Break (your) rules

Sometimes we create rules for ourselves that used to serve a purpose but now could be holding us back.

In 2011, or there abouts, I had a major break down. It was related to many things but probably the combination of becoming a parent for the first time and having (what felt to me at the time)  a very stressful and highly accountable job didn’t help. I may have written about this on here before. I may not have done, I’ve no idea because I tend not to re read posts. Anyway, as part of my recovery, I took up photography because I wanted something beyond work that I could use to unwind that was just for me.

In the intervening years I have grown and taught myself to become a competent photographer, good enough to be approached by publishers, taken seriously by professional photographers and other creatives and good enough not to embarrass myself when I photographed a friend’s wedding as a gift.

Wedding day (30 of 110)

L and A’s Wedding

Where our rules come from

However, I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of my own photographs on this blog (until now). There are three reasons.

  1. I was a perfectionist Initially, I probably didn’t think they were good enough.
  2. I didn’t want to mix my professional persona with my personal persona. This blog was/is mostly leadership and professional things but photography was personal for me.
  3. I didn’t want a reason to procrastinate. Adding a photograph to a post was just another thing to do that would stop me writing and publishing.

These were useful rules for a time but I realised they are holding me back. They are stopping me being creative. What rules have you set up in your life that are now getting in the way?

Questioning our rules 

Good enough by whose standards? Perfectionism is the enemy. Having to be perfect  stops us doing things. It stops me using my photographs it stops you speaking out in meetings in case  you look silly. It stops us both trying something new in case it fails.

Don’t worry about being perfect. Do the best job you can do and put it out there then refine and improve with time.

The personal is the professional. If you work with people, which most of us in schools do, then your professional approach is informed by who you are as a person and what you do or think personally. I used to be ashamed of talking about depression or similar then I realised that actually it made me more human and many others could relate.

Share your love of fly fishing or whatever with your class or team, it’s the personal connections that make us want to work hard for others.

I’ve learnt that actually, for me, procrastination is fear in disguise. I’m actually a fairly driven person. When I procrastinate it’s for one of two reasons. I either don’t really want to do the thing, or more usually, I’m scared. I don’t entirely know how to do something, it’s new to me and I don’t want to get it wrong. When I start new things I’ve not done before I always take a while to get going. I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to fail.

When you keep putting something off that you know you actually want to do ask yourself “What am I afraid of?” Then go find somebody who has done it before, get some advice and get started. 

Always evolve

When I first heard of Facebook, maybe in 2007 or something, I couldn’t really see the point of it. My partner was really into Myspace (if you are under 35 you won’t know what I’m talking about) and then she got in Facebook and persuaded me to get on it. I started using it a great deal until our kids were born and I made a conscious decision not to post (m)any pictures of them because it felt too public. So since 2011 ish  I’ve barely used it. I only check it when friends or family  tell me there is some group thing  they’ve put on there.

At work I used to be more along the “no excuses” mode with kids but now I feel I’ve mellowed a bit. I once led a department where I wanted to get rid of all text books now I just think teachers need space to do what works for them and helps their classes learn.

It’s ok to change your mind, along as you can explain why.  In fact, I now feel that a rigid sticking to ideas is the hallmark of a closed mind. Things change, why should you believe everything you did as a child, as a fresh graduate, as a new leader? People need to evolve and that might involve making mistakes or changing our views. So what?

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Bedtime project

We do not need to be hamsters on our own self-imposed wheels.

I don’t know how to end this post. I just know that I want to write it. I want somebody who needs to read it and hear the message today to see it and act. To do something or stop doing something in order to improve. Maybe that somebody is you. Let me know what you did(n’t).

Publish.

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Experienced people need to keep a beginner’s mind

Highly experienced people can do with remembering what it’s like to start out.  Keeping a beginner’s mind can help with humility, joy and fresh perspectives. (3 min read) 

I’ve just finished helping my 6 year old son, G, with his homework. I won’t lie, initially I used to get my partner to do his maths homework with him. I’d sit with him while he did his English or reading work instead. I taught maths at work and I didn’t want to come and do it more at home (also why I’ve never tutored). Additionally, I didn’t want to be a pushy teacher parent and put him off it for life.  However, since he started Year 2 last September I’ve been getting more involved.

