Open Door Leadership: How to Build Capacity & Lead Through Collaboration

Learn key takeaways about leadership in adult learning programs, including what it means to be a collaborative, results-driven leader

Learn key takeaways about leadership in adult learning programs, including what it means to be a collaborative, results-driven leader. Take stock in what works for your program and what buy-in practices can help improve program retention and overall results. Key takeaways include leading with a growth mindset, collaborative problem solving practices, and student-centered community building.



Elizabeth Payne Harner is the Director of Adult Learning and Professional Development for SouthWest Intermediate School District in Shakopee, MN. She is an advocate for educational access for adults, equitable best practices, and collaborative leadership. She holds her Ed.S. degree in Education Administration from Nova Southeastern University and holds a K-12 Principal certification from the state of Minnesota. She is also a PELSB-certified presenter in cultural competency in education.


Elizabeth Harner:

Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for joining me and for listening to my presentation on Open Door Leadership. My name’s Elizabeth Harner, I’m the Director of Adult Learning and Professional Development for an Intermediate district, Southwest Metro just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A little bit about me before we begin. I moved to Minnesota about six years ago with my family. I’m a Florida native, born and raised. Yes, I moved to Minneapolis from Florida. A little bit opposite with the weather change, but we love snow and we love skiing. In the middle, you’ll see I’m there with my sister. I’m a huge Bucks fan. You can take the girl out of Florida, but. So my children are Beatrice and August, teenagers. Great times. And I just wanted to mention a movie that I’ve seen recently that I think everybody would enjoy for its positivity and inclusivity is Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which I think you can stream just about anywhere. So again, welcome to my presentation and we’re going to go ahead and get started.

So today what we’re going to be talking about when I say open door leadership is how do we build capacity in our programming, whether it’s adult learning programming, like I have, or your K through 12 programming or even higher education. So before we talk about that, we really have to talk about where we are within education, within our frames of leadership. How are we building relationships to build capacity in our teams and within ourselves? Are we collaborating? Remember, teamwork makes the? Fill in the blank. How are we building a culture of feedback within our teams and systems, not only with our colleagues or those that we supervise, but within ourselves? And are we truly really listening? And finally, how are we building capacity in our partnership with our educational partners, within our community, and within our families and parents?

So we’re first going to start with where are we? In education today, we know we’ve gone through COVID and we know we’ve had a lot of ramifications both through the educational system at large, but within ourselves as leaders, as teachers, and as parents.

I’m going to start with talking a little bit about teachers. From 2022, I’ve done a little bit of research and we see from the statistics, they’re very jarring. 68% of students have said that they are disengaged. Attendance rates are down, students are not at capacity with their learning, they’re not focused and they’re still recovering from the after effects of COVID. Behavior is at an uptick. We have suspensions and expulsions at an all-time high. How are we building capacity to work within the systems to solve some of this problem? And finally, where I talk about open door leadership, 27% of the educators polled said that they were receiving insufficient support from their administrators. So over one in four teachers are saying they are not supported. It’s no wonder we’re seeing teacher retention also at an all time low.

Burnout. We all know where we’re at with burnout. Teachers are leaving in droves and it isn’t just because of the pay rates, it’s because we are at burnout rate. Principals. Principals have a lot on their plates. All educational leaders do. Not only are you trying to work within the systems that you have to, but you’re also trying to build capacity with your teachers and your students so that they’re at their best. It’s very hard as a principal and a leader to always be at your best. Believe me, I know. And finally, working adults. Also at burnout rate, but nowhere near the capacity of the educational leaders and teachers that we have today. So what do we do about it?

First, we really need to frame where we’re at with our leadership. Whether you’re a teacher or an educational leader, a principal, a superintendent, an administrator, where are you at in your frame and where do you want to be?

Using the research of Lambert, we really need to look at the four frames of leadership before we can start to build capacity and work in that open door leadership mindset.

The first, this is the lowest capacity you can be at. Low participation and low skill set. We all know what I’m talking about. When you go to a school or a program, this is always very obvious. This is an autocratic, very leader-led type of educational system. The information only comes from the leader themselves, and staff always attribute the problems to the higher ups and to the students never taking ownership about their own participation and their own buy-in with helping the system to work.

High participation, but low skillfulness. Leader can sometimes be sporadic in this system and unpredictable. They may have good intentions, but they’re not able to follow through or to build systems in place to make sure all staff and students are at their best. Staff often work on individual projects or do their own thing. The achievement for the students are static. They’re not really going anywhere, but I guess that’s okay, right? Flow of information is also sporadic. People may want to participate, but if they don’t know what’s going on and the information is not coming in due time, how can we be successful as a team?

