Brian Conley, an Executive Director of Schools in Salt Lake City School District with nearly 30 years of experience, loves innovation, with a caveat: When innovation generates a measurable impact on the learning and achievement of students, it gets Brian’s attention and then he works side-by-side with principals to enable systematic and sustainable implementation.
Over the past three years, Ed Direction has partnered with Brian and his Salt Lake City School District colleagues to improve collaboration, instruction, and leadership through the Assessment to Achievement (A2A) project. At the beginning of the school year, we sat down with Brian to learn more about innovative leadership.
You’ve been in your new position as the Executive Director of Schools for about a month. What are your major responsibilities?
BC: I’m responsible for making actionable work out of our vision. I embrace our vision statement, “Excellence and Equity: Every Student, Every Classroom, Every Day.” But what does that actually look like every day, in a school, in a classroom? My work involves building the capacity of our leaders, and in particular our principals, to bring that vision to fruition.
What do you believe are the most impactful methods to build leadership capacity?
BC: I don’t believe in the natural-born leader. I think there are leadership skills we develop and build. In my work, I need to be able to provide specific and deliberate action steps for each principal, and I practice going through those steps with them. And that takes 1) finding out where they are; 2) working with them, having them practice; and 3) giving them frequent feedback. There’s a lot at play here. You want the principals to feel safe, but they need to feel challenged as well, and that’s how I think leadership skills can be developed.
Salt Lake City School District and Ed Direction have a strong partnership, especially through the Assessment to Achievement (A2A) project. We’ve worked alongside district and school leaders from SLCSD for three years now, and we value the lessons your team has taught us about collective efficacy and engagement. In preparing for this interview, I asked several Ed Direction team members what they have learned from you. Here are two examples of what I heard:
“Brian is masterful at asking prompting questions to guide leaders towards arriving at a solution. He is always solution-oriented and I learn by watching him ask questions.”
– Jessica Vidal, Improvement Coach
“I see the power of enthusiasm. Brian’s enthusiasm, coupled with his engagement, is fantastic. He is endlessly positive, which is infectious with his teams. It reminds me how powerful enthusiasm can be.”
– Carrie Miller, Engagement Manager
BC: That’s humbling to hear. I’ve enjoyed our work together. Ed Direction has some very smart people and the only real smarts I have are surrounding myself with people a lot smarter than me, and they help me grow and learn.
What would you say is one of the most impactful things you’ve learned from Ed Direction, and how has it influenced your work?
BC: One thing I really appreciate about Ed Direction’s A2A facilitation is the focus and practice with a distributed leadership model. At A2A trainings, we have deliberate, authentic work that prepares district-level people to do hard work in schools. Ed Direction facilitators will say, “Here’s what you do as a district leader and we’ll show you how to do it,” then we’ll practice doing it. Ed Direction has been on the progressive, front end of what we are trying to do in education. Many other leadership models started outside of education, like Good to Great by Jim Collins—it has great ideas, but the approaches originated in businesses. You can apply them, but you have to think through, “What is that going to look like in education?” One of the things Ed Direction has done is said, “Yeah, let’s really apply those lessons to education. Let’s dig in and find out what it looks like for students.”