Today’s was about different ways that he could fold a rectangular piece of  paper and make it into a halves.  We had fun experimenting and trying new things. Eventually G wanted to do “halves of halves.” Then he wanted to try some triangles. Eventually he proposed something that I knew, with the benefit of experience, wasn’t going to work. I was about to mention it, but then I thought ” well why not just let him try and see what happens?”

G was trying to fold his rectangular paper to make a square and then half that to make triangles. Because of the dimensions and how he folded it I knew it wasn’t going to work but I kept it to myself while he tried it.  At first he was disappointed. Then we explored what had happened.

The result reminded me how wonderful it is to discover a new thing for the first time. G had folded his paper in half 4 successive times when he opened it out to count he was so excited to find that he’d made sixteenths. He’d never made them before. He was so excited that he ran to tell my partner, then he and grabbed each of his 3 year old sisters and told them that he was about to show them “some magic” and got them to to the same with their own bits of paper.

He then spent a further 10 minutes of folding into more halves and discovering 1/32 and 1/64 without any real input from the adults in his life.

Why am I sharing this? For experienced people we can easily take things for granted or become jaded. I’ve  known about fractions for a long time. I have an engineering degree and have taught up to A level and taught other teachers how to teach maths. It would be easy to dismiss this homework and G’s discovery as a trivial thing.  This morning I remembered there is something special about the allowing somebody the space to learn and discover something new for the first time. There is also something special about seeing a familiar task or outcome through beginner’s eyes.

Equally, I’ve spent almost a a decade managing and leading people. For the first time in ages I’ve now chosen not to. It’s good to see things from the other side and remember what it’s like starting out. It’d recommend it to everybody. Especially those in charge of others. Be like Paul Fisher “The Undercover boss” and go back to the floor. Even if it’s only for a short period. Beginner’s mind is essential even for the highly experienced. It keeps you grounded, gives new insights and can be an easy source of joy.

Are company values too vague?

Lots of companies have core values that they promote. How specific are employers about how these look in practice, and how are they embodied by people they employ or wish to collaborate with? – 652 words

Over dinner recently, I got talking to my companion, Matt, about values. He is currently recruiting for his new start-up and was bemoaning nebulous business-speak. We also both lamented how easy it is to fall into it, and how we both had ourselves in the past.

We are all so familiar with values in a corporate context that we often don’t even question them.

When I walk around school on my teaching days, the values of the school are written on the walls. They run from the ground floor up to the top floor and are a clear statement about what we wish to promote. This include:

  • compassion
  • stickability

My personal values, decided after an internal shift and re-evaluation throughout 2015 and 2016, are:

  • relationships
  • integrity
  • curiosity/development (never can decide which)
  • fun

Beyond the corporate-speak

However, Matt challenged: what do these words actually mean? How useful are they in practice?

He then proceeded to outline very specific things that he valued, looked for and would reward in his employees. My favourite was “people who actually get shit done.”

It got me thinking. What do I value in people I’ve worked with, and who have worked for me?

  1. Transparency. I really don’t see the need for secrets. Be clear what you are doing and why. Share it with all concerned, or all who ask for it.
  2. Being straight forward. I prefer dealing with people who say what they mean, as long as it’s constructive. Even if it may not be what they think I, or others, want to hear.
  3. Kindness. I respect people who treat other people well. Irrespective of status. Irrespective of whether they agree with them. Especially in difficult situations.
  4. Challenge. People who will try new things to challenge their own and others’ thinking.
  5. Reliability. People whose actions match what they say (whoever the audience).
  6. Humility. People who recognise and acknowledge the contribution of others.
  7. Generosity. People who help others to improve and develop, and are happy to share their skills.
  8. Expertise. People who I can learn from and share expertise or ideas with.
  9. Fun. People who are fun to spend time with and make me laugh (professionally or otherwise).
  10. Learners. People who are committed to learning and getting better, no matter how skilled they already may be. People who are unafraid to admit and learn from their mistakes.
  11. Passion. I really appreciate people who care and are unashamedly excited about something beyond themselves, and who act on that passion.