High skillfulness and low participation. Skillful leadership for the few, maybe a few teachers get a chance to participate and they’re considered the haves of the system. The have-nots, the teachers who are not invited to participate, suddenly are polarized and neglected from working within the systems to make the whole school or the whole system a success. Sometimes there are pockets of innovation, but if everybody isn’t buying in and everybody isn’t at their best, how are we going to be successful for ourselves and our students? High participation and high skillfulness. This is really where we want to be within our educational frames. We want high leadership capacity. As a leadership, you want to be able to take things on, but also delegate. And not just drawing on a few leaders or teachers, but everyone within the staff. Find people’s strengths. Really tap into what they can do to help make the system better. Make your information loops clear and consistent. This is so key. How many times have you had a teacher or a group of teachers come to you and ask, “I heard from so-and-so, is this happening?” Don’t allow the rumor mill to dictate your leadership and the way that your system runs. Make sure you’re the first line of defense with giving the information. Roles and responsibilities are shared. Remember, tap into the talents of those around you. Everybody has a talent. You need to find it as a leader.

So before we move on, don’t panic. If you’re in one of these frames and you’ve really given yourself a true, honest assessment and you aren’t so happy about it, that’s okay. Just like Ted Lasso said, “There’s two buttons. I never like to hit, snooze or panic.”

So I’m going to talk a little bit about how to get into the frame of high skillfulness and high participation. What has worked for me in the past and what can work for you? Some of these I’m going to highlight today, the most important, encouraging leadership. The reason I made this the largest bubble is because a leader cannot work alone. You need to encourage others to step up, find their talents. A culture of feedback, make sure that you are open to feedback just as much as you’re willing to give it. People don’t trust a leader who is always giving feedback and never able to receive it. Building relationships. This is a really strong foundation for how your team, your school or your system can continue to build trust and to overcome those obstacles when we know we can lean on one another. Collaboration, you need to be able to collaborate with systems and other leaders, but also collaborate with your staff and make sure they’re able to work together as well. It can’t only be a one person show.

I’m going to start with building relationships. When I first moved into my position, it was really important for me the first thing I did when everybody didn’t know me and I didn’t know anyone else, is how do I build those relationships? It’s not just a matter of saying hi in the hallway or just popping into a classroom once in a while. There’s a lot of steps and a lot of effort that needs to be made to build a relationship.

Some of the things that I’ve done over the years may work for you. One of them is lunching and learning. This is really a chance for me to have a casual time with my staff, my teachers, and learn with them about what’s going on. This is not a time that you are having a meeting that you are the only one talking. This is learning from them. When you are open-minded and listening, it makes a big difference. And of course, it always helps when there’s food involved.

Surveys. I’ve come to learn that surveys are a great way to get open-ended and honest feedback. And when I say surveys, I mean usually anonymous. This gives people a chance to really put their thoughts down, give themselves time to put it into maybe a more feedback-based way than they would if you just ask them a point-blank question. These are really important and it’s also really important to not be offended by some of the feedback you may receive.

Cognitive coaching. I’ll talk a little bit more about this, but I highly recommend if you don’t know what cognitive coaching is, it is a great way for you to continue to build relationships with your teachers individually or even as a team by coaching them through a problem rather than just telling them how to solve it.

And finally, listening sessions. Similar to a lunch and learn, but this is team or individual time where you as a leader are simply listening. The questions should be open-ended and they shouldn’t be specific to one person so they feel that they’re on the spot.

I wanted to share some pictures from an event that we host every year for our adult learning program. Every year when the weather gets better in May, we host a 5K. We bring international foods in and after we walk the 5K with our adult learning students and their families, we spend time together eating great foods together and building that sense of community. As you can see, the cakes and the cookies are very popular.

Collaboration, teamwork makes the? When we collaborate, we have to really get into the mindset of why. What is the purpose of collaborating? And what is the purpose of that teacher and what their system is in place? Every educator has their purpose. It’s up to you as the leader to figure out the why of it all. What are the priorities that that teacher or that program has? And what are the commitments and obstacles that you have to help them overcome? And finally, what are the patterns that the teacher or your program has that you have to put into place to make a habit over time? When you can collaborate with your teachers or your team through purpose, priorities, and patterns, you’ll be successful.

I like to think of the purpose, priorities, and patterns as a tree, you first have to have roots in your purpose as a leader, as a team, and you have to find your purpose from your teachers. Ask them what’s the most important to them as an educator. What is their purpose? Not everybody has the same one. What are the priorities? Do they want their students to make a certain achievement gain? Is their priority to build community in their classroom? Every teacher has a different priority. It’s up to you as a leader to tap into that, to help collaborate with them. And finally, as a leader, what patterns do you want to help form with your teachers and your team so that you continue to be successful? Even if you are not there, that day will still be the same because your patterns have been built.

