Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Supporting Leadership Learning

After my sudden departure from the National Strategies (described in the previous post) I took a short but important break before embarking on the most recent period of my career, as a consultant and coach, working mainly in the area of education leadership.   Here I have been using my own experiences and skills to support and help individuals and organisations whilst at the same time deepening my own understanding.  I have been very lucky and privileged to do a great deal of this work for and with the National College for School Leadership (variously re-named over the period).

For most of this period the College’s Chief Executive was Steve, who I had appointed as one of my Assistant Directors in Blackburn.  Of all my decisions as a leader, that may have been my best and is certainly a good example of succession planning, to appoint the person who will eventually become your effective boss! Steve is the most talented leader I have ever worked with or for. He encapsulates the phrase which became popular in education circles in the early 2000s to describe the approach to school improvement, ‘support and challenge’ – when you work with him you feel valued and supported and at the same time you know you are being challenged to do more and better.  He is a good listener as well as an inspirational speaker, modest and self-deprecating and a person of real integrity whilst being politically astute.  He can also be tough and is very good at having those ‘difficult conversations’ to get people to perform at their best or move on and yet always handled with humanity.     He has been kind enough to say that he learnt some things from me but I can confidently state that I learnt far more from him.  Anyone who worked for or with the College over the period of his leadership knows the transformational qualities he displayed.  He paid attention to the purpose, the people and the processes of the organisation.  As a result he built an organisation which was creative, dynamic, sometimes messy but ultimately very successful and a pleasure to work for.

One of the major areas of my work for the College was Succession Planning. At the time there was a real concern about whether there would be enough people and of the right quality to become headteachers of schools into the future.  There is considerable research evidence that leadership  makes a significant difference to school performance and student experience.  (The only more significant factor is the quality of teaching but this in itself is strongly influenced by the right leadership).  I began as one of the consultants contracted to work on this issue and later was asked to lead the work nationally.  The approach which Steve had skilfully steered through the politicians was known as ‘local solutions’ – that meant bringing together at local and regional level a coalition of key partners to identify potential leaders and devise support and development programmes for them.  The concern was that despite the relatively high salaries, many prospective headteachers were put off by the perceived pressures of the job, the apparent bureaucracy and the concern of ‘losing touch with the children/students’.   There were also acute issues of recruitment in ‘church’ schools and a real lack of diversity – in particular very few black and ethnic minority leaders. These concerns all had some degrees of reality to them but we were equally convinced that if we could work together to identify those with potential, expose them to some of the best current leaders, give them rich leadership experiences with support and articulate how rewarding the role could be (many headteachers describe it as ‘the best job in the world’ with influence over the lives and futures of many more young people as well as staff) we could turn the situation around.        

For me this required leadership which was exercised through influence and building coalitions around a common cause, securing commitment, providing incentives and keeping people on board and focused on making a difference.  My experience is that much leadership is like this – rarely these days is it about direct power or even ‘given’ authority. It is about bringing together key players, some but not all of whom do you directly manage, and maximising their talents to achieve a given goal.   

We had some real successes in this work and what had been predicted to be a major problem became less acute (although this will continue to be a challenge for the system).  However, most of us involved became convinced that whether or not there was a crisis of recruitment this was the right thing to be doing.  If education can’t be good at nurturing and developing the next generation of leaders then something is wrong.  

At the same time I became involved in 2 other interesting leadership areas.  One was supporting the development of leadership of academies and chains of schools.  In many ways the requirements for academies were similar to those of other schools but the additional responsibilities, independence and the political and media attention probably required extra resilience, creative and entrepreneurial skills and political savvy.  Leading in the context of a group or chain of schools brings additional challenges and deserves a post in its own right.  I am about to start working as a leadership consultant with such a chain and hope to be able to apply some of what I have learnt but also to learn more, so watch this space. 

I was also involved, at the margins, in helping establish a leadership programmes for serving and aspiring Directors of Children’s Services, following a number of high profile cases of child abuse and neglect which highlighted the need for improvements in the provision of social care and an integrated approach to supporting children and families.  I have commented in another post on how challenging it was to take on the role of DCS, one of the most challenging in the public sector in my view, and yet most directors took on the role with limited or no specific leadership training.  The main 12 month programme devised by the College built on research and experience from around the world and included a supported self-assessment leading to a personal development plan, project work on real on-the-job challenges, network learning groups, residential experiences and the provision of an experienced executive coach.  I ended up as one of the team of coaches used on the programme. 

Both as a coach and consultant I had the privilege, over this period, to work with a number of headteachers, directors and those aspiring to these roles.  I also worked with leaders in the private and voluntary sectors.  All were different and the contexts they worked in varied hugely.  And yet the same issues and leadership challenges recurred and the skills and qualities needed to handle them were remarkably similar.  I will try to capture some of this in the final post of this series. 

As for the role of leadership coach and consultant, I do believe that someone who has had the opportunity to work through many of these experiences and developments themselves, particularly in similar contexts, is in a powerful position to support and help other leaders, whether they are aspiring, new or experienced.  However, it most certainly is not about telling others how to do it, rather to help leaders reflect on what they are doing, ask the kind of questions that will enhance decisions, offer occasional insights and support leaders' own personal awareness and development.   Often in the day-to-day pressures of leadership, the ability to step back and reflect on personal and organisational performance is hard.  A skilled and trusted coach/consultant can make a significant difference.   But then I would say that wouldn’t I!

I’d be interested in what you think are the best ways of supporting leaders, in context, and your own experiences of this.  

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