Leadership: Making Space for the “T” in Team | Simon Holzapfel | 4 Min Read

March 1, 2024

Getting the T into Team: why our old habits often don’t help


While many schools’ leaders talk about the value of collaboration and taking risks in the classroom, making those same things happen in the admin team meeting is rarer, and often for good reason. Most school leaders were successful during their time in school, which means they were good at following the academic rules and norms, and thereby earning the rewards the system was designed to produce. 

The problem for the admin team of today is that the ground has shifted.  Many of the norms have been slow to evolve towards real collaboration and cross-functional strengths at the administrative level; the cry for bringing collaboration and risk taking to Administrative Teams is soft or nonexistent in most places. Why is this?

Current Condition

There are some valid reasons, like overwhelming and overstuffed work expectations. But as often as not, the reasons that admin team behaviors don’t match classroom aspirations are simple and human. According to Chip and Dan Heath in their wonderful book, Upstream, there are four primary anchors slowing the evolution of school leadership to better fit the needs of today: inertia, decision paralysis, ego/politics and firefighting. Having personally contributed to each of these to some degree during my time as a senior administrator, please don’t read these as a general indictment of administrators. Few of our mentors were steeped in collaboration and professional cross-training, so the range of models we had was fairly narrow. 

As a rising leader in the 2000s I pursued specialization as the success path. My peers thought a team of specialists would solve our organizational challenges. We were “I” shaped people pursuing an “I” shaped professional path. However, the result of minimally collaborative specialization in schools and other organizations is a buildup of organizational pressure, of isolation and narrowing of focus: exactly the opposite of what folks in schools want for themselves and others. How can this situation be improved? 

The past 15 years of development in team science has shown that, in a complex operating environment, teams of T-shaped people will do much better over the long run, both in terms of organizational outcomes and in personal satisfaction and stress levels.

This might look like cross training so that more than one person can use a scheduling platform, or asking two administrators to pair on a project, for example revamping how the financial aid workflow happens. Anything to get two people stretching outside of their silo of expertise with psychological safety. 


For the school leader who is open to more collaboration and growth there are many options. Before taking action, consider taking a step back. What are you willing to allow to be different to get there? Are you willing to allow people to change in your team, which will influence the status quo? If the answer is yes, great. If you find yourself with reservations, write them down and maybe show them to a peer outside your institution. Consider what you might hear if you tell your team that you want to adjust the norms towards being more “T” shaped people who can work and add value across more than one silo or function of your organization. If you think the school needs to evolve its norms and you are ready for introducing a shift, there are many options to create growth.


The countermeasures for rigid specialization and a lack of collaborative spirit are not expensive or lengthy. The first thing any leader can do is to just introduce the idea of “T” shaped people to the team and see if there is interest. Team coaching is easy to arrange in current meeting time. Professional development is also readily available from many organizations

At a more tactical level, leaders can follow the advice of the Heath Brothers and try some of the practices they recommend to stretch through stasis: design sprints, breakthrough kaizen, or one of the Agile methods

Action Plan

For the leader who intends to take action there are a few guidelines to keep in mind: start small, start deliberate, start safe, but please start. Encourage “T” time when team members show signs of learning something new and widening their base of knowledge. 

There are two primary benefits of developing T-shaped people and cultivating a collaborative environment: happier people who are better at helping each other out and an increase in coherence across the school’s constituent groups. When leaders practice what the classroom aspires to produce, people notice. That creates energy and alignment. Few schools have too much of either of those key ingredients. A little courage will go a long way!

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Simon Holzapfel for Intrepid Ed News.

Simon Holzapfel

Simon Holzapfel is an award-winning educator, thought leader, innovator, and writer. He is a co-founder and CEO of the L-eaf Lab, as well as a former Head of School, former Director of Studies, and current Board Chair of The Montessori School of the Berkshires. Simon was in the initial cohort of leaders trained at NAIS’ Innovation Strategy Lab and spent time on the Executive Board of Boston University’s Agile Innovation Lab. Simon is a certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified ImprovementKATA (LIK) & WorkFLOW (LWF) and a member of the Berkshire Innovation Center. Applying four years of experience on the New York State Association of Independent Schools [NYSAIS] Commission on Accreditation, Simon has spent years helping organizations and their teams improve their outcomes by applying lean system thinking and the agile mindset. He lives in Williamstown, MA, and spends as much time as he responsibly can each day on his skis or mountain bike.

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