Enabling a school community to ‘sing!’

Enabling a school community to sing!

The Olympics, London May 2012…and my first interview for a Headship post. The recurring theme over the course of the 2 day interview was the Olympic Torch – the bearer of light, hope and a lasting legacy. 6 years on, now ready to embark on a new role in September 2018 I return to that place, those feelings, that learning and reflect upon my own journey in leadership and its impact on the 2 school communities I have been privileged to serve during that time.

Then, as now, my goal was to change the lives of young people, improve life chances, enable social mobility and true hope in a coastal town. My aim was to facilitate a team of people to flourish, find success in every possible measure and to fulfil their huge potential – to sing!

Over the course of my journey in school leadership, to date, I have been fortunate enough to listen to, read, interact with and learn from and alongside incredible leaders from both educational and non educational spheres. So many, that it would be impossible to name and accredit all but instrumental (to continue the musical theme) to my learning have been: Mrs Lynn Atkinson, CEO (Learning Academy Partnership, LAP), Tracey Cleverly, Director of Education (LAP), John Thomsett (This Much I know…), Mary Myatt (High Challenge, Low Threat, Hopeful Schools), David Breashears (Mountaineer), Jim Kerr (All Blacks – Legacy), Sir David Brailsford (Team Sky), Sir David Carter, Regional Schools Commissioner, Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last, Jo Malone, Autobiography, and Yusuf Malala.

My final professional nourishment opportunity, of this academic year, came on the penultimate day of term with a visit to Tregolls Academy, Truro to meet the Head, Matthew Middlemore (who had also been our Ofsted inspector in February!) What that visit engendered, for me, was an even greater focus on thinking creatively, a renewed energy to continue breaking boundaries and to do whatever it takes to achieve excellence in the development of human beings. Matt talked about battling the odds for his community in so many ways in order to change the lives of the community his school served.

At the outset he showed a video clip https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ja-n5qUNRi8 if you haven’t seen it… it’s 5 minutes of your time that gets the blood pumping, the heart beating faster and the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end.

A song, an anthem of hope, a ‘call to action’ if you like. Just 2 days later I shared it with our Year 6 it felt like the greatest gift I could give them as they flew the primary nest. It summed up what we had, collectively as a team, been striving for when the journey began 2 years previously in my second headship. Being ‘kinda’ isn’t good enough, not living the dream that has chosen you just isn’t an option and if you only drift through life then you will never truly live. If you are going to do something, do it the best that you can.

Perhaps though,  the main reason that visit, on that Friday, hit home so comprehensively was because Matt talked about the importance of trust management coupled with an analytical forensic approach to every single aspect of school life coupled with a sense of humour. School leadership is tough!

I pride myself on a forensic approach to data – understanding the data is like reading musical notes on a page. Overlook even one note or misinterpret and the piece won’t harmonise. If any member of the team doesn’t understand the data or doesn’t acknowledge their own small, yet vital part in the whole, the piece doesn’t work. The leader (conductor) is key in ensuring that every member knows and plays their part at exactly the right moment in exactly the right way – even one note out and the effect on the whole is huge.

When I began in headship my patient mentor spent infinite time ensuring that I understood the data (read the music) – what it said, didn’t say, what it meant and did not mean and most crucially – so what? I then made the classic error of knowing that data but not sharing widely or comprehensively enough with my team that meant that trust was hard as no-one but me knew what the whole piece should sound like. It couldn’t possibly work unless everyone knew their parts and the parts of others.

‘Know thyself’ the most important lesson in leadership. I have learnt to feel very comfortable with exactly who I am as a leader. I was a classic ‘let’s crack on’ leader often leaving bodies in my wake. I held all the cards, all the knowledge and my perfectionist tendencies meant that I always thought I knew best. I obviously don’t!

Yet a conductor can’t possibly conduct unless they truly listen to every part as well as the whole: to tweak, evaluate and refine. So many times I have fallen short of listening and taking time and continue to do so but I am ever conscious of it and have developed strategies to remind myself to listen more than I speak. The conductor knows every part, every voice, every instrument intimately but doesn’t speak.

Leadership is about trust management and developing a team. My second headship was tougher I didn’t inherit: a team, a culture of excellence and high expectations.

