.
 
The commitment or buy-in of staff is often referred to by leaders as a problem in goal pursuit.  Staff will commit to goals if they deem them to be truly important and the right focus for the organisation at this time.   Staff will commit if they believe they truly can focus on the target and that the leaders have cleared the way by eliminating or minimising non-essential tasks that get in the way.  Schools that are successful in making progress, prioritise their goals in actions, not just words.  They take other pressures off teachers whenever possible, and encourage them to keep focused on the priority area.
 
Traps for goal setters
 
Setting goals about the adults instead of the students.  If you are student-centred your goals and targets should focus on what you want the students to achieve.  What the adults need to do to support that is part of your action plan to achieve the target.
 
Not having a way to measure progress towards your target during the year.  If you are judging performance by a test that can only be given once a year, how will you know you are making progress?  There are ways – for example, creating your own tests that provide an indication of progress towards those learning outcomes.
 
Too many goals and targets because you have so many things to fix.  When you have too many goals and targets, you also have too many initiatives or plans of action to fix the many problems.  All that usually happens is that everyone becomes stressed with too many meetings and too many new things, and the goal focus is completely lost.  Solve one small problem at a time.
 
Not really having a plan to do anything different in order to achieve the plan.  A plan should emphasise what you will do differently (i.e., stop doing; start doing) or keep doing to get the better result that you seek.   You can also download our planning templates to help you (http://www.uacel.ac.nz/publications/uacel-resources), or attend our August course on Annual Planning to help you prepare for a better ‘next year’ http://www.uacel.ac.nz/language/en-us/leadership-courses/leadership-workshops/annual-planning
 
Not putting effort into making change happen.  Ultimately, the enactment of a plan is a deeply human effort, and a plan without effort will never succeed.  Of course, human nature being what it is, even a very good written plan cannot guarantee action aligned to the plan.  But if all the leaders in a school are committed to a few goals and have a plan to achieve them, success is likely (Locke & Latham, 1990). 
 
Good luck.

 

References:
Hallinger, P., & Heck, R. H. (1998). Exploring the principal's contribution to school effectiveness: 1989 -1995. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 9(2), 157-191.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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