The Value of Collaborative Leadership

By Maria Collar

What is the difference between management and leadership? Ultimately, it boils down to knowing that managers know how to do things and leaders know exactly which thing to do.

How do we create leaders able to support and carry out the vision of our schools? The answer relates to an experience I had while acting as human resources director of Cattaraugus-Allegany Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). BOCES are public entities created by the New York State Legislature to provide shared educational programs and services to school districts within the state.

Back in 2009, as financial uncertainty and budget cuts loomed closer, our BOCES decided to embark on a process of strategic formulation in order to better serve the needs of our component schools.

Nested within a rural area, our 22 component districts were being challenged more than ever before to accomplish great things with very little. Deep budget cuts threatened to close many essential programs and resources. We all were bracing for impact.

With the intention of finding better ways to support and serve our schools, we started down the path of strategic planning. Ultimately, we intended our plans to align with the overall strategic direction of our districts.

We expected to be able to find innovative and sustainable solutions to the problems plaguing our 2,000-square-mile service area. In the long run, this process would ensure that all of our employees would be able to effortlessly detect, interpret, and translate needs into new behavioral responses and anticipate the needs of our component districts.

As part of the strategic planning process, our school board decided to hold a series of service meetings spearheaded by partnership teams. These teams were made up of directors and middle managers in the five service areas -- community, internal and external customers, administrative and support services, policies, and leadership.

We quickly discovered that our workforce had become highly departmentalized, and that vision was diffused within services. Information cascading down through the ranks was limited and narrowly focused on the specific needs of departments.

We noticed that, as information filtered down through the ranks, it became increasingly more specialized within each department. For example, staff in the instructional support department defined the strategy according to the needs of department customers. Others in the career and technical department found the customer to be quite different. Both departments widely ignored the overall vision of the entity as a whole. In others words, our workforce was fundamentally divided along the lines of essential functions.

Going through the process, we struggled to figure out many things. Identifying goals and customers' needs was like pulling teeth. Not only my service team, but all teams, shared the same experience. All and all, it was a gruesome process in desperate need of revision. Nevertheless, it yielded some great lessons. For starters, it made us come together as a unified team under a common goal.

Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.