What we know about ants

A draft extract from my new book, The Art of Standing Out, on the challenges headteachers face when leading complex teams:

 

When I took up the headship at Uphall Primary School in London, I went from a one-and-a-half form entry school to four forms almost overnight. It was a huge jump, suddenly having to lead a staff of over one hundred with almost one thousand pupils. I learnt pretty quickly that I’d have to adapt my leadership style. I had to learn to delegate and to organise the school similar to a secondary model, with heads of year, heads of department and a leadership team that was almost as large as the entire teaching staff at my previous school a few weeks earlier.

I told my new staff that my number one objective was to look after them. Their job was to look after the children. I realised that I could no longer get to know the children as well as I would like as there were too many of them. If the staff looked after the children, then in return, the staff were also looking after me. So I got into very good habits of making the staff my number one priority. I wanted to make them feel as if they always belonged, which in a large school is difficult to do. I couldn’t do this on my own, so I needed great teams around me to share the load.

I also became very good at delegating and so structured the leadership in a way that was both collegial and dispersive. A clear vision and sense of purpose are essential, with each member of the team aware of their role and expectations. I had to concede control and accept that there will be times when decisions were made that perhaps I wouldn’t have done myself, but nonetheless were effective and for the good of the team.

One of my first tasks at Victoria Park (at the time in special measures) was to try and replicate this, only on a much smaller scale. So we set up senior leadership teams, middle leadership teams and curriculum teams. We explored Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Forming – Norming – Storming – Performing’ model of team development. We made particular effort to address the inevitable storming stage, biting the bullet and working through it. This is not easy whilst under the pressure of HMI visits and special measures. But the ‘them-and-us’ siege mentality that we’d created served us well and we embraced the fact that when we were all storming, there will be brighter skies ahead and great things will happen.

When you try to create a school with great teams, you come to appreciate how it is that ants know exactly what they are doing. You also understand how it is that birds know how to fly in complex formation and the direction in which to go. Shortly after taking up post at Victoria Park I came across a book by Ken Thompson called ‘Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Most Successful Designs’. His solution to the problem associated with leading change was to learn lessons from nature. He developed the concept of ‘bioteaming’ that was based on the symbiotic behaviours of team members, having drawn on decades of scientific research studying nature’s best teams.

Thompson devised a number of rules that we should adopt as leaders when bioteaming. Examples include:
1. Stop controlling: Communicate information and not orders
2. Team intelligence: Mobilise everyone to look for solutions to threats

These two apply specifically to Leadership. Thompson also developed a series of rules for three other areas (or zones): Connectivity, Execution and Organization. What I’ve realised over the years, is that in the schools that I’ve led that have gone to become outstanding, the common features of bioteaming played a key part. This is particularly evident when the school is able to act as a single organisation like a flock of high-flying birds.

Thompson calls this ‘swarming’ and is to do with the development of consistent autonomous team member behaviours. He refers to this as a hidden power, one that is often neglected in organisations. I always knew that if Uphall was to become a standout school then consistency was to become the key to success. The challenge was to get all 32 teachers to all behave as a single swarm. Not just now and again, but every single day, without anyone having to show them.

 

The Art of Standing Out is published by John Catt in July 2016 and is available to pre-order in their bookshop or on Amazon.

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