The above is not an exhaustive list, but it’s the one that immediately came to me when I thought: “What do I value in people I work with?” It’s survived a couple of weeks in my notebook and eventual transfer to this blog, so must reflect my current thinking pretty well. It also seems to work fairly well for people that I know and value in my personal life.

Asking the right questions

If you have responsibility for hiring people, or are involved in your school or company’s recruitment process in any way, give some thought to what you truly value. Sure, you may want somebody who can bust out a great spreadsheet, or teach a brilliant history lesson – the expertise side of things is obvious.

However, what about the rest? What works for your particular context? A question like: “Give an example of a time that you acknowledged the contribution of somebody on your team” for leadership positions would send a really powerful signal to candidates about what is really seen as important – much more so than “we value team work” as a bland statement on a website.

 

 

 

 

Are we only as good as our titles?

What brings us worth at work? Is it all about titles? What can we do when we know we need a change? 766 words

At the start of this academic year I’d pretty much decided that I wanted to leave teaching. There were things I liked about my job but I was also frustrated. Each job I’d done was to have more impact. I was now an Assistant Head and facing the fact that maybe education couldn’t do what I’d idealistically thought when I started as a bright eyed and bushy tailed as a new recruit to the Teach First scheme in 2004.

Had I become part of the problem?

Was I really in the place where I could make the biggest difference possible for the bits of society I wanted to?

The past academic year has seen many ups and downs. I’ve felt stuck personally and professionally. I’ve been confused and despondent. I’ve been self critical and asked people I respect to help me reflect and reassess things.  I’ve also grown immensely and discovered that I have, do and can continue to make a difference. In ways that were unexpected in September 2015 but still as important.

I’ve finally seen the fruit of some of my behind the scenes work with middle managers and students in my own school. I’ve had leaders from other schools that I’ve worked with talk to me about the impact I’ve had on them and their teams and I’ve discovered that I’m a person whose writing and speaking can touch particular people, especially those in leadership positions and spur them to real and important action.

After being somewhat at sea and realising that a promotion and new school weren’t going to solve whatever my issues were- I started to think about what else could be done. Then I started to try and make things happen. This unexpectedly lead to a wonderful opportunity  for me and  I had really honest conversation with my boss. As a result we came to a solution that would have been unimaginable for me back in September.  I’ll be working for 2 days at my current school in the maths department (maths teachers are always needed) and will be working for 3 days with LMKco helping other organisations to tackling social disadvantage in a different way. It seems like my mission is the same but the way I’m tackling it is different.

So the title thing? I’ve been in middle or senior leadership positions since my 4th year of teaching. I was clearing my office ready for my own move but also because the school’s into a brand new building. I’ve never really cared about titles but they matter to other people. You can see people reassessing you as a youngish woman when they ask what you do and you say you are a senior manager.  I like the freedom and autonomy + potential impact on a much wider range of people that senior leadership in a school can bring even if I can do without some of the other bits.

I know I’m doing the right thing for me. I knew that as soon as I made the decision and it was all finalised a few months ago.  I don’t think that I’ve mentioned to my Nan and Mum yet that I’ve decided to step down from SLT. Have a let them down? People always talk to me about what a good Head I’d make but I’ve decided to go in a completely different direction.

I’ll still be me, with the same knowledge and experience. I’ll still write about leadership here and in my book because I feel that effective leadership can impact such a wide range of people and people tell me that I have interesting things to say. It seems that I’ll still have the opportunity to work with leaders within and beyond education, which is exciting.

I’ll enjoy my new teaching role working at the same school with children I’ve built relationships with and it won’t do me any harm at all to experience leadership from the other side again for a while.  I look forward to taking on a new challenge with my new team in my other job.

It doesn’t stop things being scary though. The unknown is often scary.

If you are reading this and thinking of making a big change or leap into the unknown- don’t discount things. My decision hasn’t been easy, it’s had real practical implications on my family life. We’ll have to change how we live but it will be worth it.

Consider what really matters to you, personally and professionally and remember that titles are just that. They don’t measure your worth.

 

Introverted leaders: brief notes from my Telegraph Festival of Education 2016 Talk

Last Friday I delivered a talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education about the benefits that introverts can bring to school leadership. Here are some brief notes.

