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.  

Learning to Lead

This is the first of a series of inter-connected posts about my experience of leadership.

Most people know from experience how critical leadership is in any organisation and I have already identified this as a significant factor in my own career.   My own leadership learning came partly from observing and experiencing others (good and bad role models), partly from coaching, a little from training programmes but most of all from experience, especially supported experiences.  I also had the huge privilege in recent years to work for the National College for School Leadership where I was able to refine my own thinking and at the same time practice leadership, working alongside some of the very best education leaders in the country and some of the foremost researchers and thinkers about leadership.
Leadership takes place in many contexts (sports, organisations, political parties and informal groups) and operates at many different levels (for example, in education we know that a teacher is a leader of learning in every lesson).   As I have reflected on my own leadership journey I have ended up writing a series of inter-linked posts.   In the first of these I reflect on my personal experiences and my own early development as a leader up to the point where I became a Director of Education.  In the second I will reflect on the ups and downs of leading major organisations and then, thirdly, my most recent work as a leadership consultant, supporting leaders and working for a leadership organisation.  Finally, I will try to summarise some of what I think I have learnt about leadership and about how to grow and develop leadership in others.

As a child and a student I would never have regarded myself as being a leader.  My best friend for the first 15 or so years of life, Pete, was the ‘leader’ among our group of friends.  At secondary school (a secondary modern which effectively became a comprehensive during my time there) I was a fairly nondescript, low key student – although I did start to show some academic promise in the sixth form.  I enjoyed sport but was never particularly good and certainly never a team leader.  Being an undergraduate at university was really important for my social and academic development and I certainly grew in confidence but I didn’t join much or put myself forward to lead anything significant.

It was probably my early days as a teacher where something happened that, looking back, started my leadership journey.  In my second year an inspirational headteacher spotted me as someone with something to offer and encouraged me to go on a course about ‘citizenship’ education and subsequently to lead a staff meeting about it. From that I began to establish myself as a voice for change within the school.   Then I left teaching for a while and went off to Nuffield College, Oxford to do a PhD.  I was never entirely happy or comfortable at Oxford - I was a more mature student who had experienced a bit of working life and I had done my first degree and masters at Essex, culturally a very different, modern university without the status or pretensions of Oxford.  Perhaps because of this I wanted to ‘prove myself’ and I ended up playing a leading role among the students at Nuffield and found myself negotiating directly with the College leadership about charges and conditions for students – something, I came to realise, at which I was pretty good.  I also captained the College cricket team -  although that is not as grand as it sounds as it was a small post graduate College and we struggled to get 11 players to turn out some weeks!

Back in teaching and having moved to Yorkshire, my journey continued as I experienced ‘shared leadership’ of a department and then head of department in 2 schools.  I also became active in politics and the union (NUT) which gave me new opportunities to influence things, represent others and refine my own views. 
This is the point (described in my previous post) when I became a Humanities adviser in Kirklees.  I was given considerable freedom to develop the role and to take responsibility for new initiatives.  I played a key role in setting up and running a new national association for humanities advisers, my first taste of operating at a national level and doing something new which challenged the conventional structures.  It was at about this time when I vividly remember my boss, Geoff, saying,  ‘Mark, I think you could lead this team one day’. I had honestly never thought about this until that moment and yet within about 18 months I was heading up the curriculum support service.  

As head of service I had a wonderful Director as my boss. Jennifer was one of, at that time, a rare number of women directors of education (most of whom, including Jennifer, experienced  serious challenges, operating in a hitherto largely male and often sexist world of directors and politicians).  She gave me tremendous personal encouragement and support which I recall as a wonderful mix of giving me lots of freedom to get on and do, with regular opportunities to check things out with her and knowing she was always there if I needed specific help and advice.  

What I also remember about this period was the first time a training course had an impact on me.  It was in-house, introduced by the then Chief Executive (widely recognised as one of a new breed of innovative, entrepreneurial CEs in Local Government). It was about cultural change in organisations, it was very participative, lasted from memory one session each week for about 6 weeks and I loved it.  I could reflect on each session and try out things in context and throughout my career I have used ideas and practice I was first introduced to on that programme (eg. the importance of vision, ownership and co-construction, listening and questioning before talking..).  In particular, I have regularly used a quote from Goethe, written in about 1800 and used on the course - ‘whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it…boldness has genius, power and magic in it, begin it now.’  Only writing this now do I realise just how significant that may have been for me – I have done a few bold (and some would say foolish) things in my career and most have turned out well! 

In Leeds I probably learnt more about how not to do things than how to do them.  I also learnt about realpolitik and real Politics – how to get things done, managing up as well as down, knowing where the power lies in an organisation, the cut and thrust of local Party politics, the art of the possible, being prepared to compromise in order to get something important to happen.  My boss, John, understood the politics well and helped and protected me.  I vividly remember one conversation with him.  I said I thought I needed to develop a thicker skin and he said, ‘no, a thick skin implies things bounce off and nothing gets through, you need to stay firm on what really matters but absorb some of what is coming at you and learn from it so you can adapt your tactics in order to achieve those things.’  Much later I put a name to this as a key leadership skill – resilience.

I will mention one other course or programme that was significant for me.  It was run by a wonderful organisation called ‘Common Purpose’.  It brought together people from the public, private and voluntary sectors in an area (in this case Leeds).  It opened my eyes to some of the amazing skills on offer from people in the other sectors and challenged my prejudices about the values and motivations, particularly of those from the private sector.  It almost certainly influenced some of my future decisions including working for 2 large private companies later in my career (more in a future post).

It was at this point, still in my early 40s, that I became a Director of Education in Blackburn with Darwen.  In the second part of this post I will reflect on my time as a Director of Education and then as a Managing Director and Chief Executive in the private sector.

Meanwhile I would be interested in other people’s reflections on what has influenced your leadership journeys and/or what you have observed in others.