5 Steps to Building Trusted School Leadership by Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.
Trusted school leaders understand that clear communication is essential in making connections with all of the school’s stakeholders (i.e. parents, students, faculty, staff, the board and even the broader community) and in coordinating the many elements involved in successfully leading a school. However, ensuring that clear communication is taking place among all stakeholders requires an understanding of, and a diligent commitment to those components of communication that serve as the foundation for clear communication to take place.
- Vertical & Horizontal Coordination
Within any organization, including schools, there are elements of both horizontal and vertical coordination among stakeholders. In other words, the trusted leader ensures that clear communication is taking place with both those whom they directly work along-side of (i.e. horizontal coordination), as well as with those above and below in the organizational structure of the school (i.e. vertical coordination).
In the corporate world the coordination of horizontal and vertical communication within a given organization looks very different based upon the work and product of the organization. For example, in a manufacturing organization there is minimal use (or perhaps even need) of vertical communication. One study demonstrated that “communication among first-line foremen was found to be mainly horizontal. A critical variable in the direction of communication is apparently the degree of mechanization of the work process [as] mechanization reduces the need for close supervision and vertical communication since the machines instead of the foreman set the work pace of subordinates.” However, the work and product of a school looks very different from a manufacturing organization. The effective use and coordination of communication both horizontally and vertically can make the difference between a healthy and vibrant working and academic environment, and that of an environment filled with distrust, discouragement, and lack of corporate or shared vision and purpose.
- Core Values
Decades of research has shown that providing clear communication is an opportunity to build trust with all stakeholders. That level of trust, however, is founded in clear school communication that flows from the core values of the school. “The quality of your communications depends largely on the core values of your school or district and its leaders… No matter how skilled you may be, you can’t communicate values you don’t hold.” Thus, school communications must be credible in order to be effective and to be trusted. That credibility starts with authenticity. Celebrating successes and providing good stories, draws the community into a supportive role of the school, only if the stories ring true in reflecting an authentic view of the school.
- Quality Deliverables
Trust through school communications is also produced and founded upon the quality of those communications. School leaders who do not invest in quality delivery of their communications do themselves a disservice. They may have the greatest programs, the most talented and gifted teachers, and state-of-the-art facilities, but if they do not invest in high quality and professionally designed communication tools (e.g. emails, web sites, posters, newsletters, videos, PowerPoint presentations, etc.); then there message will be diminished. Whether we like it or not, all of our visual, print and e-communications are competing to be seen. Daily we are all exposed to thousands of print and electronic images and messages through television, radio, computer, and mobile devices. In order to be heard or seen in the midst of this world of information overload, we must invest in quality communications whether it is with our staff or to the entire school community in order to cut through the fog of constant and continual messages.
Communication is one of those disciplines of effective and trusted school leadership that does not receive as much focus as it should; especially as many school budgets are often limited and stream-lined. It is so important to keep in mind, however, that “…communication supports everything that schools do. In the same way that literacy and social and emotional skills underlie all the learning activities that students engage in, so communication underlies the efforts of schools to train and manage staff members, teach students, handle finances, run facilities, and build and maintain public support.” Thus, when developing the overall annual school budget, a significant investment needs to be made in graphic design, web-site and email management, public relations development, and all areas of visual communication (e.g. hallway signs, bulletin boards, student communications, staff notices, parent and community newsletters, web sites, community event posters, all-school emails, and even text messages).
- School Brand
One of the most vital roles of communication to parents and the broader school community is that of intentionally creating a school brand. “Great school district brands — meaning the feelings, emotions, and ideas that come to mind when a patron thinks about the district — are what get everyone (generally speaking) pulling in the same direction.” Investing in and understanding the importance of the school brand is especially significant for the private school, as that branding has an impact upon everything from student enrollment, to attracting quality faculty and staff, to garnering public support in campus development projects. A positive brand makes all the difference in what used to be referred to in the marketing world as “Top of the Mind Awareness.”
Prior to my career in education, I produced a touring theatrical production for a number of years that featured magicians, comedians, mimes, and other variety artists. Community groups, youth organizations, and military bases would host our show in a local high school auditorium, a performing arts center, or a military base theater; promoting the event to the community as a family-friendly night of entertainment. It was a great experience living “on the road” and I certainly enjoyed those years of working in “show business.” However, I learned very quickly that to be successful it required focusing just as much on the quality of the “business” as on the quality of the “show.” Our production required managing and maintaining a stage crew, performers, office support staff, transportation, and over seven tons of equipment. This meant we needed to have consistent tour schedules in order to be cost-effective. It was through this experience that I first learned of the importance of good branding.
