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The Expert Leader’s Top Priority: More Thunder Less Lightning

I ended #rEDBlackpool by challenging attendees to now go and “create the thunder needed to make evidence informed practice the norm in schools”; this after the lightning flash of a great event.  The idea of thunder and lightning was taken from The Salesperson’s Secret Code by Mills, Ridley, Laker and Chapman; it’s all about communication.  So much of great leadership is.

The challenge of communication was emphasised in a story I read somewhere.  I seem to remember it was an army officer asking his subordinates about how much they had communicated with the people they were responsible for that week.  No matter what they said his response was always the same, “It’s not enough”.  The amount of communication is one thing; the type and quality is also of paramount importance.

Acknowledgement: The Salesperson’s Secret Code by Mills, Ridley Laker and Chapman

The Salesperson’s Secret Code identified five “destination beliefs” that sales people shared but the low and high performers had different perspectives; each destination belief was split into two sub-beliefs or journey motivators.  For communication the authors labelled these “thunder” and “lightning”.  Both were utilised by the sales people but the balance was very different.  The communication belief showed the greatest difference between what high performers and low performers of any of the five destination beliefs.  What we believed affects how we behave.  Maybe communication is the key to expert leadership; it’s one of the key ways to influence others or not as the case may be.  Exchanging ideas, information and perspectives is a start; building and sustaining long term relationships is the ultimate goal.

Mills, Ridley Laker and Chapman used an additional analogy to their thunder and lightning one; that of electricity.  Whilst good communication requires both direct current (dc = lightning) and alternating current (ac = thunder); there needs to be a far greater emphasis on the later.  In the book the percentage are in a 4:1 ratio; take these as approximates but it gives you an idea about the overall emphasises required.  It’s about dialogue with people as opposed to presenting to people.  I fear my skill set is the wrong way around.  It’s starting to become a catchphrase within the Trust already, “How are you going to create the thunder?”  The steady rumble of dialogue and discourse backwards and forwards between people is the key.

Acknowledgement: The Salesperson’s Secret Code by Mills, Ridley Laker and Chapman

Some Places Where More Thunder is Needed

An obvious place to start is the implementation of any new idea.  I think as a profession we are pretty poor at implementation; too many initiatives and too little time given to each one is a toxic mix.  We tend to have lots of lightning but very little thunder.

As we seek to do some profound work around Key Stage 3 Literacy – the focus is reading – how can we create more thunder?  This week there’s a small group of us looking to plan how a teacher might approach the reading of a text in a Science lesson, then we’re going to watch the teacher deliver our plan (thanks Jenny) and finally we’re going to come back together and discuss how the approach went.  We may need to go around the cycle one more time but then I’m going to ask each teacher to get their own little of group of staff together and do the same.  We go from six to possibly 20+ teachers; repeat it again and we’re at 80+ in a few months; that steady rumble over time.

Next we need to look at how we can find time in the school day for students to read more.  To improve your reading you need to read more; it’s one of the key strands we’ll pursue.  It may be that as senior leaders we need to ask for some time at a departmental meeting to discuss the best way forward in small departmental groups.  If we go down the line of developing our own literary canon then inviting staff to propose key books, that have influenced them, whilst keeping an eye on the overall canon, could help the rumble.  Both these approaches build on the collective reading and discussion of the Reading Mind at the beginning on the year by forty or so staff.

Acknowledgement: The Salesperson’s Secret Code by Mills, Ridley Laker and Chapman

Professional development is another area where the lightning strike and limited thunder have led to wasted time, effort and endless frustration.  Both Vivienne Porritt and Philippa Cordingley talk about Continuous Professional Learning and Development; they have different definitions of what constitutes learning and development so use the terms differently.  However, what they both clearly articulate is that improvements in teachers’ practice require both lightning and thunder.

This takes me back to the #rEDBlackpool event.  It was a brilliant flash of lightning; the presenters were top class (thanks again to you all).  What will make a difference to evidence informed practice is the extent to which leaders build around such events or training courses with the steady rumble of thunder.  For example, at St. Mary’s there are book/journal clubs and a series of evidence fairs as well as a journey towards a more thoughtful and systematic approach to implement fewer priorities.  This term I’ll be reading, with the headteachers, 5 Evidenced Based Papers all Teachers Should ReadWhy not form your own group and join us?  The other steady rumble of thunder that is often missed in professional development is the individual coaching aspect.  Everyone says they’re doing coaching but there’s not much happening when you dig below the surface; well-trained coaches, with the time and skills to go on the journey of learning and development with a teacher make a difference.  The costs are high at a time of great austerity in schools.  The alternative is unbelievably wasteful of our greatest resources; our people and their time.

Final thought is about how we communicate with parents; the lightning strike when there’s an issue, the website and the newsletter or the steady dialogue with them about their child.  We’ve a long way to go.

Remember you’ve never communicated enough; over communicate, over communicate, over communicate; create much more thunder alongside the odd lightning strike.  Dan and Chip Heath talk about confusion resistance; “We’d be with you if only we knew what the hell you wanted us to do!”  I could imagine staff privately screaming this over many years of my headship.  Communication really is the key leadership priority.

How much did you communicate with staff last week?  It was not enough.

Acknowledgement: The Salesperson’s Secret Code by Mills, Ridley Laker and Chapman

With thanks to Dr Ben Laker for his help pulling this blog together.  He’s now moved from research to applying lessons on communication in and to Hollywood.  He recently worked on the Oscars for the BBC and continues to write extensively about issues relating to communication.



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