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!

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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.