I don’t tend to do powerpoint for these kinds of talks and they are designed to be experienced rather than read but here are some notes and resources that may be of use.

In Jung’s view, introverts and extroverts compliment each other and can help broaden their outlook and use new perspectives. He saw both types and their traits as important and valuable – Sylvia Loehken, Quiet Impact, page 9

Five typically introverted traits which can be used as strengths that were explored during the talk were:

  1. Listening
  2. Quiet passion
  3. Caution/reserved nature
  4. Observation and ability to notice what others may miss
  5. Independence/ self sufficiency

The books that I quoted, in the order that they were featured in the talk, were

  • Quiet Impact, Sylvia Loehken
  • Do/purpose/Why brands with a purpose do better and matter more, David Hieatt
  • High Challenge, Low Threat, Mary Myatt
  • Quiet; The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain

Quotes from school leaders that I read were from interviews that I have conducted for a book that I’m writing. The working title is ‘The Unexpected Leader’ featuring successful school leaders who don’t feel they fit the traditional mould. It will be published by Crown House in 2017 but I have to finish writing it first.

A resource which I forgot to mention, which is especially useful for creating space and quiet for reflection is meditation. Personally, I’d recommend the Headspace  app which provides daily guided meditations of 10mins so can fit into a busy day.

The most important thing for leaders of all types is to be really clear about our purpose and aims

I think you have to centre whatever you are passionate about. You have to really, really interrogate what you think. It makes you sure that what you are passionate about matters and you will find the confidence to defend it. – CN, School Leader that I have interviewed.

Enjoy your Sunday fellow introverts, make sure you create some time and space to recharge. Remember that our contributions are valid and if you are somewhere where they aren’t, there are other places where they will be.

 

 

 

 

What do our fathers teach us about leadership?

In the UK it’s Fathers’ day today. For many of us, our fathers are the first model of leadership that we have – what do we learn from them subconsciously? (630 words) 

Today is Fathers’ day.  My Dad’s birthday is in the same week and some years ago we decided that we wouldn’t officially celebrate Fathers’ day. He doesn’t expect a separate card or presents from me but it’s always a time to reflect and I usually give him a ring.

It occurred to me this morning that, for me and many other people, my Dad is possibly the first real model of leadership that I ever experienced, even if it was subconscious.

My Dad was and an excellent Dad to a young child. From him I learnt dependability and stability. I remember him once being made redundant and taking a job that he was massively over qualified for in order to ensure that his family were provided for, I never once heard him complain about it. He knew his responsibilities as a husband and father and did what had to be done. He was and is a man of his word if he said he would be somewhere or do something then he always followed through.  He was a fair, calm and considered presence throughout my childhood. Even as an adult I ask him for measured and objective advice about particular things as I value his opinion despite our different perspectives on life.

I have always been a Daddy’s girl but as an older teenager and young adult in my 20s our relationship shifted. My Dad is a product of his generation and upbringing. He is quiet and stoic like his father before him and like many men aged 55+ of Caribbean heritage. Actions are his thing. Feelings, or the expression of them, not so much. The mood swings and exploding hormones of a teenage girl and my earlier difficulties as a young adult were something beyond his sphere of reference and increasingly I learnt that factual things were best to talk about with him but feelings not so much.

I wonder how many other of us have subconsciously taken on the leadership model of our parents?  For many years I considered feelings to be a private thing and the expression of them to be a weakness. Not from others so much- I didn’t really mind that- but from myself. My general approach in life and at work was just to get on with things and if things weren’t going so well to keep on getting on with things and not admit to vulnerability. This worked for a time and it’s not always appropriate to express or share everything in a professional context but actually there is a danger with this approach. Eventually, with some very big life events, I realised that I could’t always keep things to my self.

Now, I have learnt that a healthier model for me is to express feelings (to appropriate people) as well as more factual things. In leadership and life I have found that people appreciate my intellect and analysing of the facts but actually it’s my passion about things that really draws them and and persuades them. In recent years, quite surprisingly to me, my honesty and vulnerability about mistakes and professional and personal conflicts that I have experienced has also been an asset- leading to new and deeper relationships and interesting professional opportunities.

