Even in times of stability, being a good leader is challenging. You’re never perfect. You never stop making mistakes. You’re always a work in progress, always learning how to get better. In times of disruption, both the challenge and the opportunity of leadership become greater.
To be successful, leaders must continually build skill and capacity in three major areas – developing personal leadership, growing and empowering others and creating change.
These form the core of Holdsworth’s curriculum for public school leaders over a 2-year leadership program taught by some of the nation’s top thought leaders, authors and experts in the K-12 education, academia, government and business sectors. Though we focus on public school leaders, these three areas of leadership mastery should resonate in any field or industry.
Developing personal leadership
We believe leaders are developed from the inside out. A leader can’t inspire change in others if they don’t model the changes they seek.
Our leadership programs focus on helping leaders connect to their “why” and expand their capacity for empathy, courage, flexibility and continuous growth.
As a result of those programs, 96% of the leaders we serve believe they have developed new beneficial mindsets and behaviors.
Breaking down those behaviors, leaders say they have grown in their ability to:
- Apply strategies to manage their mental, emotional, and physical resources
- Identify high priority growth areas and actively improve
- Proactively seek feedback to improve their leadership
Angel Rivera, assistant superintendent for innovation and leadership at Mesquite ISD , said he learned how to manage his stress through meditation, a strategy that was new to him: “I would not have done this on my own,” Rivera said.
Principals make positive change
At the campus level, more than 80% of principals made noteworthy positive change – not according to them, but to their campus team.
In Arlington ISD, Principal Shahveer Dhalla understands the importance of building a positive work environment and making staff feel valued. Holdsworth helped him get much better at it. In a survey, Shahveer’s entire team agreed that he had made positive changes.
Two team members remarked on his sharpened ability to listen and be present during conversations, and to let others try out ideas. When the pandemic hit, Shahveer’s personal leadership work paid off. Staff praised the way he listened and lifted them up during a challenging time.
“His style of listening has REALLY changed – he is more attentive, more active, and more “yes AND” than “yes BUT.” Holdsworth not only gave him the tools for that but helped him understand WHY those tools are important,” said Kristin Crocker, a teacher at Arlington High.
From 2017 to 2020, teachers at Arlington High School were 30% more likely to say that their principal listened and responded to their ideas and concerns and 25% more likely to say there is open, honest two-way communication at their school.
Growing & Empowering Others
The power of truly great leaders comes through their ability to cultivate and draw out greatness in others. Success is almost never achieved alone. The ability to coach up-and-coming leaders and build high-performing teams is essential to create lasting change.
Principals who participated in the Campus Leadership Program say they have grown in their ability to:
- Develop and steward trust between team members
- Create conditions in which others are empowered to lead, take risks, and grow
- Promote psychological safety and manage conflict
- Deliver clear, actionable feedback and coach others to reach their potential
“I can create all the plans but if I do not have the support of my team, nothing will get done. Through Holdsworth I have learned to listen, ask questions and validate what others bring to the table,” said Anitra Crisp, a principal at McNair Middle School in Southwest ISD.
Empowering others in service of a shared vision
After completing the two-year Campus Leadership Program, Marisa Santoy, principal at Marcia R. Garza Elementary in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, noticed a big change in herself.
“I learned to empower my staff and trust them,” Marisa said. “Not that I didn’t trust them before, but I made time to really get to know them and saw their strengths in a new light.”
She attributes her growth to Holdsworth learning, specifically a store visit to H-E-B’s Central Market and a motivating lecture from Sydney Finkelstein, author of the book “Superbosses” and a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Both experiences taught how an organization’s values of trust and empowerment aren’t just words in an employee handbook – they come to life through the day-to-day interactions of its people.
She started providing more opportunities for her staff to take on leadership roles while recognizing their efforts when they met new challenges. “Most importantly, I let my staff know me, my vision, my ‘why.’ I believe this opened the door for them to feel comfortable, to innovate and try new projects without fear of failing,” Marisa said.
Building trust paves the way to tackle student learning
When Denise Sharp became the principal at Forest Creek Elementary in Round Rock ISD, she walked onto a campus where there was little trust. A campus climate survey confirmed her fears – only 56% of staff felt they could trust their coworkers and administrators.
As the team began to tackle Forest Creek’s issue of trust with guidance from Holdsworth, things began to shift. Seeking input from others on campus and working hard to communicate the “why” behind each action made a huge difference.
