During the first twelve months of my principalship at my current school, not only was I new but the entire primary leadership structure changed; a new director was introduced, significant faculty turnover occurred, and COVID hit. My focus was to build a strong team, a Super Team, that could get through anything because it had to.
We all know that working in well-functioning teams brings forward innovative thinking, encourages risk-taking, and leads to better outcomes. It enhances personal wellbeing and overall satisfaction. A critical question that needs to be asked when starting to build any team is, “How do we build and cultivate a team that people want to be part of?”
What follows here are the principles that guided me and helped build the super team, an exceptional crew of educators who have transformed learning and teaching at our school and helped it grow in innumerous ways. The Super Team is not just a cheesy name that puts a smile on people’s faces. It is the reflection of who we truly are. We have worked diligently towards embodying the qualities that define The Super Team. Every connotation this name has was earned through dedication, honesty, empathy, reflection, and kindness. The ideas presented in this article are useful whether directing an entire school, a small committee, or a classroom.
Here is a list of ideas that guide the work and interactions of our Super Team:
Trust is the foundation of our work together. It is the one ingredient that connects us, makes us feel safe, and creates a sense of belonging to the group. Trust in leadership and team members allows us to flourish and invites us to be courageous, innovative, and vulnerable.
Take Time To Get To Know Each Other
In our team, we build trust by taking time to get to know each other in order to understand how we feel and how our feelings impact our actions. As a leader, making time to connect regularly with every team member plays a crucial role in building trust.
As a principal, I have the privilege to walk around school every day, making sure to see students and teachers. Saying a simple good morning and showing genuine interest in how someone is doing connects us.
Having an open door invites team members to walk in and have little chats when they can. The candy jar on my table attracts teachers and teaching assistants who pop in saying, “I just need something to sweeten my day and give me energy!” It’s a great opportunity to have a short chat and make people feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
We start every staff meeting with a five-to-ten-minute “let’s connect” activity. These are short icebreakers or conversation starters to make people laugh and encourage everybody to move around and get to know their colleagues in a new light. These activities send the message, “I see you! You are important!” They help us strengthen our bonds.
Be Honest and Kind
Being clear, honest, and kind in our interactions helps us to foster an environment where trust thrives. I wonder if you have ever felt that you wouldn't tell someone that they did something wrong because you didn’t want to hurt them? I have learned that it is always best to tell the truth even if this can be uncomfortable. The truth, even hard truths, can be told in kind and respectful ways, and I have found that people appreciate honesty as long as they feel supported and treated with dignity. So having a difficult conversation while showing empathy and offering help goes a long way toward building the team you want.
I often start difficult conversations by giving the team member the opportunity to talk first. “How do you feel about XXX? What are you observing right now? What do you feel is going well and what is challenging?” Asking these types of questions allows the participant to share their feelings and opinions first and feel heard. These questions create space in which one can express themselves. The ideas shared are important to me as they inform me about what is going on and see if the team member and I identify similar challenges or have very different perspectives on certain situations, which in turn informs the next steps.
Another important step for me is to stick to evidence and leave judgment out. This way we can analyze facts and see why the situation arose and how we can move forward together. I try to keep my messages short and precise, sharing what I see, and always being kind and firm at the same time. Together, we then look at expectations and come up with a plan to reach our shared goal. This leads me to my next point.
No team will function without effective communication. We should all listen more than we speak as it helps us to understand others and see patterns in our team in order to make connections. Making time to go see someone instead of sending an email goes a long way. Personal interaction allows us to see someone’s facial expressions, body language, and general reactions, which tells us a lot about how they are feeling.
Listening to truly understand where the other person is coming from and not just answer is a skill that can be developed over time, and which will help anyone discover and appreciate others’ perspectives.
Writing down ideas before communicating them can help to be specific and to the point. No one wants to listen to someone lecture interminably.
Practice What You Preach
I very much believe in the idea of modeling what I ask of others. If I expect others to work hard, then I work hard. If I expect others to be on time, then I am on time. If I expect team members to meet deadlines, be reliable, and be kind or transparent, then I do the same.
As a principal, I am a role model almost by definition, and I hope to inspire others to do their very best, to want to take risks and try new things. In the same way, teachers model these same behaviors to their students. Actions are more powerful than words as they are a reflection of who we are.
Have Each Other’s Backs
A real team has each other’s backs. The idea of being loyal and supportive toward each team member adds to the foundation of trust. Team members support one another by lending a hand and an open ear.
Arnold Glasgow, businessman and writer, said, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” By doing this, I feel that it invites others to take more risks as they feel supported and appreciated. It can also help them to be reflective and own their mistakes. Doing this in my job models how teams work together, which impacts how smaller teams, such as grade-level teams and committees, then back each other up, supporting one another.
The Power of “Not Yet”
Knowing that we are all working together to grow implies that we are all doing our best. As in any classroom, a team will have members who may be more experienced, skilled, and knowledgeable than others. You may have some team members who are more on board with certain ideas than other members. Understanding that growth is a journey helps to create a process-oriented and resilient team that thrives on challenges and embraces learning opportunities. Asking the question, “What do you need right now?” invites people to ask for help and feel supported. Understanding the power of “not yet” shows that growth is possible if we keep working towards our goals.
Believe in Each Other
All of this brings me to my last point, the importance of holding the belief that everyone on the team has something valuable to offer. Recognizing and appreciating the diverse strengths that team members bring to the table allows teams to tap into their collective potential and achieve remarkable results. People feel empowered, trusted, and motivated to take the lead. By doing this, we are okay to say, “I am unsure about this, but I know who to ask for help,” which strengthens relationships and supports the commitment to working together.
Building and sustaining The Super Team requires daily dedication, open-mindedness, and effort. It is an ongoing process marked by consistent commitment and the flexibility to adapt to shifting dynamics and new challenges. By trusting each other, taking time to connect, being honest, empathetic and kind, and supporting one another in our growth, we continue to overcome challenges and reach our goals together. We continue to cultivate an environment in which everyone feels valued, heard, and empowered to do their best. And with all of this, our journey as The Super Team becomes immensely fulfilling for everyone involved.
Eloïse Engel is the Primary Principal at Bishop Mackenzie International School in Lilongwe, Malawi. As an educational leader, she is passionate about building teams and creating cultures of collaboration. She works with others to foster and empower teams to develop trust, kindness, dedication, and perseverance to help individuals and the schools further grow.