How talking about talent is transforming our school district

A. Tracie Brown, Senior Area Superintendent, Arlington ISD

It’s never easy when a beloved principal leaves a school. Parents, students, teachers and staff must say goodbye to someone who has inspired them, challenged them, cared deeply for them, and made them feel safe and valued. To a school community, it feels like no one could possibly replace the leader who walked out the door.

But someone must.

As part of the administrative team at the Arlington ISD, it’s our job to fill those critically important roles. Each year, we hire a handful of new principals to lead one of our 77 campuses. Identifying that next leader should not be a scramble that begins when the resignation letter hits our inboxes. It should begin years before.

Through our partnership with The Holdsworth Center, Arlington ISD is building a system for identifying leaders early and growing them intentionally over time so that when an opening arises, we don’t have to look far for a leader who is ready. And I mean truly ready, not thrown on stage and asked to juggle fire.

In my 20-plus years in education, I’ve never experienced a true talent development system like the one we are building now. In the past, spotting up-and-coming leaders has consisted of a hunch or a nudge or even a tap on the shoulder, with no in-depth understanding of a candidate’s real strengths and areas of opportunity.

Today, we are working toward a system that clearly defines what great leadership looks like and gives folks meaningful opportunities to grow the skills needed to take on bigger roles.

It’s a mind shift, but it’s also incredibly exciting. And not just to me. The feedback we’ve received from leaders lets me know that they appreciate the focus on leadership and are hungry for more opportunities to grow personally and professionally.

Where potential gets real

One of the first things we took on after embarking on the Holdsworth journey was to define what great leadership looks like in the Arlington ISD.

After several months of collaboration, we launched our leadership definition throughout the district and created a hashtag (#wherepotentialgetsreal) to help make it stick. In our minds, we were taking what in the past had been fuzzy assumptions and giving them shape and clarity. In other words, making it real.

AISD leadership triangle graphic.

Our hope is that every single person in the organization sees themselves in the leadership definition and is able to identify their own strengths, as well as areas they can work to improve. Even if someone is a leader of self and wants to stay where they are, there is always space to grow. Having people assess themselves in a non-threatening way has been very powerful.

Our campuses have taken this definition and run with it. One principal has begun recognizing teachers for displaying different tenets of the leadership definition, while at another campus teachers are posting their leadership strength on their classroom doors.

Central office leaders are included in this too. When you’re a high flyer in any organization, people hesitate to give you honest feedback. For me, benchmarking my own performance against the leadership definition has allowed me to identify some blind spots where I can grow as well.

Talent masters

One of the most impactful books I read during the Holdsworth program was “Talent Masters” by Bill Conaty and Ram Charan. Charan is a world-renowned business adviser, author and speaker who has worked with many of the top companies (including GE), CEOs and boards of our time. Holdsworth brought him to Texas to work with our group of district leaders and we spent a whole day learning firsthand about many of the concepts in his book.

Image of The Talent Masters book by Bill Conaty and Ram CharanHere’s a great excerpt from a review by Steve Gladis:

“Talent Masters argues persuasively that the main job of a CEO, and key leaders for that matter, is to develop future talent—emerging leaders who will create corporate value and who will take the current executives’ places when the time comes.”

We also visited GE’s Crotonville campus in New York to learn firsthand how they systematically identify and develop talent.

This way of thinking is not the norm for school districts, but it should be. Nothing can replace the human element of relationships in education. If we have great people, our students will succeed. It’s as simple as that.

The awakening for our district leadership team was realizing there is already greatness all around us – it’s our responsibility as ‘talent masters’ to bring it out of people.

Owning our responsibility to grow people

Holdsworth has conditioned us to see feedback as a gift, even when it challenges us. When we learned that internal candidates for leadership roles felt overlooked because we had not done a great job of preparing them to compete for those positions, that hit a nerve.

We began to see that we have a lot of untapped and undeveloped talent in our systems, and if we don’t put processes in place to identify folks with potential to advance to the next level, we are not doing them any justice.

Once we committed ourselves to becoming talent masters, change began in earnest.

Last year, I assembled a committee of 12 principal leaders and principal supervisors to research and discuss what it means to be high-potential, and how we could begin identifying those people and offering them growth opportunities and pathways to leadership. (Interest in this area of work was so strong, we had more than 100 people apply to sit on the committee.)

As a result, we began having regular Talent Talks where we have deep discussions about our people. If that feels uncomfortable, it’s because too often when administrators huddle to talk about a specific person, it’s because there’s a problem.

We should be talking about people because they are exceptional!

Photo of teachers and leaders in discussion at AISD's second annual Leadership Collaborative.

At AISD’s second annual Leadership Collaborative, teachers and leaders discuss a new system that will help all staff know their level of readiness to lead and areas of strengths and improvement.

During Talent Talks, we assess individuals against our leadership definition, find the strengths and gaps, and identify the next step in their career. Are they at risk of leaving? If so, what opportunities are we giving them to grow and be excited about a future with the Arlington ISD?

Because the role of principal is so critical, we began our Talent Talks by focusing on our up-and-coming school leaders. But our grand vision is that Talent Talks will grow to encompass conversations about many others in the system, from bus drivers to central office administrators.

When it’s all rolled out, every employee will have the opportunity to self-identify as a leader in one of many pathways we are creating, including master teacher, instructional coach, department chair, school leadership, central office and more.

Recently, we held our second Leadership Collaborative meeting, and hundreds of our teachers and leaders came eager to hear where we are with this work. We made sure these leaders knew that we were listening: There will be a transparent process and system in place – a leadership development profile – that will help all staff know their level of readiness to lead and areas of strengths and improvement.

Aspiring leaders will have the ability to earn Aspire AISD badges – based on our leadership definition – through participating in pathway-aligned coaching, job-embedded experiences, professional development sessions and campus rotations. Through this leadership development profile, it will be clear when the staff member is in the growing phase, is developing as a leader or is ready to lead.

Over the next year, the district plans to roll out defining roles and badges and develop the process for identifying talent for the school leadership pathway, with the teacher leadership and central office pathways to follow.

The feedback has been positive and optimistic. Many talked about the leadership development profile giving employees a map and clear path for growth, and also how it will strengthen the feeling of community in the district.

Summed up perfectly by one of our leaders, “Arlington ISD is owning our people and our responsibility to develop them.”