I inherited a disparate group of amazing people and a new leadership team who had never met each other before let alone worked together. You cannot develop trust and therefore a culture of challenge in order to achieve excellence quickly – it takes time, quality input and guidance and constant nurturing. I liken this to our school choir – a group of amazing children who didn’t know that they could sing together and bring their unique voices to create something amazing.

Looking back on the last 2 years of our rapid school improvement journey the following 6 elements were, I believe, seminal in achieving: significant improvements in the quality of teaching and learning, year upon year better outcomes for all, closing the disadvantaged gap, phonics results of 97%+, 2 Good Ofsted inspections (February, April 2018) and 2 Outstanding SIAMS inspections (2018), an accredited area of excellence in Early Years, Foundation Stage across our Hub of 3 Schools:

  1. Family – developing a sense of unity, a team. The language I used, daily, to set the weather was one of care and positivity. I referred to us as a family within our school community within the wider family of our Multi Academy Trust. We never veered from this – in every communication with every stakeholder. This would prove to be crucial in terms of developing an identity – a sense of pride.
  2. Symbol – developing a symbol of hope for our school. A tangible sense of belonging proved to be intergral to our communications and our sense of being one, toget
  3. Trust – developing a culture of high expectations, high aspirations, risk taking, creativity only comes about as a result of constant investment by the whole team in building, earning and nurturing trust.
  4. Challenge – can only come after trust has been earned. Whilst we set hugely aspirational outcomes right at the outset (the trickiest, most complex song we could possibly sing on the biggest stage) we were only able to truly drive these once Trust had started to develop.
  5. Song/creativity – I am fortunate enough to work with brilliant individuals who share their expertise generously for the benefit of all – never under-estimate the power of an inspirational environment, quality displays and enabling to shine in areas in which they feel a true passion. In this, I refer to the pupils too – at the heart of our school community is song. Our children are most incredible singers and through their voices our families grew an identify, a pride, a soul. Yes, the singing itself sounded amazing but was more than this it was about the whole singing and as our singing lead, with amazing shoes, always says ‘music makes you feel good’, ‘it’s good for the soul.’ It is also about the collective, an anthem, a pride in your school community and what you stand for.
  6. Team –  not just the team I worked with physically everyday but the wider team across our Trust. The hardwired nature of Trust and th collective way in which we work to support and challenge each other. Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat (last summer’s read) and John Thompsett’s This Much I know…. both epitomise for me what school leadership is for me and what it should be about. My own leadership journey is testament to our MAT, the way in which we work with share accountability for every child. We know our parts in th choir but if something can be tweaked (Team Sky, Marginal Gains) to be even better the collective steps in.
  7. Shoes – the unofficial 7th! As a leader having a ‘thing’ , in my case shoes, has been incredibly important in terms of building relationships. A starter for conversations, an ice breaker, a piece of who you are, an invitation into what matters to you. In my case – quality, statement, shoes! 👠👠

Whilst the song is unfinished and always will be…the torch passes on for the next stage in the journey. To be finished implies perfection – we know that excellence is a journey rather than a finishe state and leadership likewise a journey rather than a destination. Although not finished it is hugely satisfying to stop and listen to the sound of the music a collective body creates. It is ‘truly good for the soul.’


Leadership Reflections

I was asked to contribute to the Talking Heads Blog by Hannah Wilson @TheHopefulHT earlier this month. I plan to share my reflections with our Leap into Leadership cohort 3. A good news story and testament to the power of a collective way of working through system leadership but also acknowledging the immense power of developing, coaching, modelling and working alongside in Leadership development.

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a leader?

I became a leader because I wanted to empower and grow others in order to make a difference to more children. At the heart of this lies a fundamental belief that every child should be taught by a great teacher and that ‘education is the most powerful weapon through which to change the world’ (Nelson Mandela). Having been in stand alone school I wanted to work in system leadership (the reason why I joined a MAT). I have always been interested in impact outside my classroom and beyond my own school and that core belief that good practice should be shouted about and shared more widely than just in one school.

I had the courage to step up and try because I met someone who believed in me, saw a diamond in the rough and invested time and energy in my journey and continues to do so (my now CEO Mrs Lynn Atkinson). Her inspirational leadership of our Trust and her role as my Exec Head, when I began, have strongly influenced my growth and desire to develop others and impact across a system. As my guide on the side, she developed my leadership and this coupled with the guidance of our MAT Director of Education, Tracey Cleverly opened my eyes to growing new leaders and the power of system leadership to develop others.

