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Tribes, chimps and troops

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Being a leader can sometimes be a lonely job. When you think about it though, it really ought not to be. Nobody leads in isolation, on their own or in a team of one. We all operate within the world of leadership teams, governing bodies, sub-committees and the like.

Human Beings are sociable creatures and we like to surround ourselves with people who have our back and who complement, challenge and support us. So how do we end up in situations where we sometimes feel so isolated?

Anyone who has had to face up to Ofsted will know exactly what I mean, especially when it’s your name that ends up on the front of the report. Inspection can make or break a headteacher’s career and nobody likes to be told that they are not very good at what they do.

Social media doesn’t help. Despite its name, there’s nothing social (or sociable) about being called out on Twitter, especially by supposed intelligent professionals. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour seems to be on the increase, particularly by those that have never led a school or choose to hide behind their profile. Heads who put themselves out there are easy targets for those with a blunt axe to grind.

Only last month I was told on Twitter by a charming lady who has never met me to sling my hook. She eloquently went on to inform me that I’m petty and punitive and that I’m sucking the integrity out of the system. Quite extraordinary behaviour from a person who could unknowingly be working alongside you in a school, claiming to be a teacher. Too many confuse their so-called right to speak freely with being down right rude.

That said, where social media does have its advantage is when it allows heads to reach out to others – like-minded souls who understand their plight and can relate in some way to their frustrations.

Take a rogue inspection, for example. Although these thankfully are rare, it seems to be happening far too often of late. Ofsted don’t seem to like it when heads reach out and share their concerns because it’s seen as scaremongering.

If your inspection went well, that’s okay, go ahead, share all you want. Ofsted may even give you a retweet. But if it goes pear-shaped, please keep the noise down. Apparently it undermines all the work being done to bust the myths. But all we are doing is being entirely natural and trying to connect up with similar folk in an attempt at changing something.

Tribes

In his Ted Talk of 2009, Seth Godin talks about this behaviour as being entirely normal, a condition in fact that he actively encourages.

As humans, we have a natural propensity to want to join up, to connect and form tribes with like-minded people to try and change something. The creation of tribes are essential if we are to change anything, both sociologically and metaphorically. So what we should do as leaders is attempt to make connections with people with similar ideas and beliefs (including those on the fringes) and get them to join us.

What is crucial here is that they join you not because you force them to, but because they want to. It’s how movements begin. You only need to look at #WomenEd and the recent #NewVoices to appreciate what can be done. The best MATs understand this.

This is no different to how you create a powerful school. When you want to change anything, especially if it’s the status quo, what you are saying to your team is, ‘This one’s important. We need to organise around this. Who’s in?’  This is when we need to circle our wagons, to create some sort of siege mentality. At this point, the tribe needs to return to base camp and be clear about what it intends to disrupt.

Those of you who have read my book will know all about the importance of creating a base camp. Base camp is a safe place personal to you where you go often, to re-energise, reflect and re-calibrate. Everything that you do as a leader begins and ends here and it comes down to just three things: who you are as a person, what you believe in and the values that bind you.

For any of you that have ever scaled an Everest-type mountain, you will know that you can’t go straight to the top, as tempting as it may be. Instead, you need to climb high and sleep low, returning each night to base camp to rest and recover and acclimatise to the harsh conditions before climbing a bit higher the next day.

I might never have climbed such a mountain before, but as a headteacher I’ve always believed I could move one. A base camp that is forever on the move and adapting to the environment is the key to achieving this.

I had the privilege of speaking about this at the NAHT/ASCL Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham last month. I mention this for three reasons:

(1) I got to sit in the same seat on the main stage as Humpty Dumpty (ex-Play School presenter, Floella Benjamin placed it there when she spoke the day before);

(2) I got to meet backstage one of my leadership heroes, Michael Fullen, who happened to speak immediately before me (what a great warm-up he was too), and;

(3) I got to hear Professor Steve Peters open the conference with a keynote about the Chimp Paradox.

Steve Peters is an amazing speaker. He is also a great author. His groundbreaking book The Chimp Paradox is essentially a mind-management tool that helps to explain the daily struggle that we all face when dealing with our inner Chimp. Peters has helped all sorts of people deal with their Chimp, including Sky Pro Cycling and Liverpool FC, as well as everyday folk who lead and live busy and stressful lives like you and me.

We all have an inner Chimp and almost every day we do battle to keep it under control.

The good news, is that it can be done, but only if we surround ourselves with the right kind of people and have a clear understanding of who’s in our tribe. We must never leave ourselves vulnerable by allowing ourselves to become isolated.

Chimps

The Chimp exists in the limbic system of your brain and is your emotional machine. The paradox in the title of the book refers to the fact that the Chimp can be your best friend and worst enemy if you don’t know how to control the pesky little thing.