Believe it or not, to have a career in “show business” does not require being famous (in the celebrity sense), but rather having “top-of-the-mind-awareness” with those to whom you are marketing your show. In other words, you just need to be a “big fish in a little pond” by focusing upon a small and clearly defined market and designing and delivering your marketing based upon the needs of that target market. Identify what they need, and then develop your brand to meet their needs. Thus, when individuals within those target markets are considering an event, it is your production that comes to the top of their mind. Your brand. Well, just as this was a successful strategy in show business, I’ve discovered the same is true with effective school communication to stakeholders.
“School leaders that struggle to develop and nurture strong relationships with their patrons tend to speak more in school jargon than they do in patron language… Research says that 80 to 90 percent of your patrons are just not as interested in the details as you are, and nothing you can say or do will change that.” So, in creating school communications that the school community will actually care about and read, it is far more important to focus on issues that are important to parents than on issues that are important to the internal operations of the school. There may be many topics which we believe parents should be interested in, but concentrating on issues which they indicate as areas of concern or celebration will go much farther in developing a supportive parent community and developing trust in your leadership and in your school brand.
- Strategic Communication
I could say much more about school communications to the broader community, but this question also is directed at communication related to supervision of the faculty and staff. The quality, intentionality, and delivery of communications to those whom we supervise is of equal importance to that of communications outside the school campus. Arneson shares that, “As a teacher, guidance counselor, and principal, I have seen breakdowns in communication occur less because of what we say but more because of how we say it (and even when and where we say it, as well).”
Entire courses of study are provided on how to participate in difficult conversations. I recently completed a graduate course for personal professional development entitled, Improving Instruction through Strategic Conversations. It really was a course on clear communication with faculty and staff. The course identified at least four types of conversations that need to be intentionally planned and consistently used:
1) Reflective Conversations that are non-judgmental and simply provide an opportunity for faculty and staff to provide input on whatever the issues may be.
2) Facilitative Conversations that are data-centered; considering together with the faculty or staff member what we should conclude from the data we have regarding any given issue.
3) Coaching Conversations where we come along-side the faculty and staff member and help them come to conclusions and discover their own answers to issues. And…
4) Directive Conversations where we as leaders at times need to set very clear and firm expectations and/or consequences.
As I said at the beginning, communication is another means of developing trust, and this is especially true in relationship to the faculty and staff. Perhaps the most valuable truth in this area that I’ve learned within school administration, and that I encourage other school administrators to embrace, is to not shy away from dealing with difficult communication issues.
The real challenge to those who would bring rational, transparent communication to the schoolhouse lies in discussing the “non-discussables;” [sic] in educators having the honesty, clarity, and directness to confront inflammatory issues such as equity of workload, teacher evaluation, the underperforming educator, racism, and compensation. Addressing these endemic, frequently debilitating, corrosive, and crucial school matters is not only a matter of developing skill, timing, and ingenuity. Really good school communicating will never prevail until we educators muster qualities that too often lie dormant within us: decency and, above all, courage.
I would add to the above that we must also seek feedback on school communications from those to whom the communication is directed. Reflecting, evaluating, (and measuring whenever possible) the effectiveness of the communication will always help to improve and enhance future communication. And finally, providing frequent and open opportunities for feedback is another strategy for developing trust in your leadership.
©2016 Toby A. Travis
 R.L. Simpson, “Vertical and horizontal communication in formal organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1959, 188-196.
 Gunther, Vicki; McGowan, James; Donegan, Kate. Strategic Communications for School Leaders (Kindle Locations 136-137). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid. (Kindle Locations 123-125). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 DeSieghardt, Kenneth S.. School Communication that Works: A Patron-focused Approach to Delivering Your Message (Kindle Locations 112-113). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.
 DeSieghardt, Kenneth S.. School Communication that Works: A Patron-focused Approach to Delivering Your Message (Kindle Locations 66-67). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.
 Arneson, Shelly. Communicate & Motivate: The School Leader’s Guide to Effective Communication (Kindle Locations 179-180). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
 Gunther, Vicki; McGowan, James; Donegan, Kate. Strategic Communications for School Leaders (Kindle Locations 53-55). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.