As my own leadership journey has evolved the bit that I love most is harnessing the power of coaching, supporting and challenging new and existing leaders to become the best that they can be for the good of all children. For every child to be taught by a great teacher is my aim and consistency of provision, my goal.

Why did your role/ school appeal to you?

Working in the MAT that I work in, The Learning Academy Partnership, South West, appealed to me as I knew that I wouldn’t be working in isolation but could draw on the support, challenge and expertise of others in a truly collective way. I became a Head at 34 and an Exec Head at 38 after being an Assistant Head in a previous school for less than 6 months and I know that this rapid and sustained growth has only been possible due to the way in which we work. Stronger together to collectively empower excellence is our mission and everyday I feel that support and challenge through the way in which we work. We all get out of bed in the morning to make a difference for all children across out Trust not just our schools and have full collective accountability for all children in each of our 8 schools. The highest quality bespoke professional development is central to what we do and one of our 6 principles and through a culture of coaching and an emphasis on wellbeing we have secured outstanding outcomes for all of our children.

How do you celebrate the teaching profession?

Personally I celebrate the teaching profession through every conversation, every interaction (whether that be face to face or via social media). I fully believe it is the best job in the world and see my job as a privilege. Every blog I have written is about the amazing opportunities, the enormous privilege to shape the next generation. I live and breathe it and set the weather across our schools in this way. What an awesome and deeply humbling responsibility!

We have worked very hard on the culture of wellbeing across our MAT through: email curfews, limiting emails in preference of face to face conversations, bespoke CPD, encouraging ownership of CPD, investing in career pathways for all staff, quality time given to appraisals (a triangulated approach centred around learning evaluation conversations), engaging in quality interactions, investing in a coaching culture, Professional development days, meetings always running to time and fundamentally a huge investment in time and research into marking! Moving forwards our MAT has also invested in an external company to come in and run wellbeing surveys with all staff so that we can move forwards even further. Fundamentally, it is about how we, as leaders, set the weather in our schools, take time, notice and value and developing a culture where staff do this too through simple means such as staff shout out board means that we notice and value each other.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

Honesty, integrity, moral purpose – a desire to make a difference to all children and all staff so that the sky is the limit and that everyone achieves their full potential regardless of background.

What myths would you like to debunk about being a Headteacher?

That it is an impossible job and one that isn’t enjoyed because it is ‘too stressful.’

It is a role with pressures certainly but one that is an incredible honour and privilege and it concerns me that negativity in the media around the sustainability of being head will put people off wanting my job! I love nurturing new leaders and watching them grow and am looking for the person who wants my job and will do it better, as a result of coaching, support and challenge than I did. I fully embrace growth!

Leadership Advice

To listen. To listen to not only what is truly being said but also what is not being said! Don’t listen to give answers listen to understand. I followed the first 90 days in my last headship role and really took the time to assess the state of the nation from all angles and this really paid dividends most notably in building a team. I took time to foster relationships and invest in people rather than looking for immediate solutions. I have touched upon this in my blog ‘Festina lente’ the art of hurrying slowly but it was time well spent.

Leadership Inspiration

I always have a number of leadership books on the go – some purely for my own journey and some to inform the leadership journey of my Assistant Heads and others to support the Leap into Leadership programme I facilitate for our MAT for aspiring Leads. I also use all of the work by Simon Sinek through TedX to shape the leadership conversations that I have with our aspiring leaders and would highly recommend. I pull upon a wide variety of people both through reading, twitter, TedX and real life! Kenneth Branagh’s speech as Col Tim Collins during the Iraq war (his eve of battle speech) is something I return to time and again as is David Breashears (American Mountaineer). For me is is about recognising why people will feel empowered by you, as a leader, why they put their trust in you and why they will then go the extra mile for our children.


This much I know – has been my bible! John Thomsett

Legacy – Jim Kerr (The All Blacks story)

Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

John Thomsett, particularly has supported my work in building my team and work on wellbeing. Most notably on creating the weather (the culture) in our schools and how we are the buffer between policy and what needs to happen in our schools. The most important role we have in leadership is to grow new leaders and great teachers and much of his work has shaped my thinking about this as well as causing me to reflect on my own wellbeing. I have 2 young children myself (I became a Head when my youngest was 2 years old and my eldest 5) – it is possible to do both and do both well I dont’ think that that comes across strongly enough and I fully believe that I have a responsibility to model to all that you can do both.

