The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to close the WomenEd Bexley event in July 2019. The theme of the event was Leadership: doing it differently. For my slides, I used a series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons for illustration.
Leadership: doing it differently
I was a playworker for 8 consecutive summers from the age of 16, and found myself leading a team of 15 people over four sites by the time I was 18. My first taste of leadership – until I left to go travelling at 24 and didn’t return until I was 37. During that time away, I was a qualified teacher for over ten years. Following my move back to the UK with my family, I took up a role at The Key for School leaders and went on an incredible journey with the then government-funded pilot to the Fast Track 100 company it became, serving nearly half the schools in the country. I spent 7 happy years on the leadership team as Director of Business Development.
Following that, I have been in various leadership roles including at a small social enterprise and at the national charity, Challenge Partners. After a year working with a number of organisations in the education sector on their journey from start up to grown up, I am now Director of Engagement at the Finnish organisation, Lyfta Education.
In my spare time, I am on the steering group for the BAMEed Network, Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on the Inspire Partnership Trust board. I will set out some of the learning and the developing thoughts I have on leadership and the concept of doing it differently, based on several years of leadership in both paid and unpaid work, and many years of feeling “different and differentiated”.
Doing it differently isn’t a choice
Doing things differently isn’t often a choice we make. Quite often, it is a gradual realisation or a sudden change of circumstances that makes us feel we are different and therefore going to have to do things differently. Our personal narrative is important and can help shift the feeling of difference from a deficit model to something that includes our own values, needs, and moral purpose.
It’s also important that this narrative includes a contextual social, historical and political understanding so you can zoom in and zoom out of your personal experience within the context of the world we live in, and within the context of where you are now on a continuum of where you have come from and where you are going.
Know your narrative in context
It’s really important to engage with and understand the societal and structural factors that impact on our being successful leaders and that includes factors that impact on the people that we lead. WomenEd has been set up to address some of the structural challenges that hold women back. The notion of ‘10% braver’ could be problematic if it assumes that what is missing is women’s bravery and that it is all about us lacking in confidence. But perhaps its saying that despite all we know about how the odds are stacked against women, in a world that is conditioned to see leaders as white, middle class and male, we need to gird our loins and go forth anyway.
Angela Browne’s Chapter 6 in the 10% Braver book sets out how bias and discrimination hold women back. The BAMEed Network is about addressing the issues around race, structural racism and the bias that holds back men and women of colour from progressing within the profession. Being a Black woman for example means an intersectional double-whammy of disadvantage and an exhausting struggle in a predominantly white, male system. If you need to be 10% braver as a woman, how much braver do you need to be as a woman or man from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background? We mustn’t lose sight of this in WomenEd, lest we become a ‘white feminists first movement’
As a woman racialised as white, I know that I have enormous privilege and that I have a responsibility to ensure that I can act as a reliable ally. This means recognising my own privilege and taking the time to listen to my colleagues from BAME backgrounds, to do the work MYSELF to learn about structural racism and to do everything I can to be actively resisting this. I need to understand that I have been socialised into a society which sees women and sees people from non-white backgrounds as inferior. No amount of pure thinking and pretending I don’t see difference is going to change this.
As a leader, your personal narrative is important but you need to know your context beyond your own personal story and you need to know how your own personal story fits into the societal and political context of our times. And you need to contextualise your and other people’s narratives within this. That’s difficult, but vital to do if you want to lead differently.
What would Beyonce do?
Understanding others’ narrative is essential to leadership. We all too often try to lead people, especially if we are doing it differently, knowing they aren’t going to like what we have to say, or worse, being surprised when they raise objections. Too many people try to ram through decisions anyway, or blame those above them, or the system, when delivering messages that others might find difficult to hear.
People who have worked with me will know that I absolutely believe in objection-handling as an essential component to the leadership toolkit. I’ll explain what I mean. You know those people in the leadership team who say “ just playing Devil’s advocate here…” or worse, fixate on a particular issue, making your strategy, idea or suggestion seem unworkable. And how many times did you see that coming and just hope they would be ill or inexplicably mute on the day?
It’s foolish not to do the work ahead of time and do some objection handling. Imagine that person who likes to put a stick in your spokes and think, what would X say at this point. Force yourself to think about the questions you least want to be asked and have answers for them. Address them head on, name them and pick them off one by one in your initial presentation of the proposal. Use research, clear rationale, previous experience to back up your handling of the possible objections that you think will be on people’s minds.
This is not a tool to help you get YOUR way more often, it helps you to see, hear and appreciate the diversity of thought and opinion within your team and to take a small piece of this into your own practice rather than resenting people who have different opinions and world views to you. It makes decision-making faster and easier as you have done the work ahead of time to think up all of the reasons why your plan may be less easily accepted by others. It helps your colleagues trust you and know they are heard, seen and felt. It actively promotes including diversity of thought into your own leadership practice rather than simply making sure you have a top trumps team of diverse people sitting in front of you not actually being included at all.
And as a school leader, don’t forget to extend this to beyond the leadership team. Do you know what your teachers, teaching assistants and catering staff think? Students? Their families? Local businesses and the wider community?
To succeed as a leader, you need to know what your strengths are and you need to see the strengths of those around you as complementary and not threats to your authority.
Good leaders have the confidence and wisdom to surround themselves with people that are far better than them at a myriad of things. They build the right team and draw on others’ expertise without feeling this threatens their ability to lead. Quite the opposite. If you have the right people rowing your boat, you can concentrate on navigating the choppy waters using your skills and expertise properly deployed.