Within programming, our priorities are really straightforward. Our priority is learning for our students. Many of our adult students come to us from another country and are new to this country. Their priorities are learning English and adapting to a new way of life. It is up to us as a program to make that our priority as well. Our purpose within our classrooms, and as I told you, through our annual 5K, is to build community. How do we do that? We make it a very, very prioritized-based community. We have library days. We have our 5K walk, but we also have excursions. We’ve gone maple sugaring, cross country skiing, canoeing. We do these so that we can build a sense of community within our program.

Patterns of practice. Our patterns are very clear within our program and from our teachers. We make sure we build systems and do them over and over again to make sure students will continue to show up and know that this is a safe space and a consistent place where patterns are put into play.

When you are surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, then anything is possible. I like to remember this and think of this often when I’m thinking that it’s a bad day or it’s not going well, I have to remember that I have a passionate commitment and so do my teachers and team, around our common purpose of community, and we have those patterns in place.

So where do you come in with collaborating? It’s really important that you consult with your teachers throughout the year and your teams. Consultation does not mean trying to solve a problem for a teacher or a team. It’s figuring out what goals do we have, what needs do we have, and how can I help you? It’s really important to have buy-in, and if it seems like you are the only one making the decisions, no one will buy in.

Once we have consulted and found what we need to do as far as our goals and priorities, what actions do we need to take? When I talked about our purpose of community, we had to take action. We had to come up with the things and events and excursions and 5K as a team, and that took a lot of action beyond the classroom.

Finally, we review when we collaborate, was the event successful? Were we able to build community? When we review and are honest with ourselves, we are able to go back to the drawing board and go back to another action to help make it better or sustain it. This is where our patterns come into place.

When we think of this collaborative mindset, it’s important we have these three Ps as part of our interactions with our teachers. I go into every conversation with what is the priority we are talking about today? What is the purpose? And what patterns do we need to put into place? Like I said, you have to have ongoing discussions. If you’re not having those ongoing discussions, how are you able to check in, review and make sure that you are prioritizing and building patterns? Often I like to pop into classrooms for informal visits, not observations, informal visits so that the students and the teachers know that I’m there to help them build their purpose and priorities.

A culture of feedback, take notice of and act on what someone says. Responding to advice or a request, this is really feedback. Responding. The type of feedback that we have as educational leaderships really should be thought of like a pyramid. Some of it should be on the bottom level, at all times, we need to be there. If we’re at the top of the pyramid, that should be the most minimal thing that we’re doing.

So let’s start with evaluative feedback. That’s the top of the pyramid, the most minimal. Every teacher needs to be observed and every leader needs to come and observe them. That’s really part of most programs and systems. This should be the least utilized type of feedback. If you feel that you need to continue to go to a classroom and evaluate and give feedback in that format, then something is a little off.

If you feel that it is off, try to go to the second layer, coaching. Coaching is such a great way of building up your capacity for your teachers, giving them confidence, and not making them feel that they’re being evaluated all the time. This is very important for newer teachers, to help them to utilize their skills, tap into the things that they need to work on, or help them through a situation or circumstance that they might not be able to solve on their own. I’ll talk a little bit about coaching in a minute.

Finally, the biggest part of feedback that I like to employ as a leader is the appreciation. Appreciation feedback is in so many forms. This is where you want to be with your staff and teachers. Daily, could be an email or a note. Weekly, a fun lunch. Or monthly, maybe we have a giveaway. Appreciative feedback can come in many different forms. I highly suggest you read The Love Languages, a great book because this gives you an idea of how people respond to the appreciative feedback that you give. Whether it’s a physical gift or it’s just words of caring, appreciation feedback needs to be the biggest part of the feedback that you are giving as a leader.

So how do we know that feedback is a win for you and the person that you’re giving feedback to or receiving feedback from? Well, first, you need to come in with positive intent. Feedback is just that it is not an evaluation and it is not a critique. It is a way for you to help with somebody’s problem or situation, not to solve it. And likewise, if somebody comes to you with feedback about a situation, as a leader, receive that feedback with positive intent. This is so important. To be open-minded and willing to listen and willing to make changes.

One of the best feedback wins I’ve found over the years is sharing my own personal journey. I first started as an educator around 17 years ago. First, as a fourth grade teacher. Then in special education and reading resource. I had many different journeys of personal and professional situations where I really needed feedback. Oftentimes, people would give me feedback and help me. Sometimes, there would be a situation where a leader thought they were being helpful by simply telling me what I needed to do to solve the problem and move on. Did I really get feedback? Not really. I really was receiving from a leader an answer to a problem they just wanted to get rid of. Feedback is so important, because it gives the person who’s receiving it a chance to also make conclusions on their own and build their own capacity to solve the problem. That way they won’t have to continue to come back to you as a leader, constantly asking for you to solve the problem. Feedback is a two-way street where you feel that you’re working to improve or helping to improve another person and the way that they can constructively solve something. Feedback should not be you solving the problem for them.

