Editor’s Note: The following piece, which originally appeared in American City and County, is co-authored by Mark Benigni, superintendent of Meriden (Conn.) Public Schools; alumnus Nathan Quesnel ’01 (ED), ’02 MA, superintendent of East Hartford (Conn.) Public Schools; and Robert Villanova, director of Neag School’s Executive Leadership Program.
If our nation’s cities and towns are going to be asked to do more and more, the pandemic partnerships and the progress we have made offer promise for a brighter future for our communities.
As communities struggle to keep schools, businesses, and resources open, the problems faced by leadership are great. In truth, in these uncertain times, when citizens’ patience and trust in local government teeters on the brink of frustration, there has never been a more challenging moment to serve.
However, despite the steepness of the learning curve, these new and unprecedented challenges have offered an opportunity for progress, a pathway for new operating conditions, and a promise of improved outcomes. While the demands of providing vital services to constituents is great, the lesson of shared, dynamic cross-sector government relationships will transform and improve the shared goals of once siloed organizations.
Tangled together in leading a community’s COVID-19 response, significant progress has been made by crossing of once-sacred lines between town and board (and, in many cases, other outside agencies that serve the community). As we face a second surge of the virus across our country, we watch successful leaders take a new and bold stance of collaboration that should be recognized, recorded, and sustained.
As municipal leaders activated theoretical and underutilized incident command systems, mayors, school superintendents and boards of education, police chiefs, fire chiefs, and health directors suddenly found themselves in a new space that required new and different levels of collaboration. With the health, safety, and educational needs that COVID-19 has presented, a sense of urgency has driven leaders to reject traditional boundaries that have separated agencies to move with speed and efficiency.
Tangled together in leading a community’s COVID-19 response, significant progress has been made by crossing of once-sacred lines between town and board.
At first, fettered by new and unfamiliar virtual platforms that were required by a now socially distanced world, these leaders were pushed to close space by coordinating initiatives and engaging in complex problem solving. In this virtual arena, the letters in front of leaders’ names, gold bars on their sleeves, or numbers of elections won became much less important than a willingness and know-how for cooperation around a shared mission.
As we have worked to serve throughout this pandemic, we have developed a critical path that has served to guide effective, cross sector shared, and collaborative governance relationships. While this work is never complete and yet personality, power and miscommunication still tug at the outcome of this important effort, our commitment to this path has ensured system success.
As we have worked to serve throughout this pandemic, we have developed a critical path that has served to guide effective, cross sector shared, and collaborative governance relationships.
Moving from information sharing to information caring:
Often when cross sector teams meet, power dynamics dictate an information sharing routine resembling a series of direct reports to the senior leader, in this case, often a superintendent, mayor, or town manager. In this culture, individuals often check in and out of longer conversations, engaging and caring only when the information directly ties to their defined responsibilities. Shared governance teams challenge this norm and transition from information sharing to a culture of interconnectedness based on an articulated understanding of how each part plays a vital role to the other’s success in accomplishing shared goals and critically important outcomes across sectors.
Savvy and open-minded senior leaders build this “information caring” culture by forcing division leaders, (in this case superintendents and boards of education, municipal leaders, etc.) to problem solve together or to channel the report into a problem identification and then problem-solving stance that fully engages the diverse talents or the full range of decision-makers. In turn, these cross-sector leaders must come to these collaborative problem-solving sessions with a mindset to contribute and actively engage in this collective opportunity.
Be willing to start small:
The concept of a shared governance model is only built through a clear understanding of the shared purpose and goals and then a series of planful small and successive steps that are communicated and understood by all players. As these cross sector teams work together, they must be willing to identify small, interdependent tasks or projects where team members have the opportunity to spend time, experience challenges, and find success. Leaders must then allow these projects to evolve with an ever-present eye on how the systems change is the sum of the parts working together in well-oiled and rehearsed synchrony toward a common mission or overarching set of goals.
Shared governance problem-solving efforts never move beyond the design board based on the fact that original plans and aspirations outpaced the nuance of relationship, time, and shared experience. Leaders must be willing to start small, keep the shared mission and goals in focus, see how the dots across various interrelated projects connect in order to accomplish something together before jumping to a larger scale.
Check your ego at the door:
A room or virtual meeting of highly competent leaders circling around a complex challenge can easily be likened to a saltwater tank filled with hungry sharks. In this environment, these shark leaders circle the tank, carefully watching each other, signaling strength, dominance, and looking for a path to excel. In the shared governance model that the pandemic has necessitated successful municipalities to adopt, this fearsome tank is abandoned and replaced by leaders who leave their ego, desire to compete, and drive for attention at the door for the benefit of their community.
Collaboration… systems that spend time together, succeed together:
One of the greatest outcomes of operating in the midst of a pandemic is forced opportunity for teams that previously rarely interacted to spend significant amounts of time working together. In short, the time spent together changed the relationship between agencies that had not previously found shared work to address. Where territorial boundaries had separated the health department from the superintendent’s office, this new work created an opportunity to see the comprehensive needs of a community from public health, safety, and education in a way resources could most frequently be applied and managed.
With the hope of a vaccine and a world that leaves COVID-19 restrictions behind, these pandemic partnerships must not be allowed to disappear or fade into the past reality called “normal.” Rather, these partnerships should ensure that leaders from all sectors maintain close and evolved relationships that collectively push a strategic and community focused plan for improvement. If our nation’s cities and towns are going to be asked to do more and more, the pandemic partnerships and the progress we have made offer promise for a brighter future for our communities
Mark Benigni, Ed.D. is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools, co-chair of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, and president-elect for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. Nathan Quesnel, MA, 6th Year, is superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools and he co-chaired the State of Connecticut’s Common Core Task Force. Robert Villanova, Ph.D. serves on the faculty of the Neag School of Education and is the director of the Executive Leadership Program. He also serves as a district leadership consultant for the CT Center for School Change.