Strengths Finder is an excellent tool to do this. Use it across the organisation and it shows a commitment to find the leading strengths in each person and gives you an opportunity for dialogue around and deployment of these strengths. Things you thought were quirky personality traits might be revealed to you and others as your unique and essential leadership qualities. E.g. I’m a person collector and a people connector. This has been integral to my leadership since Strengths Finder made me realise that this is a hugely valued and massively enjoyable strength I have.
When you are under threat or being made to feel inadequate, revisiting your Strengths Finder profile can be very affirming. It’s something that should be revisited regularly as you will see that you tend to take things for granted and even leave some strengths behind rather than developing them.
Identified Strengths should be developed. We spend too much time trying to get better at things we hate and are crap at in the name of being leaders. Much of what we do with performance management is ridiculously wed to this. This is nonsense. As long as you know where there are gaps and where you have the support, you will be fine. You need basic competencies at a range of things and you shouldn’t be building dependencies that are irreplaceable – I’ll say more about institutional knowledge in this context next.
Knowledge is power and institutional knowledge is powerful
When building your dream team of people cleverer than you at myriad things be careful to not build a wobbly Jenga tower. They say the mark of a good leader is when everything runs smoothly when they are there and when they are not. However, it is easy to rely on capable people too much and you can come unstuck:
- When you take your eye off the ball and lose any link with the detail
- When they leave and take valuable institutional knowledge with them
In organisations I have led in, it has been really important to ensure that knowledge, where possible, is institutional knowledge and that our systems and processes capture essential information. This means that if the worst happens, and someone leaves, they aren’t going to leave you high and dry, unable to function.
This can be as simple as knowing the code to the science cupboard so that when the science teacher is suddenly taken ill, you can get in and support the practicals that students need to do that day. But it also means capturing the “way we do things here” so that they can be used effectively to empower new starters in their induction period, and that they can be co-created, reviewed and embedded into everyone’s practice so that you feel certain that everyone is rowing in the same direction, understand the values and moral compass that steers your ship and keeps a happy crew. Values are much, much more than a poster on the wall.
Working in a role which requires much relationship management, I am not losing ANYTHING if I leave clear and useful records of contacts, interactions and next steps for the organisation. I can also take away with me my professional relationships without taking anything away from the organisation and clear in the knowledge that I am doing both parties a favour by ensuring the good work they do doesn’t collapse because I am leaving. They will both remember me kindly for this.
Be outward facing
Part of the call to action around engaging with the social, political and cultural experiences of yourself and others, can also be answered by being outward facing. Schools are insular places. Many teachers don’t engage with what is going outside their own classroom, let alone collaborate across departments, local schools, nationally or internationally.
Social media platforms like Linked In and Twitter are an excellent way to broaden your personal learning network. They can highlight things you need to read, think about and do differently as leaders. But I challenge you to engage with people who don’t look, sound or express views that are like your own, as well as with the usual mirror-tocracy of connections. It’s important. It could be the start of a way to change your world and change the world in general. Do an audit if your twitter connections, your professional connections, Linked In. Does everyone look like you or could belong to your family?
Every leader, whether you are a classroom teacher leading learning for 5 year olds or a MAT CEO, should have a mentor or coach that puts them through their paces. This should be someone neutral and you should consider paying for them, as you would a therapist or someone who does your eyebrows.
Every leader should be sending the elevator back down and lifting others in their networks. You learn as much through supporting someone else as you do through gaining support from others. Make time for it.
Go to events. Get business cards made and set yourself goals for events you attend. Scour the list of event speakers before you attend and hang about at the end of their talk to give them feedback and exchange contact details. Reach out to attendees ahead of time to arrange to meet for a chat in one of the breaks. Be proactive, people are friendly and want to connect. Twitter celebrities are a figment of everyone’s imagination. Be clear on what you have to give and what you would like to gain from connections. Follow up after you have met with a clear action if you can genuinely think of one.
Know your shelf life
It took me a long time and several jobs to realise this. I have never been the one to leave a lover or a job. I have resilience, developed from childhood, which is actually like Teflon to abuse and neglect. That’s not the type of resilience that does anyone any good. This means it never occurred to me that if things weren’t working out, I should actually get up and go. It felt like failure to me. If I just tried harder, worked smarter, was good and likeable, it would all pan out. And gosh, when things were good, why would you EVER consider leaving?
Well, this is what I have learned and it is incredibly empowering. I now know that my work with any organisation has a shelf life. I know that I can lead well for a specific leg of the journey we need to go on. I work with organisations on their journey from start up to grown up and I now know exactly the point where I can enter to add value, where I need to bring on team members and work with them to build capacity, co-create institutional knowledge, expertise and sustainability, and where I need to get the hell out of the way.
Rather than living in fear of being found out, or worse being driven out, or getting bored, I can have a frank conversation with any organisation I work with about my shelf life, what they would like to get from me and how and when we speak about the journey towards exit. Working with younger people, it is really obvious to them that two to three years is ample time in one role and they will be looking for a change of role or change of scene within that time period. As a leader, you need to know your shelf life and those of the people you lead and prepare for it accordingly. Too many leaders hang on forever, long past anything that is dignified. Too many leaders are offended when people move on to pastures new.
A good leader leaves at the right time with a bounce in their step and leaving empowered team members ready to keep pushing forwards. A happy employee leaves feeling empowered for the next step in their journey and taking a small piece of the great culture, values, systems and processes you established, into their next role. Like a small piece of your leadership DNA ‘infecting’ for good and making a dent on the universe by proxy.
What’s your shelf life?