Leadership Mantra

‘A leader is a dealer in hope’

Napolean Bonaparte

 ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader’

John Quincy Adams

Leadership is action, not position’ 


Growing the next generation

Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be involved in developing and facilitating an aspiring leaders programme for our Trust alongside other senior leaders in our MAT, most notably our Director of Education. The intention was to create a bespoke programme to cater for early career or aspiring leaders (we also fully engage with NPQML, NPQSL, and Ambition School Leaders). Our aim, through ‘Leap Into Leadership’, was to offer a programme for aspirational leaders who are in the early stages of their leadership path. The purpose being to: inspire, inform and explore leadership journeys from the very beginning. Crucially, and perhaps uniquely, it is not a programme exclusive to teaching staff welcoming applications from members of all teams, including administrative, support staff and teaching staff.

The rationale:

Aspiring and new leaders will have the opportunity to learn about different leadership approaches in different contexts; see leadership in action and have an opportunity to shadow leaders and have experience of working with the Senior Leadership Teams. During the programme, leaders will engage in: professional reading, face-to- face sessions, shadowing and mentoring. This enables our participants to begin to identify the type of leader they want to be; working alongside a mentor will help them shape their career path and the journey they may wish to take.

The programme is an exciting, yet challenging, experience for leaders who wish to take the leap and develop their skills and expertise. The Learning Academy Partnership are committed to developing leadership at all levels and this programme is designed to support the succession planning for the Trust and ensure that we have leaders able to apply for leadership opportunities within the LAP. These opportunities may be at different levels: leading a team, leadership within admin, Subject Leader, Team Leader, Assistant Head … and beyond.

Are you hungry for that next step? Do you have aspirations and would like support with a plan? Do you love learning and reflecting on your own practice? This is the perfect programme for those looking to take that leap!                          

 (Learning Academy Partnership, South West)

This year, as we embark on cohort 3 of this highly successful programme, I have decided to capture our learning journey (both my own and that of our participants) as part of my Executive Leadership blog. This is something which I feel incredibly passionate about as a Senior Leader and my leadership thinking and reflections on my own practice have been stronger as a result of the learning that I have gained from working alongside each of our candidates. It is, above all, an absolute privilege to be part of their journey and some of my proudest moments in leadership have arisen as a direct result.

As school leaders we have a fundamental duty to grow the next generation of school leaders and engender passion, joy, grit, determination, resilience, compassion and strength in those who will take up the baton in what is, I believe, the best profession there is. Our awesome responsibility is to not make this job seem impossible; rather to inspire, motivate and equip with skills and attributes that will ensure that they are better leaders than we are and ultimately make a difference for every single child.

We become leaders the day we decide to help people grow, not numbers’ Simon Sinek

‘Before you are a leader success is all about growing yourself.

When you become a leader success is all about growing others’ Jack Welch.

Cohort 3, within our MAT, consists of 13 participants from a range of roles and experiences across our academies including: teachers, support staff, family support team and administrators. The diversity of the participants is one of the most important aspects of the programme and, over the last 2 years, become one of the key strengths.

The participants are carefully chosen as part of our MAT succession planning in system leadership but also recognises that we are all leaders everyday – leaders of learning. Heads, and Senior Leaders identify participants as part of the appraisal process and candidates are invited to apply early in the Autumn Term. Formal applications and interviews subsequently take place and this enables us to get to know the candidates individually and starts to inform how we plan this bespoke programme – this is what, we believe, makes it unique as no 2 programmes are the same!

‘As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others’

Bill Gates

Our candidates complete a leadership competency framework RAG rating (red, amber, green) where they feel they are currently in their leadership development. One of the fundamental successes of the programme and integral to the growth of our new generation of leaders is the partnership of the programme’s formal delivery (6 face to face sessions facilitated by 2 Senior Leaders) and a mentor assigned to each participant who will meet and invest time in supporting the participants through their school based project using both coaching and mentoring skills.

Our SLT act as gate-keepers; ensuring that mentors have the capacity to support and develop but also that the rest of the teams are not overloaded with a myriad of different school projects (we could have had 45 different projects to date otherwise!);  fundamentally they should all fit with current Academy Development Plans and Priorities.

