Brave new worlds: matching exec functions to 21st century priorities

As I plan for 2013, I was inspired to take up a challenge. Most executive positions in schools piggy back on to old paradigm thinking and roles. How many companies retain positions and titles simply because you’ve always had them? They wouldn’t and i

f they wish to remain alive, they don’t. Yet why do schools cling on to roles? We don’t think like businesses. Schools are excellent vehicles for recycling old ideas and not changing. No wonder Seymour Papert recognised back in 1995 that unlike other sectors, megachange was hitting a brick wall in education. And nothing much has changed almost two decades on. Time for a re-think!


If our executive structures cling to an old paradigm, how difficult would it be to shift the roles of thirty five people en masse to support where we wish to journey? We set about this journey in the last six weeks. To remove fear and anxiety, we set the parameter that no salary or status would go backwards. Then we were free to move forward. We made the process as fluid and as inclusive as possible. (e.g. tomorrow afternoon, we’ll re-think the roles of grade learning managers in a new model – join the conversation)

Four questions for design thinking

It is always helpful to use a framework for thinking – and we adopted this:


Where were we now? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? What do we need to do to get there?


Our progress

We haven’t completed the task – but we have made immense headway. Four new pillars of leadership have been created, all with fresh perspectives on the task. There will be a community leadership team – people with a prime role to maintain community confidence and vision. A new logistics & data ‘dream team’ has been created. We are going to view the main people in our community (students and staff) through a new lens of ‘growth’. How do we grow people? And a team working on priority projects has been created to drive new directions (e.g. one embedding PBL more consistently across K-12; another addressing any implications of new 2014 national curriculum; another with a focus on growing our online learning capacity).


A helpful metaphor

The following metaphor has proven very helpful – the boats that follow the current (and drive activity) will no longer be the subject areas or siloed disciplines or stages. They will be the priority projects we are seeking to embed. A team leader will steer the boat. Other exec will nominate as team members into boats, with anchors into different areas of responsibility (e.g. mathematics or early learning). The implication with this metaphor is that an anchor will at times be down and the focus will of necessity be on the ‘sea floor’ of activity, but at other times, with the dispersal of responsibilities, the team members of the new boat (e.g. embedding PBL consistently K-12) will ‘up anchors’ and be able to focus on that priority task. Anchors permanently down run the risk of getting covered in barnacles – something that would eventually likely sink the whole boat: our goal will be to get team members to continually empower their teams to take up micro-responsibilities and grow themselves professionally.


At the same time we are viewing our working spaces differently. After 12 years of sitting in isolation in my own office as Principal, I moved into a shared, glassed-walled space with my deputy – an infinitely more productive and visible way of leading a school. The philosophy – teams need team space for working together and all ‘office’ space is up for re-think now. Teams will have choices as to locations and types of space. The best spaces have entire walls painted with IDEA paint for continual creative thinking.


A fantastic outcome

Already some exec have launched into their new roles, not wishing to wait until 2013, with a sense of fresh freedom to accelerate the change processes across the school. A new perspective has been added to the school-wide key focus on ‘learning’ – opportunities. We recognised that we could better educate students into understanding, recognising and taking up opportunities. A great new lens through which to open up new thinking and possibilities. One new role has been created: ‘student opportunities leadership’ and with multiple people putting their hand up for this position, we have appointed two people into this new team-building function. That in turn has opened up new ways of better utilising the talents of the previously-labelled Grade Learning Managers. Now we will have a leadership team looking to lead fresh teams around the tasks we really want:

  • community relationship developers
  • activity-based growth agents
  • culture shapers
  • ‘good choices’ influencers
  • learning mentors
  • entry (to high school) inductors
  • exit (to further learning) managers



This process is open ended. I suspect with an exec team re-cast around a cabinet approach, we will shift roles and titles to continually match 21st century change priorities as they emerge. It is a much more agile and adaptive framework. And since we are already 12% of the way through the 21st century, isn’t it high time we matched structures to priorities?


Talk more? Love to hear from you via twitter: @stephen_h


    • william said:

      thisnis a so good article.

      April 3, 2015
  1. jen said:

    If a boat hits an iceberg and is torn in two how will they SOS? Communication between each vessel is essential if the crew is to survive the rough weather. Love the concept and it is a helpful metaphor!

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