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.






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.


How can managers get the best out of employees with mental health issues?

Tips for employers to support staff with mental health issues so they can do their best work. This post is in support of mental health awareness week. (680 words)

Create a workplace ethos of safety

I have had major periods of depression since I was in my late teens. Generally, when considered over medium to long term it hasn’t affected my overall academic achievement or outcomes at work. I didn’t feel safe disclosing my depression at work until I was in my 30s. Working in an environment where I could tell that staff were valued made all the difference.  My boss was open minded and non-judgmental and we had built a good rapport. I knew she respected my work and didn’t expect things to be perfect. Mistakes were acknowledged but not excessively penalised as the had been in other places I’d worked. This created a place of safety where I felt able to mention – at a time when I was feeling fine- that I sometimes had major depressive episodes but would be able to continue working through them and most people wouldn’t notice.

Listen to what they tell you- not what you think they need

If somebody feels comfortable enough to tell you about their mental health, just listen. Don’t come with any pre conceived notions of what you feel may be useful to them. They are adults and they will tell you. Everybody is different and what works for some people may not work for others.

Ask what they need to be able to do the job to the best of their ability when not 100%

For some people it could be ensuring that a colleague popping in just to say hello during a difficult classes. For others it might be communicating via email for a few days rather than face to face. For others it could just be having the space to mention to a boss or somebody on their team that they having a bad period.

Alongside this – some colleagues may feel overwhelmed during periods of mental ill health. Help them by making it clear which  1 or 2 aspects of their role that they need to focus on at that particular time. Reassure them that the other aspects can wait until they  are closer to their best.

Ask if there are any preventative measures that can be implemented

For me having an office with a window makes a huge difference. I also have a special light that I use during the winter. This helps immensely.

Don’t assume everything is a result of their mental health issue

Sometimes people are just quiet. Sometimes people are tired. Sometimes people are just sad.  Not everything is a result of somebodies anxiety or depression. It can be annoying if people assume that .

Treat them like everybody else

People with mental health issues can do their jobs as effectively as everybody else when they are self a

ware, well prepared and adequately supported (personally and professionally). Aside from some of the hints above, managers need to be aware of the genral motivations and strengths and interests of all their staff.

Be honest about your own vulnerabilities

Maybe you secretly don’t understand how to use a spreadsheet. Perhaps you’ve always found it hard teaching Year 9 history at the end of the day. Appropriately letting staff know that you aren’t infallible will make them feel better about discussing something that is intensely personal and still attracts stigma.

And finally

This goes without saying, but alongside any other personal issues related to staff of sensitive nature- confidentiality if important. Nobody wants to bare their soul then have it repeated back to them by Rob at the photocopier by lunchtime. If you need to tell other people for organisational reasons, let the staff member know beforehand.

Schools are fast moving and pressurised environments. Lets support our staff and make sure they feel safe enough to have a conversation about mental health.

What about if you are a manager or leader with mental health issues? Should you keep it to yourself? That will be the subject of my next blog post.






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.



People, people, its all about people

Everything is about people, leadership, teaching, other organisations. Let’s not forget that (236 words).

If you asked most people about what schools are about they’ll say education. This is true and it’s what I probably would have said if you asked me a while ago.

I’ve had a bit of an epiphany in recent years. Schools are about people.  We trade in ideas but actually, the very best schools are about people.

The development of people.

Their ideas.

Their beliefs.

Their confidence.

Their motivation.

Note- that I didn’t say children. I said people.

That’s the pupils, the staff, the community, the parents.

People don’t want to be barked at like dogs.

You don’t get the best out of people via control.

People don’t thrive in cultures of fear.

People want to be seen, to be recognised, to be acknowledged.

People will do their best in cultures of autonomy where they feel they can impact things.

People want to be trusted and know they’ll be supported to be better if they make a mistake.

The number one resource in a school is the people inside it. The biggest expenditure, the biggest source of potential (and in the current climate) revenue generation.

If, as a teacher,  you forget that your job is about people not just facts or your lesson objectives then you are an idiot.

If, as a leader or manager, you forget that your job is about people not just results then you are a clown.

I’ve been both of the above and I’m sure there will be occasions when I make mistakes again but ultimately I know it’s about people and I’ll always come back to that.


How managers can build relationships

What can line managers do to build trust and make people feel valued? Take a genuine interest in them. (244 words)
Do you line manage people?
How many of the following do you know about them?
  • Do they have kids?
  • Do they have a pet?
  • Do they have a partner?
  • What are the names of the above?
  • What are their professional hopes for the future?
  • What are their personal hopes for the future?
  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • Have they done anything recently at work that was really good and had an impact?
  • Have they done anything recently at work that they were disappointed about?
Once you’ve found out the above do you ever ask them about it again?
Do you care?
Do they know any of the above about you?
Do you treat this information sensitively and confidentially?
How do the answers to the above impact their work?
How can you use your knowledge of the above questions, or others like them, to show then that you value them?
I can be pretty driven but I’ve learnt that it’s relationships that really matter in life – personally and professionally. People want to be seen. People want to be valued.  People want to feel special. People want to feel acknowledged. If it’s genuine, it’s so much better than a great big stick.
This is the stuff that happens when nobody else is watching. This is the stuff that builds relationships.  This is the stuff that builds trust.