Last week I blogged Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching, inspired by Carl Hendrick. It led me inevitably to think about five things I wish I had known when I started leading.
These are five things I wish I knew when I started leading.
- You Get Further by Going Slower
Leading at 100 mph comes quite naturally to me. Problems increased the more senior my leadership role was. By the time I had reached headship, after one hour of travelling 100 mph, there was a hundred mile gap between me and the rest of the staff. People take time to assimilate change; the bigger the change the more measured the pace needs to be. The staff I have worked with were neither unwilling to change nor obstructive; too often their resistance was due to my badly explained and implemented change management process. They were simply confused or overwhelmed.
One person travelling at 100 mph means the organisation travels one hundred miles. One hundred people travelling at 10 mph (painfully slow in my humble opinion) means the organisation has traveled one thousand miles. As a leader your challenge is to move the organisation forward not just yourself.
- You Achieve More by Doing Less (It’s a 9 or 10/10 or it’s a No)
Linked to the above is the danger and folly of busyness. With the benefit of visiting a number of schools and the even greater benefit of hindsight, of my own leadership; people are working too hard at too many things. The number of priorities, if that is what they are, are simply too great. Each priority has such limited time spent on it, it simply becomes another job to do and forget before moving on to the next one. Nothing gets embedded, little has any impact.
By having real priorities; a few things which form a collective focus you achieve so much more. The challenge of having real priorities is choosing the right ones to focus on at any particular time, in the development and growth of an organisation.
- Retrospectively the Evidence Will Make You Look Stupid
I remember crying metaphorically on Professor Robert Coe’s shoulder when chatting on a train travelling back from the Festival of Education. My regret was the amount of time I had spent observing and grading lessons over the past decade; he had been instrumental in bursting my, and many others, bubble about the reliability and validity of lesson observations. He was gentle in his response; no-one, neither leaders nor researchers, had been that cognisant of the inherent difficulties in grading lessons until after the practice had become embedded within the system.
Another way of saying this is “our knowledge is partial and incomplete”. This cannot be allowed to paralyse us into inactivity but it does suggest we need to become more circumspect and thoughtful when making decisions. In writing and presenting about this I describe it as moving from informed to wise.
The key is looking to blend data and feedback, with evidence from research and the collective experience of the people around you. If uncertainty is high, the approach is novel and innovative, work on a smaller scale first. Look to evidence impact and be prepared to recognise and learn from no impact as well as promising results. We are all biased, accept and embrace this; recognise and restrict it the best you can when you lead.
- Plans & Strategy Are Overrated; Culture Matters Most
I’ve written some monster plans in my time; the fifty two objective post-Ofsted Inspection Plan following an inspection eight weeks into headship was a cracker. Plans and strategies to often focus on actions to be taken, within given timescales against set success criteria; culture is about people. Creating the right culture is what releases the discretionary effort that is required to make a truly great school. It aligns and galvanises people; getting them all in the right boat rowing it the same direction.
Culture matters most because people matter most; they’ll get the job done and in the right way.
- You’ll Spend Longer Worrying than You do Working
Even when I’ve stopped working I struggle to switch off. Ideas, work that still needs completing and concerns continue to bounce around in my head. People sometimes tell me to stop worrying; my response is “but it’s the first line of my job description”. Going into headship people tend to worry about managing budgets and HR issues; these are not the ones that kept me awake at night. From the potential nightmare consequences, personally and for the organisation, of an adverse Ofsted Report to a pupil’s hair with three colours in it and class rooms with insufficient walls; I’ve worried a lot.
My time spent working, though probably excessive, is dwarfed by the time spent worrying. I wish I had realised this and found a better way to deal with it from the outset. It was yet another gap in my training and formation as a leader.