Another way to coach for the win and make sure that the person that you are giving feedback to is through coaching. Coaching is just that. Imagine if you will watching a sport and a coach is giving a player advice about how to get through the next play. They themselves are not the ones playing, so they are not able to control that situation. They can merely coach from the sidelines. Think of it that way when you interact with any of your staff or teachers in the way that you are coaching them, you are not the one who is going to solve the problem.

Some of the ways that you can coach effectively include meditative questioning. Meditative questioning is open-ended, and it gives the person you are coaching a chance to come up with a conclusion on their own. Some of the examples of this would be, how might you solve this? How might you find a way around the problem? What are some ways you have thought of solving this? What are some things that you haven’t already tried? These are all very open-ended meditative questions. If you want more information about coaching, I highly suggest cognitive coaching. This is a great resource and has been around for many years in education. I myself have been trained and I highly suggest if you find a training somewhere, please take it. This is a great way for you to learn how to coach effectively as a leader.

The next thing that I do in coaching is use data. In education, we love our data. It really grounds what is happening in a classroom or a program through actual means of understanding the impressions and the ways we are effective or not effective. When I’m talking with a teacher and we are able to use data to see the success rate for our students or the things that are challenges, we’re able to coach through the problem and hone in on what needs to be focused on.

If students are doing well in one area, then we can use the data to focus on the area that needs to be coached. What are the ways we can solve this? What are things we haven’t tried before? What do you need as a resource from me as a leader to help you through this problem? Again, I am not solving it for that person. I’m merely giving them the means and the resources to solve it themselves. I go back to positivity. I do not want to judge my teachers or staff or have them feel judged when I’m coaching. I myself have been coached many times as I’ve said, and I always felt much better feeling like I was coached towards a solution rather than given the answer and slightly judged for not understanding it in the first place.

It is so important to remain positive with no judgments. We’ve all been in situations that we felt unsolved or unsolvable by us, but when we are coached through it with a positive leadership mindset, then we’re able to solve it and also feel like we were empowered.

Self-directing. I can only guide people. I cannot tell them. A lot of times when coaching, you’ll find that a person has a light bulb moment, an aha moment where they realize this is something I haven’t tried or something I think can be successful for me. Self-directing is so important and it’s great to see when the people you are coaching come to that realization that they have been self-directed to a solution for them.

Finally, coming into our last topic, capacity can be built in partnership with many others that are part of your system. And when that all comes together, you’ll only see success within your teams, your teachers, and within your programs.

As I mentioned earlier, we have an annual 5K, which helps to build our purpose of community. How do we get there? Is we build capacity in our partnerships? We are a small community just outside Minneapolis area. However, we have many different partnerships that we have built through the years. As you can see, we take excursions to different places throughout the area, particularly the outdoors. The teacher that you see on the right-hand side has built capacity and partnerships with outdoor parks and recreation, community centers, YMCAs, historical societies, and many, many other community-led organizations. This partnership has allowed our program to expose our students to not only a sense of community, but the new community that they’re joining. And helps them to feel successful and welcome. Partnership is so important, not only because it’s for students, but because it builds the capacity of your teachers and being their own leaders. I am not highly involved in what this teacher does. She’s building this capacity within herself and for the program. It is great to see that come from teachers when they have their own leadership skills, and it’s really important as leaders that we tap into those for our teachers and let them thrive.

How can you build further capacity through your partnerships? Whether you’re a school, an adult learning program, a higher ed program, a K through 12, there are always partnerships to be had. Reach out to community members and make sure that they know that you’re there. Make sure you are also a collaborator, not just asking for donations or services, but somebody who can be there for them. Be present in the community. Help to volunteer at their events and make sure that you are out there and at large. This is a great way not only to build capacity in your program, but to give back. Be accessible. Make sure you as a leader are present as well. It is so important that you put yourself out there and make sure that you have as much buy-in as the people and staff that you are supporting.

I’ve gone through quite a few things in this time. I wanted to make sure I came back and highlighted some of the ways that I think open door leadership has worked for our program. As I’ve talked about, our capacity and partnership and our collaboration with our community organizations really has a lot of parts to it. The relationships that we’ve built over the years from our teachers to our community members, the collaboration we have in helping them with their programs and vice versa. As well, we have a culture of feedback with our partnerships. We want to know how we are helping them and how we can continue to help them and vice versa.

Finally, I want to conclude by talking a little bit about how you can build community within your educational program or system through open door leadership. My number one priority is making sure that our priorities for our teachers are always at the forefront so that our students are successful. Our teachers are at capacity. We have a purpose of community, and we keep those priorities every day.

Simon Sinek said, “Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.” Thank you so much. I truly appreciate having this time, and I hope you’ve learned a few things about open door leadership, about building capacity in yourself and your teachers and students. Through that, you will build community, partnerships, and a successful educational program. Thank you so much.