“We are now a campus with a practice of shared leadership,” Denise said. “This practice has made our instruction and systems much stronger, and we have more buy in with true commitment instead of compliance from staff.”
The next year, to the team’s “surprise and complete jubilation,” 90 percent of staff reported increased trust among coworkers, exceeding the two-year goal in just the first year. This improved climate paved the way for staff to collaborate on a different problem on campus – student underperformance in writing. “We have gotten to a place where we are able to have true, honest conversations about student learning in ways we never could or did before. We no longer use trust as a crutch. We collaborate and are transparent about important work,” said Denise.
Creating change across school districts that is both broad and deep takes focus and a commitment to listening to others, including them in the work and creating a vision for change that is truly shared by those who will feel the impact of those changes.
Leaders say they have grown in their ability to:
- Develop a robust plan for change and strategies for motivating others
- Clearly define what they are trying to achieve and why it is important
- Create mechanisms and processes to continuously monitor and adjust their strategies
“Holdsworth has helped us make systematic change, but not the usual way where you throw everything at it and only portions stick. This work is thought-provoking, and the guidance allows us to actually move the needle,” said Kimberly Brents, deputy superintendent at Lockhart ISD.
Creating change at the district level
At the district level, the end game for leaders is to use their changemaking skills to create new systems, structures and processes that will ensure the district has a strong bench of ready leaders in place when positions open up.
For this to take root, districts must consistently identify talent and invest in their development long-term. They must foster an engaged culture where educators and students feel cared for, challenged, and supported to do their best work.
Since our first set of seven districts began the Partnership in 2017:
Five out of seven reported an improvement in their school leader pipeline as measured by their ability to fill principal and assistant principal vacancies internally:
- In Arlington ISD, 100% of principal positions were hired internally in the 2020-21 school year.
- In Round Rock ISD, 85% of principal positions were hired internally in the 2020-21 school year.
Five out of seven have seen significant gains in staff engagement districtwide:
- In Arlington ISD, teachers are 40% more likely to say that there is open, honest two-way communication.
- In Southwest ISD, principals are 30% more likely to say people trust each other.
- In Lockhart ISD, the turnover rate fell from 23% to 12%.
“Because we had systems and structures in place, our district was able to fill 50 administrative positions over the summer quickly, and with quality candidates,” said Dr. Thomas Randle, superintendent at Lamar CISD.
Creating change at the campus level
At the campus level, leadership teams – comprised of principals plus a team of administrators and teacher leaders – practice creating change by tackling a significant challenge tied to school culture and student outcomes. They learn to work through complex problems methodically, without rushing to solutions.
When analyzing student data at Hale Elementary in Arlington ISD, Principal Natasha Harris zeroed in on an issue that seriously needed attention – only 39% of 4th graders were passing the writing section of the state test. She convened the faculty for a root cause analysis – a protocol learned through Holdsworth – to explore why this might be happening. By the end, they were all in tears because “it was like holding up a mirror and looking at the reflection of what we had produced,” Natasha said.
Working together, the faculty proposed and then used a host of strategies to focus on writing skills throughout grade levels, raising the passing rate from 39 to 60% in just one year.
“We all need this type of lens when it comes to solving problems. Let’s not just look at the symptoms and put a band-aid on it, let’s look at the root cause and find the disease,” Natasha said.
Now, Natasha and her team are using the problem-solving strategies they learned through Holdsworth to address other areas where student outcomes need improvement. “When you really involve teams, when they feel valued in their work and feel that they are taking part in the journey of transformation, they are more invested in it,” she said. “At the end of the day, the teachers are the ones in the trenches doing the work to make the transformation happen. As the leader, my job is to support and guide.”
Read more in our 2020 Impact Report.
- End-of-year surveys: At the end of each academic year, Holdsworth surveys all leaders enrolled in programs during the previous year. Leaders reflect on several facets of their experience, including the quality and usefulness of the programming and their own personal progress.
- District Talent Assessment Survey: Data comes from Fall 2017, Spring 2018 and Spring 2020 surveys administered by Holdsworth. Numbers reflect a transformed valued of a Likert scale so that higher numbers indicate stronger levels of agreement and lower numbers indicate stronger levels of disagreement. This survey is administered to all teachers, assistant principals, principals and central office leaders in partner districts.
- Climate survey data provided by Forest Creek Elementary
- TEA data provided by Hale Elementary