Effective leadership, effective teams

Leading a support staff team

All schools are about the teams and how they interact – teachers and children, children and children, children and parents, support staff and teaching colleagues etc. Truly successful schools have well-motivated and engaged professional people who form effective and successful teams. This sounds like a relatively straightforward leadership challenge, but just how can support staff team leaders achieve this? In this article, Steve Burnage outlines some successful strategies to enable support staff team leaders to lead and develop successful and highly motivated teams.

1.     Motivation – a key driver for success


No support staff team leader should undervalue the importance of motivation in the leadership of their team. All team members need to feel motivated, valued and supported. We can develop this by ensuring our team members feel safe and secure in our leadership and in the systems and structures through which we lead and empower them. In addition, members of any support staff team need to be made to feel important, to know what they need to do and by when and to know that what they do, however straightforward, is valued.

2.       Give colleagues ownership of their actions

For some support staff team leaders, this can be quite a frightening idea. However, for colleagues to feel fulfilled and motivated to improve, they need to feel ownership of their actions since this gives them control, which enables them to feel safe in their decisions; and accountability, which gives them the opportunity to learn, grow and develop as professionals.

3.     Treat colleagues like children (yes, really!).


In every school across the UK we can observe successful teachers that have clear and well established strategies for supporting their students. These are usually based around three key areas:

                      I.        The use of praise as opposed to blame

                     II.        Personalised support that meets individual needs.

                   III.        Clear, positively worded targets that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic; and Time referenced).

In leading support teams, you should aim to accomplish these three things through leadership that:

·         empowers colleagues

·         engages them with change

·         operates in a no blame culture

·         is appropriate to each and every individual colleague.

4.     Know yourself as a leader


There are numerous theories about leadership styles, however, whichever theory you ascribe to, it can be argued that all of them boil down to four clearly defined styles of leadership:

·         The Dictator – Tells others what to do and does not seek their opinions

·         The Mentor – Shares a breadth of professional and personal experience so that others might learn and gain independence.

·         The Coach – Assumes that colleagues know what to do, uses questioning to check understanding and then monitors progress to ensure task completion.

·         The Delegator – Knows colleagues possess skills and understanding and that they can be trusted to complete tasks without leadership interference.

5.     Know your team members and lead them as individuals


Your team members will benefit from being led in different ways dependent upon two key factors – their capability (how well they can do the job) and their commitment (how likely they are to complete a task set. Let’s meet four fictitious members of a team:


Sally is an experienced member of the team who possess a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience. She completes any task asked of her to the best of her ability and on time. Sally is HIGHLY CAPABLE and has HIGH COMMITMENT.


Will is also an experienced member of the team. Whilst he has a wide range of skills, knowledge and experience, he is a bit disengaged and can’t always be counted on to meet deadlines or produce high quality work. Will is HIGHLY CAPABLE but has LOW COMMITMENT.


Abbi is a new member of the team. She is eager to do a good job and, with careful guidance, completes all tasks to the best of her ability. She doesn’t have a breadth of skills, knowledge or experience yet but she is eager to please. Abbi has LOW CAPABILTY but HIGH COMMITMENT


Tom is on placement with the team and, unfortunately, things are not going well. He has very limited experience and doesn’t appear to care. Tom has LOW CAPABILITY and LOW COMMITMENT.


Each of our four team members needs to be led in a way that will enable them to flourish since, if they are led in the wrong way, at best, we will stifle their ability to succeed and, at worst, we will set them up to fail.




Leadership style






Sally benefits from the trust that delegation provides and will flourish when given independence and responsibility.





Wil benefits from a leader who trusts his abilities but keeps a careful eye to ensure that work is completed well and on time.





Abbi benefits from a mentor – learning alongside a leader so that she can begin to tackle tasks with growing confidence and independence.





Tom benefits from strong leadership that sets out what needs to be done, how it should be done and by when; and then monitors every step of Sean’s progress to ensure it is completed well and on time.


6.     Lead them towards a team ethos


Generally, the idea that whatever works with children will work with your support staff team is a good one to lead colleagues towards effective team building. If you compare those needs that make children learn well in classrooms and those needs that make our colleagues effective team players, you can see clear comparisons:

Our learners need …

Our colleagues need …

Clear and focused teaching that meets their learning needs.

Clear and focused leadership that supports their professional development

A safe environment in which mistakes are encouraged and ‘wrong answers’ valued.

A safe environment in which mistakes are supported and learned from in a ‘no blame’ culture.

A consistent approach from the teacher.

A consistent approach from their team leader

Involvement in their learning with growing independence of learning as children grow in confidence and skill.

Our colleagues need leadership decisions distributed to them so that they are involved in the change process and decisions that are made.

Children need independence – the chance to make their own decisions and be held accountable for the outcomes.

Our colleagues need independence – the chance to make their own decisions and be held accountable for the outcomes.

Clear targets with SMART success criteria.

Positive performance management processes that are a central part of the personal development of colleagues, positive in their focus and driven by SMART targets.

Rewards when things go well.

Rewards when things go well.

Help and support when things don’t go so well or need improvement.

Help and support when things don’t go so well or need improvement.


7.     A good support staff leader is like a good teacher


Good teachers will create a learning ethos in their classrooms that is learner driven. They see learning positively and value mistakes as part of that positive learning process. Learners are valued for the contribution they bring to their learning teams and are encouraged to shift the locus of control from a teacher led learning model to one of growing independence in which effective learners have full ownership of their own learning.

In motivating and empowering your team, Support staff team leaders need to do much the same things that good teachers do. Colleagues are valued for the positive contribution they make to whole school improvement and development, are valued for mistakes that are made as part of the learning process; and valued for the contribution that each and every colleague makes to our successful schools.

In doing this, we shift the focus from a leadership model that focuses on us as leaders towards a model were:

·         colleagues have fuller control over key leadership decisions

·         they work together effectively in productive teams

·         are highly motivated towards achieving the shared goals of the school.

Leading a support team in any school is a challenge just as leading any other team in school is. However, by applying some of the ideas outlined here, you will be able to focus your team on what motivates them, give them ownership of their own decisions and make them accountable for these, develop your own leadership skills, lead each member of your team in an appropriate and supportive way; and work with each member to build a true sense of team work. Putting o=all of this together will enable you, as a support staff team leader, to continue to work with a well-motivated, engaged and enthusiastic team that see personal growth, ongoing learning; and shared leadership at the heart of a successful support staff team.

About the author

Steve has a breadth of experience of leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, support staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email simplyinset@gmx.com