One of the ways that the book suggests you can do this is by building a support network, a tribe of people, both at home and at work that have your back, that you can rely on, and that are part of your inner circle. They are always welcome in your base camp. He calls this your troop and that if you have the wrong people in it, the results can be disastrous.

Let me tell you this much. Nothing provokes and winds up my irrational little Chimp more than Ofsted. Traffic jams, train delays, Davina McCall and tractors are right up there. They don’t come close though when it comes to Ofsted.

In contrast to the Chimp is the Human, the part of the brain that thinks logically based on facts and the truth. The trouble with Ofsted is that to my wayward Chimp, very little of what Ofsted offers is based on logic or facts. Instead, it comes down to somebody else’s perception of reality – their own feelings and impressions.

In effect, the entire inspection process becomes troop warfare; a meaningless Battle of the Chimps – mine versus the lead inspector.

Troops

This is when I’m likely to need a 1:1 therapy session with Prof Peters. If I was lucky enough to find myself sitting on his couch for half an hour this is what he’d tell me:

“Andrew, you need to find your troop, a small band of trustworthy people that will help nurture and develop you, but most importantly will stand by you even when you are under attack. By forming your own troop you’ll be able to answer such questions as ‘Why do I worry so much about what others think?’ and ‘Why do I always feel the need to impress other people all the time?’

A word of warning though. When recruiting your troop, your Chimp will be looking to recruit different people than your Human. In Chimp mode, you will want to be protected by people that share the same emotions and feelings as you. It will choose people based on what they can offer you and keep the troop safe. The Chimp seeks solace in people with superficial qualities such as looks and power.

The Human has a completely different agenda, wanting instead to be surrounded by people of like mind who can offer companionship and friendship. The Human wants people with similar values who are reliable and predictable – soulmates and people with Humanity. Getting the balance right is not easy.

And always remember this: There will be other Chimps out there from different troops that are intent on harming you. You need to learn that opinions from outside your troop are not important. You won’t then give two hoots about Ofsted…

And so it goes on to such a point that I’ve learnt to tame my Chimp and won’t let people steal my happiness.

So to summarise, Peters offers the following exercise to help you create your own troop. Next time you find yourself back at base camp, try to find a few minutes to work through the exercise with your troop.

How to create your troop

1. ESTABLISH WHO’S IN: Think carefully who is really in your troop and why. List members of your troop (both at home and at work) and ensure that the Human has chosen them. If the Chimp has taken control, then redefine.

2. CLARIFY ROLES: Be clear about what each troop member is offering you and what you offer in return. Only ask troop members to fulfill a role that is suitable so spend time with them being clear what each person brings. Be sure to share goals, values and beliefs.

3. INVEST IN THE TROOP: Make time to engage with them meaningfully and refresh if required. Be mindful that if neglected, people may choose to leave. Always keep asking yourself, ‘What have I done today to invest in my troop?’

Get this right, and chances are you’ll find people queueing round the block wanting them to lead you. I certainly will.

(You can learn more about how to control your inner Chimp in Steve Peters’ seminal book The Chimp Paradox. This particular post is based on Chapter 8, The Troop Moon.)

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Why being a new Head is as easy as ABC

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Much has been written about how crucial the first 100 days are for a leader in a new organisation. The temptation is to assume that if you haven’t made your mark by then, chances are you’ve blown it.

We all know as teachers that the first few weeks with a new class are time-critical in terms of laying down markers and expectations. Boundaries need to be set, rules and routines established so that everyone is clear about how things are going to work around here.

Nailing the climate or culture of learning is essential, and that begins and ends with you.

It’s not quite as simple as this when taking up a new position as headteacher in a school, or in our case, sponsoring a new academy.

Using your brain

You can’t just go in there and expect all the staff to fall into line merely because you are in charge. We’ve thankfully moved away from the days of the ‘hero head’ where authority and being the font of all knowledge were all you needed to get by. IQ has long been replaced by EQ.

But even this might no longer be enough. What we now need is CQ: Cultural Intelligence, or the ability to experience and adapt to new environments in more complex situations without losing sight of our own values and core purpose.

One thing you have to learn within those first 100 days is to live in the world you inherit.

A culturally intelligent leader is able to navigate this and get to grips with a culture that is new and alien to them. This of course takes time and so the very best leaders need all three, EQ, IQ and CQ if they are to lead effectively and focus on the main thing.

Using your gut

The trouble is, it’s not always that easy to know what the main thing is, especially in a school that may have become destabilised by the forces operating on it (of which you are one).

Your gut tells you that the main priorities must be to fix things quickly like marking, feedback, planning, instruction, behaviour, routines, attendance and so on. Pretty much every Ofsted inspection report for an SM school reads the same and all of these are likely to appear in the report in some shape or form.