Key to the programme is the careful crafting of the content from the delivery, the reading materials, visiting speakers and visits to considering different opportunities to learn. A blend of discussion time, exploration, reading and reflection is essential. Our participants are given opportunities to respond to each other, us (as facilitators) and we encourage honest, constructive feedback in order to shape the programme.

A fundamental part of the programme is also how we work to ensure that our participants feel valued – never underestimate the importance of catering (refreshments and a lovely venue), quality time (away from the hustle and bustle of school life), stationery, reading materials and investing in sharing your own journey.

Our participants have, at the end of session 1, received a copy of Legacy, Jim Kerr and Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed and Leadership Matters, Andy Buck will follow in session 3. We have, overtime, reshaped and taken on board feedback and use a blend of educational leaders as well as deliberately spending time exploring leadership outside of the education sector drawing upon Sporting examples, publishing and other sectors. TED talks provide a rich source of inspiration with Rosalind Torres and Drew Dudley already explored. For those who have not viewed Drew Dudley talk about a ‘lollypop’ moment it’s worth 10 minutes of your time and really encouraged our participants to consider leadership as those moment where one human being impacts upon another

https://www.ted.com/talks/drew_dudley_everyday_leadership. We have also looked at certain leadership styles adopted in BBC The Apprentice!

Most importantly, we spend time discussing what Leadership isn’t. When we think of leaders who inspire us they are, more often than not, people who have impacted in a small way on our lives resulting in change; as Drew Dudley shared in his Everyday Leadership those Lolly-pop moments. As our journey moves forwards I hope to share our experiences and our learning and my own reflections on building capacity and succession planning through talent spotting and nurturing the next generation.


Spreading the Love (happiness!)

It’s been a little while since my last foray into the world of blogging and being aware of half term on the horizon I thought it was a good opportunity to take stock and reflect on my journey over the last half term (that and being on a delayed 6 hour train journey to Leeds for my NLE induction – terrifying!).

The title of this blog is inspired by 2 speakers that I was fortunate to hear at the Devon Association of Primary Heads annual conference last week. Andy Cope (artofbrilliance.co.uk) and Shonette Bason-Wood (spreadthehappiness.co.uk). Thank you for a truly brilliant few days!

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Maya Angelou

A quote from favourite author at University highlights why it is so important as Leaders that we focus not just on our actions and words but fundamentally how we make people feel.

At a time in education, and indeed society, when Wellbeing is, as it rightly should be, at the forefront in the minds of all leaders  it was an opportunity to listen, be inspired, laugh until I cried, wave a magic wand, dance to Superman, and value the ‘tribe’ that I am fortunate to have around me at the LAP (Learning Academy Partnership, South West)

What follows is my personal reflection on why ‘flourishing and infectious happiness are crucial in our role as leaders.’

‘Your happiness is your gift to the world’  – a defining moment of realisation for me that not only is being happy imperative to our own wellbeing it is actually imperative for those who work alongside us and our pupils.  We often talk in our organisation about setting the weather and this is something that I have been hugely mindful in my leadership journey and particularly in Executive Leadership. Any interactions with people have the awesome power to fill a bucket, empower, inspire, motivate or the exact opposite! Sometimes those interactions may be very brief, a walk across the carpark, checking in with the team in the mornings, a goodbye in the evening or longer and more structured but all have far-reaching and enormous impact. Looking back over the last term I can honestly say I have cut my emails by more than half and have found face to face conversations to be far more productive, rewarding and warm.

The definition of ‘happiness’ is a hard one to pin down as in many ways it is considered to be an ‘elusive state’ indeed philosophers, theologians, psychologists, even economists, have long sought to define it. In fact, since the 1990s, many psychologists have been trying to pin it down and promote it. More than simply positive mood, happiness is a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life—that is, with a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction. But what does this actually look like, feel like for individuals?

Research shows that happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; in fact quite the opposite is true as achieving happiness  often involves times of considerable discomfort.  As you would expect, the following all contribute towards happiness to a certain extent: Money (but only up to a point), genetic makeup, life circumstances, achievements, marital status, social relationship all influence how happy we are or can be.

Interestingly,  researchers estimate that much of happiness is under personal control. Regularly indulging in small pleasures (such as warm baths! Hygge – as Andy Cope shared – engendering a feeling of contentment/wellbeing), getting absorbed in challenging activities, setting and meeting g, having close friends, and finding purpose beyond oneself are all actions that increase life satisfaction.