But what about my Dad? Well, this week I had quite possibly the most surprising conversation with him of recent years. What started off as a quick birthday call ended up as a wide ranging discussion about trust, intimacy and our own quirks and mistakes in relationships with our spouses. This was all interpersed with the general laughter and mickey-taking that is a constant feature of our relationship.   It seems that sometimes opening ourselves up allows others to do the same.

 

 

‘That’s not me’ – leadership lessons from Skepta

What insights can leaders get from music – specifically Skepta’s grime anthem ‘That’s not me’ ? (547 words)

It’s half term for teachers right now so I’ve been in holiday mood. This holiday has been one of recharging and relaxation especially heightened by the fact that this time last year I was attempting to write our school timetable and most of the holiday was spent in my office at work.

Part of my relaxation has been to catch up with some recently released albums and dance around the kitchen to them with our kids. Namely, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Skepta’s Konnichiwa and Radiohead’s  A Moon shaped Pool. Much to the amusement of my colleagues and classes I am a big Grime fan and have been since it started in the early 2000s. Since I’m a big fan of authenticity, Skepta’s That’s not me (which made it onto Konniciwa but has actually been around for a while) really resonated. I’m not fully back into work mode so I thought I’d have a play with getting some leadership insights from it.

‘Act like a waste man, that’s not me.’

A waste man is a slang term for an idiot. Leader’s shouldn’t act like idiots. It’s a bad look. I recently interviewed an Assistant Head for book I’m writing. He said that one of his drivers for treating staff well was ‘I just didn’t want to be a dickhead’ – not sure if I’ll put that directly in or not but I do agree with him.

‘Yeah, I used to wear Gucci. Put it all in the bin cos that’s not me’

There was a time when I was younger when it was fashionable to wear really bright and ostentatious designer clothes, Gucci, Moschino, Versace.  We all looked a mess. Equally as a leader there are some things that everybody seems to do. We all do it because we don’t know any better and everybody has to start somewhere. There comes a point when we have to reevaluate things and decide whether they really fit with our ethos. I did that once when I decided that individual targets weren’t helpful for my specific context so I only set a group one which everybody had to contribute to. We got the best results that year.

‘I ain’t coming to fight like Jet Li’

Direct confrontation doesn’t (always) work. Not in terms of actually winning people over to an idea. It’s good to keep in mind the overall goal – to get the most out of people and achieve the best results- rather than to win a fight/argument.   Dale Carnegie echoes this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence people- “Let the other person save face. Nothing diminishes the dignity of a man quite like an insult to his pride. If we don’t condemn our employees in front of others and allow them to save face, they will be motivated to do better in the future and confident that they can.”

‘True, I used to look like you but dressing like a mess, nah that’s not me.’

Leaders are allowed to make mistakes and change their minds.  It’s not a big deal to acknowledge who you used to be and how you’ve changed. The key is to be aware of who you are now. Know your values and how they guide you professionally and be aware that leadership (and life in general) is a journey.

 

 

Management of Change

Why are people so scared of change? How can we experience and implement it in a more positive way? (464 words)

There is a lot of change happening in schools right now. New curricula, new external and internal assessment, reduced budgets leading to redundancies and other large changes. Today, 31st May, is the last official day when most teaching staff can hand in their notice ready to start a job at a new school ready for the next academic year. I’ll be starting a couple of new roles myself so it got me thinking.

Why do most of us fear change so much?

In recent times the phrase ‘Management of Change’ has become a euphemism for redundancies. I strongly dislike that. For me, it plays into the idea held by many that change is always bad.

For me, and what I’ve observed of other people, worry about change is about two main things

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear regarding lack of autonomy and being unable to control the eventual outcome

In my professional life I’m generally fine with change. In fact, compared to others, I appear to welcome it. In my career so far, I’ve tended to have a new role every two to three years but that’s change that I’ve welcomed and initiated myself so I have had a degree of control. In my personal life, I prefer things much more stable, perhaps the reliability and stability away from work gives me the confidence to try new things professionally, who knows?

