Leaders and managers in four Southwestern states are taking advantage of a new opportunity to better serve their state education agencies by developing their own leadership skills, capacity, and peer networks across state lines.

Teresa Alonzo, Associate Director of Educational Leadership at WestEd, addresses dozens of state education agency (SEA) leaders in a virtual meeting and asks, “What matters most to building trust?”

The participants of the meeting are education system leaders from Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. They represent the first cohort in SEA-LEADS, a state education leadership development network created by the Region 15 Comprehensive Center (R15CC), which serves those four states.

SEA-LEADS participants receive monthly training and peer support. The network was created by the R15CC to support these leaders, who manage large teams inside state education agencies, and who, despite differences in their specific focuses based on the states in which they work, share numerous challenges and responsibilities. For example,

  • All face the demands of legislative sessions and state economic constraints.
  • All need to maneuver within and around national and local policy debates.
  • Given turnovers and new direction, the agencies in which they lead are frequently subject to significant change–adaptation that falls upon them to effectively manage.

Providing Support for a Wide Range of Skills

To succeed, mid-level leaders and managers need diverse and varied skill sets, at times being leaders, other times supervisors, or change agents. All need new capacity to sustain projects in the face of challenges.

“It is no small task to build good teams, lead from an outcomes-based perspective, expertly maneuver teams forward as various internal and external factors come into play, deliver progress and impact around respective state priorities . . . and lead teams through change initiatives,” says Kate Wright, Co-Director of the R15CC and former Chief of Staff and Associate Superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education.

Refining these functional skills matter in all sectors. But to public agencies tasked with educating generations to come, it’s mission critical.

Each month the SEA-LEADS participants sit in front of their computers, turn their cameras on, and join each other in cyberspace, across hundreds of miles. They recently participated in a session on effective coaching entitled “Building Trust to Spark Progress and Cause Breakthroughs.”

“Trust–hard to gain and easily lost,” says Alonzo, who facilitated the session, noting that research shows good coaching can enable organizations to increase productivity by up to 20 percent.

“We don’t need to be experts in everything. It’s about helping [coaches] search inside and discover answers . . . sometimes it’s necessary to push and sometimes necessary to pull,” says Alonzo.

Participants share reactions to readings, reflections, and what they are finding effective in breakout sessions.

On the issue of applying SEA-LEADS learnings to onboarding people within their agency, one participant notes, “Having information from last session helped me better direct conversations with members of my team if they needed coaching, delegating, and so on. . . Before, it was trial by fire. Now, we’re providing training and daily check-ins. It takes time but we are saving a ton of time with the investment. . . [with] a much higher understanding of our programs and assessed compliance than some previous team members . . . which has been very positive.”

Another participant reports: “A lot of these strategies are really reassuring . . . The resources are very useful . . . I manage over 50 people . . . [I’m] a little bit more deliberate now with the learnings that we have, a little bit more cognizant now of strategies I am trying to use. It’s been good overall, self-evaluating along the way. The response has been positive. Some strategies (like) asking them where they’d like to start, making sure they have their prepared agenda and that they start first, or where they’d like to focus.”

“A lot of these strategies are really reassuring . . . The resources are very useful . . . I manage over 50 people . . . [I’m] a little bit more deliberate now with the learnings that we have, a little bit more cognizant now of strategies I am trying to use. It’s been good overall, self-evaluating along the way.”

Supporting State Agency Needs and Goals Through Research-Based Practices

Intentionally designed based on state input and state data, the program reflects agency functional leadership priorities. The program design was informed by surveys and conversations with state education agency leaders, which revealed state agency needs and objectives.

“Top agency leadership has been really engaged,” said Steve Canavero, a member of the R15CC team and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction for Nevada. “It has been instrumental to get active ownership at every level–‘authentic workforce sponsorship,’ if you will, recognition that this is valuable for you and for us.”

Among the top training factors identified by state education agencies were,

  • Mid-level leaders and managers–for example, deputy associate superintendents, directors, and coordinators responsible for leading large teams–come to their roles with varied prior experiences and different degrees of previous leadership training.
  • The SEA calendar and cycle present challenges, such as hiring and onboarding that training sessions should address.
  • Leadership practices that agencies find beneficial to retaining and developing leaders and contributing to high morale and culture need to be codified, especially given frequent staff transitions and the forthcoming retirement wave.
  • Participants need to be able to turnkey effective tools and strategies as they themselves design district and school leader training.

SEA-LEADS, which is continuously improved each month based on participant data, draws from research-based best practices in leadership development, says Professional Learning Designer and Coach Lauryn Fullerton, another session facilitator on the R15CC team. “Each month, participants report back on tools they have put into use with their own agency teams,” says Fullerton. Among those tools was a survey to gauge emotional intelligence.

After-session survey data show that 98 percent of SEA-LEADS participants feel the learning is relevant to their own work, and 96 percent report that the tools are meaningful and actionable. The program has a waitlist of interested leaders.

The Region 15 Comprehensive Center works with state education agencies and their regional and local constituents in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah to improve outcomes for all children and better serve communities through capacity-building technical assistance, content expertise, and other services. For more information, visit the R15CC web page.

The contents of this blog post were developed by the Region 15 Comprehensive Center. The Region 15 Comprehensive Center is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of this blog do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.