This got me thinking about how I achieve a state of ‘happiness’ both professionally and personally. For the purpose of this blog I am going to focus on what this looks like for me professionally although, actually, many of them overlap.

As both Andy and Shonette were delivering their key notes to delegates last week it did make look around and consider who I was with, ‘my work colleagues’ and how working alongside them made me feel and the genuine answer to that is simple: happy!  I derive enormous happiness from being part of team, a collective, from feeling valued and appreciated. Being part of an organisation where it is ok to get something wrong, where High Challenge, Low Threat (to use the lovely Mary Myatt whose book was inspirational in building my new teams in Executive Headship) is the culture and an organisation where we are truly in it together. I thrive on competition and challenge and being the best I can be but I also need to exist in a place where thinking outside of the box is valued, innovation is nurtured. If I feel this as a Leader my team feel this too.

I make a conscious decision to see life as a bucket half full rather than half empty and this stems from my childhood and the early influences of my parents who, looking back, did not put pressure on me unduly, an enormous sense of pride if I achieved but a saying that ‘no matter whether succeed or not the sun will rise tomorrow and that is a brilliant thing.’ As an aside, we have been talking about ‘Excellence’ in our Trust and what that looks like for us as individuals and I am clear that my definition of ‘Excellence’ comes from childhood from having a go, giving your all and being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.  

If we, as leaders, have crucial role in spreading happiness we must feel that deep sense of contentment and wellbeing. The old adage ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ seems useful here to illustrate the point that if we don’t genuinely feel it we can’t fake it! Now don’t get me wrong there are the occasional days where, as Shonette Bason-Wood suggests, we may feel more like ‘Brenda’, the lemon sucker, than a happy, bouncing Tigger (and then we fake, fake, fake it!) but generally in order to sustain the positivity we have to nurture and nourish ourselves as Leaders not only for our own well being but crucially for the teams that we lead and the impact that we have on all of our children.

At our Trust I am clear that a fundamental part of my role is growing the next generation of Leaders – who will want to step up if I spend every day moaning and unhappy? I feel fortunate that I genuinely don’t count the days until half term (well not until right at the very end when tiredness takes over!) and that I love my job and derive an enormous sense of satisfaction, pride and happiness from seeing our pupils succeed, changing life chances and growing new leaders who will be better leaders than I could ever be. This gives me a sense of wellbeing, a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

But alongside this, I am fortunate to work within a hardwired Trust that takes time to nourish me. That understands that we are stronger together than we would be alone and I derive an enormous sense of belonging and shared accountability due, entirely, to the way that we work. The conference was a great opportunity to reaffirm those bonds, to laugh, to run along the sand with my arms outstretched, to return from a beach walk with enormous hair, to remember who we are a human beings and a brilliant opportunity to network with other Leaders but crucially for our teams really understand and embrace the fact that in order for our organisations to flourish and grow we must realise that in order to be the best version of ourselves.

Those who work with me know that I love a quote (and I haven’t indulged for a while!) and these people sum it up much better than me but leaving with these thoughts – I tend to avoid negativity around the teaching profession and feel incredibly sad when I read about people leaving the best profession in world within 5 years that makes me incredibly sad – teachers shape the next generation and within our hands lies the responsibility to change the world, change the future – why not make that future centred around happiness?

IMG_7009.JPG  IMG_7006



Executive Head Leadership – taking time to truly invest in people

In my last blog I shared, candidly, my own journey and battles with mastering the art of ‘hurrying slowly’ and kerbing my natural instinct to ‘crack on.’ Those who work alongside or know me personally will concur that this is not only my default in terms of leadership style but also fundamental in my make up as a person. The most tangible example I can give to illustrate that this is more than just a leadership style was hosting a house warming party this weekend just 4 days after moving in! ‘Might as well just crack on and do it’ those were my exact words to the incredulous family members and friends who thought I had taken leave of my senses.

Paradoxically, this week, across our Trust, The Learning Academy Partnership, South West, we have been privileged to welcome our CEO into each of our Academies to visit our children and spend time working with them and chat to them about their learning. As a Leader, it also gave me the opportunity, whilst  in discussion with her, to reflect on the journey I have been on since taking on Executive Headship and Headship of a large primary school.