One thing that managers sometimes forget is that we tend to know what change is coming and be kept in the loop for some time. It’s not generally a surprise for us in the way that it is for our our teams.

How can those of us managing change make it more bearable?

Give those experiencing the change as much information and control as is possible (without compromising key things). The outcome may not be their ideal but some control over the process and clear communication definitely does help.

How can those of us experiencing change become less worried about it?

Ask yourself… what opportunities does this change/experience make possible?

A colleague of mine who recently stepped down and went part time told me how much more it has made him enjoy his teaching and his joy at being able to get out more on the golf course. I’m relishing the more flexible working that one of my new roles will give me which will mean that I can build in time to drop my son off at school once a week or build in a regular hike which isn’t possible with my current schedule.

Change doesn’t have to be bad. Change is just different and the difference is all mostly down to perception.

 

The importance of line management meetings

Line management meetings are often the first thing to be cut in busy school environments but senior managers underestimate their importance at their peril. (376 words)

What are the top three day- to- day roles of a senior manager?

I won’t list mine here but it’s worth a think. I wonder how many of us have put line management meetings on the list?

Over time I have learnt that line management meetings are an essential and often overlooked part of being a manager of others. It’s also an area that we get no training in- despite their importance.

Poor line management meetings are very top down. ‘Do this.’ ‘Do That.’ ‘Have you done what I asked you to do since last meeting?’

The best line management meetings are an exchange of ideas and a sources of ongoing CPD.

I’ve experienced  both kinds from the point of view of the manager and the member of staff.

Line management meetings are where the real relationships are made. Where you find out the vision of the person you are line managing (and vice versa) and help them to shape it and help their teams to achieve it. As a manager, it’s easy to cancel or move line management meetings because other things feel more pressing. In general, they aren’t, especially long term. We wouldn’t cancel a lesson to write a report or similar and line management meetings are as important. They aren’t an extra. They are an entitlement.

For those of us who line manage middle mangers, we need to remember it’s a difficult job but one where the key work of the school is done and how our strategic vision becomes reality via smaller teams. Middle leaders deserve space to think and play with ideas in a non judgmental way as well as somewhere they can discuss any issues  (personal and professional) that they are bothering them. Line management can provide this as well as necessary constructive challenge.

Senior leaders need good line management too and I’d suggest anything less than once a fortnight on a regular basis is probably inadequate.

A chat in the corridor is good for day to day discussions but it should be an extra to a real sit down. Let’s make those we manage feel valued.

 

Stuff nobody tells you when you get promoted #1

How underperformance can be about a variety of factors. This will be a sporadic series of things that I wish I’d known when I first got promoted to various leadership positions. Mistakes I’ve made and learnt from (394 words). 

I don’t have many regrets in my working life but one often comes back to me. As a young Head of Maths I was newly promoted and had been teaching for 3 or 4 years. I was passionate about improving outcomes for the kids in my hectic, underperforming, inner city school and had high expectations of myself and my team.  I’d noticed one teacher, H, consistently delivering poor lessons, missing deadlines and I felt that the kids in his classes were getting a bad deal.  It was especially frustrating as the kids looked up to him, as a young good-looking guy from their own community background, and I knew he had potential.

I tackled H in a way that I’m ashamed of now and haven’t done to any member of staff since- it was from a place of wanting the best for students but wasn’t respectful to him as a person. Luckily my deputy challenged me on it and I reflected and changed but the damage had already been done to our working relationship. There was bad language and  lot of stick rather than carrot.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and more life experience I realise that H almost certainly had issues going on in his personal life over a prolonged time period. Amongst other things, he was quiet and withdrawn and often checking his phone, often disappearing to use it during lessons. I spotted the behaviour, which affected his teaching, but didn’t think to ask about the reasons or how he might be supported. In fact it didn’t occur to me what the reasons might be, I was so used to the deficit model prevalent in some schools that I automatically assumed it was just laziness.

We get a lot of training about kids and how their personal lives may affect how they present and act in school but less so about staff.  We learn signs to flag up safeguarding issues for students but not for the adults who we are also responsible for in our schools and teams. We don’t get taught the stuff when we are promoted to manage others. It comes with experience but in the meantime the mistakes are made in real time with real people.