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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What do the last 5 things you purchased say about your priorities?

It’s easy to spend money randomly and without thinking. How well do your recent purchases reflect what you consider to be important?

My last 5 purchases

I recently came across a blog post somewhere asking readers to consider their last 5 purchases. At the time of reading* my last 5 things were…

  • x1 photobook on Blurb of 30ish  photographs I’d taken. This marks the end of a long term personal creative project- charting our journey through IVF fertility treatment and birth of our twin daughters
  • x1 commissioned work of art for our landing from an artist I came across via Facebook
  • x1 photo journal which features the 40 snapshots from my iPhone’s camera reel which I feel best represent my 2016. A visual kind of visual review of the year.
  • x1  present for my mum
  • X1 2017 calendar featuring photos that I’d taken of our kids throughout the previous year

That was a few days ago…

Now my last 5 purchases immediately prior to writing this post are (most recent first)

  • x2  bottles of jojoba oil (for my hair and skin)
  • x1  Mean Girls DVD
  • x1 chicken shish kebab
  • x1 rail ticket into London

How does our spending match what we say we care about?

What do each of those say about me? Do they even say the same thing? People fixate a lot on money. I see it as a tool not an end to itself.

An interesting exercise is to consider how well the above purchases correspond to the words that I currently** use to guide my personal and professional life.

Integrity. Relationships. Curiosity. Fun

Now it’s your turn

  • What do your last 5 purchases say about you?
  • How well do they reflect what you feel is important?
  • Do you know what your next 5 purchases will be?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Send me an email on ismall1408@gmail.com or tweet me at @ieshasmall

*I think I originally read and wrote this at the start of 2017. I found it today in my drafts and thought I should publish it. 

** These are now Integrity. Relationships. Growth. Fun. Abundance.

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.

 

 

 

 

My hopes for diversity in 2017 #BAMEed

When Amjad, one of the BAME founders, asked me to write a blog post for #BAMEed I agreed straight away. The team behind #BAMEed are good people and it’s an important topic. – 597 words

So what are my hopes? I have a few but I’ll write briefly about one here.

  • That ‘diversity’ doesn’t become a catch-all term to water down the need for serious work to address inequalities faced by a variety people in our society. This includes people who belong to one particular sub group or a combination.

 

Can diversity still exclude?

A school could have an all-white staff and all-white curriculum but legitimately say they have made steps to address diversity. How? Because they have women on their team.  All positive representation in the curriculum could be of white people and the school could be completely mono-cultural in all aspects but because women were involved or well represented the school could feel happy about representation.

A school could have an ethnically balanced staff and curriculum but still have serious issues related to sexism. Their ethnically diverse staff could be led by an all-male senior team.  The curriculum may only highlight the contribution of significant male figures in history.

A school could be making great strides to address gender and racial disadvantage but may not be a safe place for LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) people to learn, thrive and work.

Diversity as a concept is, of course, important but I sometimes wonder if it’s become a term that is now used to make people in the majority (which majority depends on the particular aspect of diversity) feel comfortable instead of having to use words that they might find unpalatable.

 

“We wish to become more diverse” is maybe a little more palatable than “We are working to become less racist” or “we are working to become less sexist” or “we are working to become less homophobic.”

Additionally, by using the umbrella term “diversity” it leaves majorities open to address the section of diversity that they find most palatable rather than the ones that challenge them or may need the most addressing in their community.

Being specific

So what am I saying? I’d like people to be a little more direct. Sometimes terms can be so wide that they lose meaning. Sometimes this is deliberate- to start conversations that people may find uncomfortable- but to actually achieve anything we sometimes need to be specific. If we are talking about wanted to improve ethnic diversity – let’s say that. If it’s gender diversity let’s set that out as a clear aim.  Alongside that, people in different diverse groups need to recognise where we can have strength as a collective but don’t necessarily need to allow majority groups to set the terms – including what we are called.

Finally, the second part of my original hope- let’s not forget that there is diversity within diversity. Black women exist. Gay Indian men exist. Disabled transgendered people who aren’t white exist. Different groups under the umbrella term of diversity experience life in a variety of ways and some people live at the intersection of a more than one minority- which may make their experience different to the expected standard.

In summary, let’s not dilute what we are trying to achieve regarding equality of opportunity and outcome for different groups by using terms that are so vague, bland and far-reaching as to loose meaning. Let’s also remember that some people, like me, happen to tick more than one diversity box and our experiences are just as valid as those who tick one or none.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How having a live-in nanny helps you have it all.

“How the hell did you do it [with 2 young children]?”

“Because I could afford to have childcare at home.”

When I heard the above exchange on an old episode of  Desert Island Discs, I thought five things in quick succession.

  1. How refreshing. Finally a high profile and accomplished woman who doesn’t pretend that they are all hands on with every aspect of childcare. Professor Lisa Jardin acknowledged in a very frank and matter of fact way that her career would not have been possible without live-in childcare. She categorically couldn’t have made it work if she’d had to take her children to childminders or day care as many working parents have to.
  2. A successful man with children wouldn’t have been asked this. I think Kirsty Young is a fantastic interviewer who gets amazing stories and reflections out of her interviewees, but I’ve listened to Desert Island Discs for a long time and I can’t remember many of the numerous successful male interviewees who happen to be fathers being asked ‘How have you juggled being a father with your illustrious career?’
  3. A successful man, if honest, and asked directly, would have answered the same thing. However, the live-in childcare usually takes the form of his wife (or equivalent), and society doesn’t see this as a reason for soul searching.
  4. A surprising number of successful women have a partner who earns significantly less than them and effectively fulfils the traditional ‘wife’ role when it comes to childcare. This has been my anecdotal experience is talking to many women in senior positions in education who don’t have a live-in nanny.
  5. I think I used to be/still kind of am one of the women mentioned in point 4 above, and I’m very aware of the support of my partner, which has enabled me to accept senior positions when we had children who were under one.

So it looks like to have children and be successful (by very particular measures), a live-in nanny helps. Sometimes that nanny is officially recognised and paid as such, sometimes it’s your spouse.  Either way, they should be acknowledged and respected.

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.

 

Do we educate for conformity?

Is education too often about making children conform? Is so, is that a problem? 157 words

I was listening to a podcast recently when the interviewer said

‘In a world that is trying to get you to be vanilla, nobody that I know who is successful took the normal path’ – Chase Jarvis, CEO Creative Live

It got me thinking.

  • what do we teach young people that success is? Are we right?
  • who decides what normal is?
  • how do we decide which deviations from normal are good and which are bad?

Schools can be wonderful places where education is transformative and life long learning begins. Schools can also be uninspiring places where we teach students (and staff) that the way to have a quiet life is to do what everybody else does and conform. Sure, we’ll allow questions as long as we already know the answers and it doesn’t shake things up too much.

People who end up changing things and being great didn’t always follow the rules.

Hmmm.

Enjoy your Wednesday.

 

 

 

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.