One year in, I can already see the impact of investing time in: people, relationships, building a team and uniting them through a common language and goals. I began last September armed with all the usual tools that any new head would take into a new role – The First 90 Days – Michael Watkins, various Leadership tomes by Michael Fullen and Stephen Covey and returned to well thumbed passages from my NPQH modules. Interestingly, when I became a Head in a small school with a small leadership team I could lead in a completely different way – pretty obvious I know but I didn’t, at the time, realise just how much that style of leadership aligned and supported my ‘crack on’ style. We could change things very quickly in a small school and rapid change could be achieved with relative ease.

It is only now that I can look back and reflect on just how different that journey has been in Executive Headship. I knew from ‘The First 90 Days that:

The first days in a new position are critical because small differences in your actions can have a huge impact on long-term results. Leaders at all levels are very vulnerable in their first few months in a new job because they lack in-depth knowledge of the challenges they’ll face and what it will take to succeed with their new company. Failure to create momentum in the first 90 days virtually guarantees an uphill battle for the rest of an executive’s tenure.

Professor Michael Watkins

As I wrote in my first blog, there is that very real danger that if you move too slowly you never create momentum and the outcome of that is acceptance with the status quo. However, on the other side – move too quickly and you end up with ‘bodies’ by the wayside or not getting people truly on board with change and that then means you end up always driving and the dictatorial style of leadership fails to create the conditions for real ownership and sustained improvement over time much less the opportunity to grow new leaders. At the outset I knew that first and foremost it was crucial to take time to build trust – there are no shortcuts to this and time taken in nurturing this at all levels has been invaluable. Building a team and building trust cannot be hurried and, on reflection, I believe that this has supported me in having to embrace ‘hurrying slowly’ there simply is no other way to embed this as part of the culture of an organisation. In a Multi Academy Trust this has meant building trust and investing in relationships at all levels.

It provides permission (I just needed to give this to myself!) to invest, to have conversations rather than send an email, to spend time listening to others rather than to respond and to truly invest in the fostering of deep professional relationships. There is no doubt that the Coaching model embraced by our Trust has supported this and created an environment where I feel ok to make time for my leadership to coach with a fellow Exec Head. Strangely, I feel that through investing time in those coaching conversations (we also coach our Middle Leaders and have invested in the training with them) has actually created deeper relationships more quickly and in a more sustainable way. An interesting challenge to ‘hurrying slowly’ as I genuinely believe that professional respect developed between myself and other Heads and Senior Leads has been deepened more quickly as a result of investing time.

Sergiovanni states that:

“Leaders should be trustworthy, and this worthiness is an important virtue. Without trust leaders lose credibility. This loss poses difficulties to leaders as they seek to call people to respond to their responsibilities. The painful alternative is to be punitive, seeking to control people through manipulation or coercion. But trust is a virtue in other ways too. The building of trust is an organizational quality. –Once embedded in the culture of the school, trust works to liberate people to be their best, to give others their best, and to take risks. (Sergiovanni (2005)”

It is this liberation and desire to give their best that I can see happening in my organisation. Wow!  Bryk and Schneider (2002) go further and state that  ‘relational trust constitutes a moral resource for school improvement’ (p34). Whilst Covey (2006) is unambiguous about the status and role of trust in personal and organizational life: “When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier…In a company high trust materially improves communication, collaboration, execution, innovation … In your personal life, high trust significantly improves your excitement, energy, passion, creativity and joy in your relationships...(p19)”

In harnessing this I, in my own Executive Leadership, journey, have embraced a far more powerful motivator for school improvement than my previous let’s just ‘crack on’ approach. ‘Hurrying slowly’ really does reap dividends and professionally nourish. Take time to invest in conversations, take time to listen and take time to understand yourself as a leader. My journey in Executive Leadership has been very different to that of Headship and the growth has been equally sharp with wobbles along the way but the rewards are immense not just in terms of successful outcomes for all of our children but also a culture within our organisation where trust is high and professional relationships invested in and are therefore strong.

Research states that those in Executive Headship have three main strategic priorities:

  • improvement (e.g. addressing school underperformance)
  • expansion (e.g. increasing management capacity and efficiency)
  • partnerships (e.g. forming and growing a school grouping).

