District Leaders: Consistent Messaging vs Turf Wars
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Consistent Messaging for District Leaders: The Issue of Turf

By Terry Wilhelm

In my introductory post for this subject, I discussed the problem of silos, which, in many districts, is a major contributing factor to the issue of mixed messages sent from the central office to the school sites.

Turf wars rarely improve service

A component of the silos problem is the issue of turf. I recall sitting with a colleague once in the office of the chief HR official of an organization where we all worked. We were there to discuss leadership development services he might want for his division. New to the office, he’d spent his first month getting to know his direct reports and other HR employees and getting their input about the division’s strengths and problems.

“We’re taking back our turf,” he informed us. His interpretation of the data he had collected was that there had been too little enforcement of the procedures set forth to govern HR-related matters throughout the organization.

The chief HR official viewed the correction of this problem as his top priority. During his tenure of several years, there was indeed a tightening up of all HR procedures. As a result, many layers of inflexible red tape further delayed the filling of vacant positions for urgently needed personnel. HR had never been famous for its responsiveness in this area; its reputation only declined as a result of this leadership.

The HR and business office operations of an education entity must follow certain procedures for reasons of legality, safety, and adherence to board policy and contracts. But as this official’s statement and its fruition illustrates so well, the notion of “our turf” is typically a barrier to the ultimate service of the end client — the students.

Articulating the common goal

There are several actions that superintendents can take to address the turf problem, and they focus on helping people see a common goal. Patrick Lencioni, author of Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, says, “The key to eliminating silos is simply to provide a compelling context for colleagues to understand that they should be rowing in the same direction. While leaders have been focusing on punishing negative behaviors that lead to internal conflict, they have often failed to give people a clear understanding of what they have in common, and why serving the common good is better for them than looking out for number one.”

Introducing district office staff to their schools

What are some ways to build this understanding about the common good? One of the best methods I have seen is to take non-school employees on field trips — to the schools! Make this purposeful. HR employees should visit classrooms of the new teachers and instructional aides whose paperwork and fingerprints they just processed. The textbook clerks and warehouse technicians should meet the school secretaries, administrators, and teachers who order materials from them. Prepare the school staff to greet — and thank — the visitors for their services, and ask them to share examples of how the visitors’ responsiveness has had a direct impact on student learning.

To lay the groundwork for this, some superintendents have all executive cabinet members accompany them on regular, even monthly, visits to specific school sites. Because many CBOs and assistant superintendents of HR come from the business world, they may not have backgrounds in instruction.

Walking through classrooms with the superintendent and assistant superintendent of instruction, debriefing what they observe, and discussing issues they see firsthand — may lie within the areas for which HR and the business office are responsible and have a direct impact on students. This is an invaluable way to broaden the perspectives and deepen the understanding of these busy officials.

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