Building and Maintaining Relationships: A Guide to “People-First Leadership”

By Bridget Johnson and Meredith Ford

“Bosses who look to model caring behaviors must do their absolute best to know the status and condition of employees under their care….When they are curious enough to find out what’s going on with their people and how they feel about things, their team members feel valued and give discretionary effort.” -BY MARCEL SCHWANTES, I’ve Been a Leadership Coach for 20 Years. Here Are 3 Things I Found Most Bosses Drastically Lack. These habits of the best leaders are hardly practiced by today’s managers.,

In the fast-paced world of school leadership, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily whirlwind of tasks and responsibilities. However, amidst the chaos, it’s crucial to remember the foundation of any successful institution: relationships. Every interaction with your faculty and staff is an opportunity to build trust and create a supportive environment. Yet, the reality is that many school leaders find themselves constantly overwhelmed, struggling to find the time and energy to invest in these crucial connections.


Understanding the Challenge

When was the last time you felt truly heard and understood? School leaders, much like everyone else, crave meaningful connections. However, the traditional supervision ratios in schools often make it challenging to form deep relationships with everyone. It’s crucial to recognize that maintaining relationships takes effort, especially in the hustle and bustle of a school environment. People often overlook the time and energy required to maintain a positive working relationship, until it begins to be strained or broken. Proactively nurturing these connections is critical for establishing a growth culture at school. 

Why it Matters

Investing in relationships isn’t just a feel-good gesture; it’s a strategic move with tangible benefits. Employee retention, for instance, is significantly influenced by the quality of relationships within an organization. Building strong, supportive relationships is a formative process that takes time and effort. It’s not a zero-sum game where you invest time in relationships instead of tasks; it’s about creating a balanced approach that prioritizes both.

Practical Strategies for “People-First Leadership”

While the task may seem daunting, practicing “people-first leadership” can be achieved through small, intentional steps. Here are some practical strategies to help you prioritize relationships in your school leadership role:

  1. Self-Reflection & Awareness: Reflect on your communication style and emotional triggers and consider how your actions and leadership style impacts your team’s psychological safety. Establish professional boundaries and respect the boundaries of your colleagues. Share personal details selectively, drawing clear lines between what is professional and what is personal.
  2. Modeling Vulnerability, Empathy & Compassion: Admit when you don’t have all the answers or when you’ve made a mistake. Show empathy towards your colleagues by acknowledging their emotions and offering assistance when needed. Actively listen without interrupting and validate their experiences. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Make sure your non-verbal cues match your words. 
  3. Open Communication: Foster a culture of open communication by actively seeking and valuing employee feedback. Schedule regular feedback sessions to address concerns and promote transparency. It is critical to foster a non-judgmental workplace where diverse ideas are respected and instances of bias or discrimination are addressed promptly.
  4. Trust Building: Build trust by being consistent, fair, and reliable. Support your colleagues and team members in their work, and respond to their needs in a timely manner. Reinforce the value of psychological safety in all interactions and advocate for its importance. 

How Folio can help:

The Folio Method is our process for helping schools build a culture of collaboration and learning through regular conversations about employees’ growth. Strong relationships are the foundation of a thriving school and are necessary to achieve organizational goals. As Susan Scott says, “the conversation is the relationship.”

In Folio schools, leaders set the tone when they model the importance of supportive, caring conversations. Our method and platform are structured around regular touch points throughout the year, starting with individual reflection and goal setting. School leaders can learn what is important to their employees, what they are excited about, and what they are struggling with and consistently check back in throughout the year. 

A common challenge we often encounter is the perceived scarcity of time for these vital, relationship-building conversations. Here are some ways to intentionally use time for the important work of building culture and connections:

  1. Consider how faculty meetings or professional development days can be occasions to foster learning and reflection among colleagues, as well as provide one-to-one support from supervisors or mentors. Use the custom self-reflection forms or the Mindful Minute feature to help your teachers pause and reflect at the start or end of these meetings in order to capture their learning and thinking. You can also maximize the impact of this collegial time by moving administrative tasks online. 
  2. Provide more frequent, shorter check-ins dispersed throughout the year, rather than condensing everything into a single conversation. This helps preemptively address challenges and allows for real-time appreciation – receiving praise for your work in the moment is far more impactful than months down the line. Schedule 15 minutes on a regular basis to reflect and send Spotlights to highlight performance that you want to see repeated on your team.
  3. Leverage additional support networks within your school community. Identify who sees an individuals’ work firsthand on a regular basis and consider how peer mentoring or other collaborative endeavors centered around goals can serve as supplementary support systems. MyFolio Workspaces and Collaborations can help teachers receive feedback and support from multiple viewpoints in your community while delegating the work in a meaningful way.

By prioritizing relationships, you not only foster a supportive environment but also lay the groundwork for long-term success and growth. Start small, but start today, and watch as your efforts ripple through your school community, creating a more connected and resilient team.


About the author: 

Bridget Johnson is the Founder of The Deans’ Roundtable: a sanctuary for education professionals, providing them with a space to connect, share ideas, and collectively tackle the unique challenges inherent in their roles. The Deans’ Roundtable supports school leaders during pivotal points of growth and transition in schools through communities, webinars, and resources.

Bridget served for five years as the Dean of Students at Milton Academy. During that time she implemented new procedures within the discipline system, help to create a residential curriculum, reorganized the health services program, and helped to implement an emergency response program. In addition to her responsibilities as Dean of Students, she also taught in the affective education program which is a character education/life skills program at Milton.

In 2012, Bridget joined Prep for Prep as the Associate Executive Director. Prep for Prep is an educational, leadership development program that prepares and places New York City’s most able students of color into independent schools and provides them with ongoing support and life-changing opportunities. In 2018, Bridget left Prep for Prep and is now doing consulting work for similar nonprofit organizations and schools, both public and private. She is also getting her Masters degree in Restorative Practices from the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).

She previously worked as the Associate Director of Admissions at Episcopal High School in Northern Virginia. A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Bridget earned her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University.

Read more about author Bridget Johnson’s work at Deans’ Round Table here.