The SLT-Middle Leader Communication Challenge

One of the fascinating features of the work I do supporting schools with implementing their professional development programmes is the opportunity this offers for exploring the dynamics between senior leadership teams and the middle leaders. This applies to all schools but is especially noticeable in secondary schools and FE colleges.

Quite often, despite everyone having noble intentions, there is a gap between the way ideas, strategies and messages are perceived and intended by the senior leaders and the way they are received and interpreted by middle leaders alongside variation across those middle leader interpretations.

Our work allows us to compare and reconcile these differences and to establish ways forward. It’s worth saying that the issues that arise are generally a product of the structural roles people have; it’s not about blame or performance – it’s more about the inherent differences in how a central leadership team and a middle leader, with their own sub-team, conceive and manage their priorities. Where I see mistakes made, I know for sure I’ve made them all myself in the past too.

These diagrams will illustrate my thinking.

The SLT at the top comprises a Head/Principal and some supporting senior leaders, usually with specific job roles and responsibilities. The boxes represent the middle leaders and their teams. In a typical scenario, the SLT has access to a wide set of information giving them a whole-organisation overview and the team carries the sense of responsibility for overall outcomes. The SLT spends time exploring problems and strategies, perhaps debating priorities and timeframes.

However, the SLT doesn’t do most of the doing.. that’s driven by middle leader and their teams. So, the SLT has to enact its strategy through middle leaders who, significantly, are largely not present for all the key discussions and debates about quality issues, priorities and strategic goals. This involves a range of communication processes but largely, even if some consultation is involved, the direction is very much top down.

Quite often several things happen:

The SLT can

  • under-estimate the workload and time pressure that middle leaders feel when they are dealing with plans they’ve generated themselves and are already working on
  • under-estimate how directive, prescriptive and ‘out of the blue’ their communications can feel to those receiving them
  • underestimate how their desire for change or enthusiasm for an idea can manifest itself as just more pressure
  • overestimate how easy or quick it will be for a middle leader to pick up an idea and enact it with each member of their team or to use a new system or complete admin tasks
  • underestimate middle leaders’ scepticism and resistance to ideas they’ve played no part in shaping and the extent to which this might be justified

Middle leaders can

  • overestimate the extent to which the SLT want them to follow ideas to the letter
  • underestimate the autonomy they have and that the SLT want them to have.
  • underestimate the willingness the SLT would have to support ideas or to embrace an alternative approach to the stated policy or procedure, adapted better to suit their curriculum context

An example of this could be with say, an SLT initiative to focus on retrieval practice. An SLT member- eg Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning – might share ideas about how this could be done, with good intentions. They are enthusiastic about it and say something like ‘there really should be some kind of daily review in lessons’. To them, implicit in their thinking is that departments will adapt and adopt ideas to suit their subjects. Unfortunately, a couple of middle leaders hear this as a directive to implement a daily quizzing regime. When asked why they are doing it, they say ‘this is what SLT have told us to do‘; as far as they are concerned, they have dutifully followed the directive. The Assistant Head is later mortified that this is how it was interpreted…

This type of mis-match of intent to interpretation is relatively common. It’s particularly difficult when each member of SLT has responsibilities that specifically belong to them such that they feel they should be driving a particular agenda – themselves. They each seek to drive things through middle leaders – so each middle leader feels they are on the receiving end of multiple (often uncoordinated) directives with email traffic to match: assessment, behaviour, curriculum, attendance, teaching and learning, SEND, finance…

Scaling that up, with all the teams, the communication between the SLT and middle leaders looks …messy!

With all the complexity and noise, nobody has a good overview of how well each flow of information and thinking is working in leading to positive change. Each middle leader will manage their priorities as best they can but they do so on their terms because they can’t really manage or meet the precise expectations of each SLT member. The SLT members can’t see what the others are saying or doing and they can be frustrated that their initiative is taking time to have an impact.

Significantly in all this, the time that the SLT spends together thrashing out ideas is often far more than the time they spend consulting or receiving input from middle leaders – the SLT view that “there isn’t the time to consult on everything” can morph into the middle leader feeling that “we’re not consulted on anything”.

Now, of course this might exaggerate the situation in any one school – but it’s always worth being aware of the issues. In my experience, where things work best, communication flows have these features:

  • The SLT output is more collective. Initiatives are not the preserve of individuals within a team – there is a collective approach that is extensively discussed within the team. Individual people take a lead on formulating ideas – eg an assessment or behaviour policy – but everyone shares the ownership of them. Each team member represents the team; they are not ploughing their own furrow in isolation. This increases the sense of collective responsibility but also supports the other features;
  • Communication is supported extensively through strong line management links: macro relationships between the whole SLT and the whole middle leadership team are mediated via strong interactive line management relationships that cover a range of issues. This helps to balance priorities for any given curriculum team and supports the third feature;
  • The communication is explicitly two-way. The SLT seeks views and adapts its approach in response to the realities on the ground and to different ideas. e.g. each team might design an assessment approach that suits their subject and they then inform the SLT of its preferences. A team leader might report back on the practicalities of managing behaviour consequences such that the SLT picks up more of it than they first thought would be necessary. The SLT operates to service the subject teams rather than the other way around. And at all times, an institutional form of checking for understanding is at work: line managers check how middle leaders are receiving ideas to make sure that the SLT intent is not misunderstood and the balance of autonomy and organisation-wide consistency is appropriate.

It might look like this:

Here each middle leader, leading their team, has a two-way relationship with the SLT and a line manager who acts as the main contact. All the agendas are co-owned by the whole SLT and individual SLT members’ roles are to support the team to formulate a good set of commonly understood strategies. Communication flows are planned explicitly taking account of middle leaders’ capacity to receive and engage. Sometimes this means things are put off or their significance played down relative to other more pressing concerns. The calendar and whole-staff agendas are co-owned. The use of meeting time is discussed – it’s precious and can’t be messed with lightly!

Within this model, a confident Head of Department, for example, can drive things for their team, reporting up to the SLT on the work they are doing and having their ideas heard. They can push back if they find a system doesn’t quite work as intended. They feel ownership of their assessment regime and teaching and learning priorities. The SLT is grateful for the clarity of their thinking and their sense of purpose; it’s an open door. A new and developing middle leader is given more support and direction. And, across all teams, commonly understood priorities are worked on in parallel without the need for excessive rigidity; there’s an adaptive flex that makes it stronger.

In addition, a middle leader forum can be useful when specific issues need attention – not to disseminate ideas but to receive feedback on them; for the SLT to listen not to tell. This gives middle leaders a collective voice that they often feel they don’t have.

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