How District Leaders Can ShapeConsistent Messaging on Office Processes
Leadership Skills and Implementation

District-Level Leadership: Removing Red Tape from Rules and Procedures

By Terry Wilhelm

In past posts on the importance of consistent messaging from district-level leaders to their sites, I have mentioned the related issues of silos and turf. In bureaucracies, including school districts, a common method of protecting a department’s turf is the addition of rules and procedures to govern the daily behavior of its customers —  in this case, school personnel.

District-level processes and adding rules

If district-level processes are unnecessarily cumbersome, additional rules don’t help. This is especially likely to happen when a clever site administrator or secretary figures out a workaround to speed up a slow district-level process. Once discovered, the result is usually new rules and protocols that slow down the procedure even more.

For example, in one district where I worked, we could sometimes speed up a purchase requisition or conference request — both of which were ponderously slow processes — by personally driving the paperwork to the district office and walking it through the various departments. If someone in the signature chain was away from his or her desk, a secretary would find someone else who could provide the needed signature or initials.

Over time, the business department halted the walking-through of all but those of the most urgent, emergency-level nature, as judged by those at a specific authority level in the Business Department echelon. We were told to “get better at planning ahead.” Certainly, even allowed shortcuts can come to be abused, but this also begs the question: why is it that so many people are trying to use the shortcut? Are the normal, everyday processes simply too slow and cumbersome?

Getting principals’ input

In my experience, changing a culture of silos and turf wars must begin at the top, with explicitly stated expectations and modeling of the superintendent. I once facilitated a district-level troubleshooting session that included all site and district office administrators. Using a large graphic organizer, I charted group input in four areas:

  • Strengths
  • Problems
  • Threats
  • Opportunities

Because the superintendent and assistant superintendent wanted principals to work separately from the district office to develop input in these areas, the principals worked in elementary and secondary groups. Small group input was recorded in each group, then shared out publicly by a designated spokesperson for the group.

In spite of the fact that this district, where I spent many days as a consultant, had one of the safest cultures I have ever found, the principal groups were still nervous about sharing the extremely candid input they had compiled under Problems. (“Threats” were primary factors from outside the district, such as a burgeoning private charter school company that had gotten a foothold in the area.)

Listening to identified problems vs. defending procedures

I was both fascinated and impressed to note that as I charted the principals’ input, both the superintendent and assistant superintendents of Instructional Support Services and HR simply wrote copious notes. They did not respond, defend, or attempt to explain away any of the problems the principals surfaced.

As we neared the end of this phase, the assistant superintendent of business services arrived late. Immediately, he attempted to defend the procedures that had been identified as problems in his area of responsibility. We were nearly finished with this section, but as I read the body language of the group, his reaction had a stifling effect. Fortunately, we were able to proceed relatively smoothly to the Opportunities section, which resulted in some very fruitful and innovative thinking from the group and concrete plans for moving forward. The business services official did not remain with the district after that academic year.

Winning strategies

Stating clear expectations is critical; so is walking the talk. They are two sides of the same coin. The superintendent and assistant superintendent who listened to principals’ input were committed to the continuous improvement of all systems in their district and to having non-instructional departments operating in ways that actually supported its instructional priorities. They were focused on removing barriers that impeded the instructional work of teachers and administrators at the sites.

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