In order to achieve these priorities, the role must focus on: strategic thinking; school-to school consistency and collaboration; coaching and staff development (particularly, building leadership capacity); and an outward focus. Underpinning all of these these those is the building of trust and a focus on spotting and unleashing talent in order to achieve the best for all of our children.

Excellence in leadership is fundamentally about growing the next generation of leaders and this takes time and investment. I am honestly starting to see that ‘hurrying slowly’ has the potential to golden and transformational!

Mastering the art of ‘hurrying slowly’

‘Festina Lente” literally means “Make haste slowly,” and is accredited to the first Emperor Augustus.’ It is thought to have been something of a personal philosophy for the Emperor, who employed it in his political and military dealings, preferring to make his way slowly into each successive province nearby until he had conquered the world.

Like most leaders, especially school leaders, I spent  precious time over the summer break recharging, relaxing and enjoying family time but I also dedicated time, as I do every holiday, to leadership reading. Literature, carefully chosen or recommended, to facilitate an aspect of my leadership development that I feel needs that nourishment. Within the MAT, that I am enormously privileged to be part of, professional nourishment is part of our core offer and leadership reading is widely shared and regularly discussed.

A recurring area of development for my own leadership, cropping up as an appraisal target and the focus of numerous coaching conversations is that of knowing when to kerb the urge to ‘crack on.’ When to hit the accelerate button and when to motor more slowly and embed. I know that I need to get the balance right – both in order to support my own leadership development in a new role but, and most crucially, for the teams that I work with. It was imperative that I dedicated some quality time to examining that aspect of my leadership style that is undoubtedly my dominant and default setting. I began to wonder if it was, indeed possible, to re-programme that setting, if you like, or at the very least be more aware of it and harness it as a tool to be used more sparingly and incisively in school improvement.

New to Executive Headship in 2016, my learning journey has been steep and challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding. I took on Headship of a large primary academy at this time and Executive Headship over this academy and the smaller academy where I had previously been Head. The ‘crack on’ style of leadership, ‘get it done’ has served me well and has undoubtedly resulted in excellent outcomes (in the top 10% of all schools nationally for the last 6 years for both achievement and attainment). This year, a brand new SLT was established and exceptional outcomes were achieved once again in a new academy. That style of leadership, in that sense, has served us well but I felt an increasing need to not just add other tools to my armoury but fully understand that dominant need in my own personality and recognise the triggers and learn when to use and when not to!

It was during a coaching session with a fellow Executive Head within our Trust that I first heard the term that was to become my summer focus: ‘Festina Lente.’ A seed was planted and new reading material was sourced. Paradoxically, I find it incredibly difficult to talk about myself, as a leader, in isolation (our MAT so embraces system leadership and team that I know no other way) and yet a deep-rooted fear within me always worries that if I haven’t remembered something it will get forgotten or may not been done in the way I might wish. Control freak!

‘The world will keep turning even without you. 

Let go of the idea that your way is the only way,

that you are only one who can make it happen.

‘The Things You Can See Only

When you Slow Down’ Haemin Sunim

Well this is obvious isn’t it?  I certainly don’t believe that I am omnipotent and yet I do fall this into this trap. As a leader my absolute focus on growing new leaders who will be better leaders than myself to serve the communities…so why the struggle? Why the innate desire to ‘crack on’ to try and micro-manage, double check all? If I know that this isn’t the way, which I do deep down, why… at some point every year do I fall into that trap?

Over the course of this year my aim is to blog regularly sharing my leadership journey both in terms of Executive Headship (there is so little reading material out there about this role? Why?) and also in terms of my own leadership focus: ‘Festina Lente’ and the development of my team and our wider middle leaders across our Trust.

I am going to keep returning to Haemin Sunim and a book recommended by Stephen Logan – ‘Destination Simple’ Everyday Rituals for a slower life.

I will sign off with this thought; against the backdrop that I am also moving house next week!

‘No matter what we do,

the top button of our business must be fastened properly.

If we think, “I’ll do it this way for now and fix it later,”

it usually does not happen, because later we may not have the motivation to fix it, or we just get used to the way it is.

It is like moving into a house and deciding to fix it up over time.

Even after many years, we never get around to fixing it up.

We end up just living with the way things are for a long time’    (Haemin Sunim)

The irony of the moving house is not lost! ‘Hurry slowly’ but our children only get one chance at education and even one year of inadequate teaching has hugely detrimental effects on children future health and wellbeing.