As we approach the 100th day of sponsoring our newest academy, despite the complexities of IQ, EQ and CQ, over the years I’ve learnt that it all boils down to essentially three things: Aims, Beliefs, and of course, Culture.

Get these right – just like the teacher with a new class – and everything else potentially falls into place. It’s not quite as simple as ABC, but as starting points go, it’s a good one:

Aims: It goes without saying that being absolutely clear about what it is that you intend to do right at the start is essential. Make sure you tell your story so that everyone gets the same consistently clear message, regardless of how it might be received. As we’ll see next, perception is everything, so use every opportunity to re-enforce the fact that you will follow-up and you will follow-through. Wrapping this all up in a clear vision statement is also crucial so that people know the ‘why?’. If they understand your purpose and why it is that things need to change, then levels of engagement will hopefully increase.

Beliefs: Perceptions lead to beliefs and beliefs lead to action. The things that we believe in as adults, rightly or wrongly, are based on our perceptions of reality. The things that we believe to be true determine very much how we choose to act (take religion, love or the football team that you blindly choose to support). So, if as a leader you want to change the way people act and behave, then you may need to change their perceptions and beliefs. This often starts with getting people to ditch their limiting beliefs and instead adopt a more open mindset. Nobody likes change, but if people believe it to be necessary and understand why and how it will be achieved, buy-in is far more likely to follow. Engaging your staff must be your main priority and they will only do this if they believe in you, themselves and the vision.

Culture: No matter how as a leader you try and re-culture an organisation, if the prevailing beliefs are holding you (and others) back, little will change. The development of a leadership culture is essential where everyone steps up and is prepared to embark on a voyage of understanding and discovery. To not change is simply not an option. No matter what we know about genetics, human nature is not fixed. People can choose to change if they wish. Your aim as a leader is to build a culture where staff embrace the need to work hard at developing themselves and becoming more self-aware of how they can improve, regardless of how limiting or enabling their beliefs are. This is where your core values come into play.

Up until now, during our first 100 days we have focused almost entirely on ABC. I’ve still yet to walk into a classroom and spend time watching how well the teachers can translate the curriculum into learning. I’ve flicked through the occasional exercise book but have yet to delve deep into how well the teachers assess pupils’ learning and feed this back to them. We haven’t tried to undertake any sort of data sweep, dump or analysis.

Using your heart

Whether this is the right thing to do or not remains to be seen. Perhaps to some it may appear as if we lack urgency.

But all of this is to come. The first 100 days do not mark the end of the story. Instead, it’s merely the end of the beginning. For those of you new to headship in September, take heed. The first 100 days aren’t about ripping up trees. Instead, use the time wisely to plant seeds.

Of course it’s not as simple as ABC; the management of change is far more complex than that. What it does help us remember though, is that sometimes, if giant leaps of faith are required, going back to the basics is always a good thing.

 

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Inside the infinite loop

I am writing this in an Apple conference room in Cupertino, California as I await a transfer to San Jose airport. The past four days have been exhilarating to say the least. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s been the best PLD experience I’ve ever had. I am very grateful to be invited by Apple and SSAT to be a part it. It’s not every day you get invited to spend a week behind the curtain with Apple at their HQ.

As I await the long flight home, I’m trying to use this time to reflect and make sense of all that I’ve seen. My head is spinning.

Further, more in-depth posts will follow. Such as how impressive an organisation Apple are when you get to the core. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed behind the curtain and go places very few have been. To have walked the same corridors as Steve Jobs and to maybe have sat in a room where his team of ultimate disruptors changed our perceptions of everything, is very humbling.

For now though, three things that have really hit home for me:

1. Apple are not a company that sells tech. Instead they exist to make us think differently about what we perceive education to be. Technology is merely a means to that end. One particular comment from one of the Austin store retail managers stands out for me: ‘What we do as employees of Apple we do first for ourselves and then for the world. Our soul is our people … people who shine a spotlight on you to stand outside it.’

2. Education in England is exceptional. What we are currently doing in our schools in terms of student collaboration, innovation and creativity is top drawer. When you have the privilege to visit other high-performing schools in other countries, it reaffirms your faith in all that you believe in and that as a profession we are well ahead of the game.

3. Culture is king. And at the heart of any successful culture is simplicity. We are all guilty of over-complicating things. If we want to tell our story in a way that is compelling, engaging and authentic, then we need to strip it right back. Always begin with the ‘why’. Everything else then falls into place.

It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to learn with so many inspiring colleagues who themselves are all facing the same challenges back in their schools. But the schools and communities they serve are in safe hands because I’ve seen first hand – up close and personal – how passion stokes the fire in their bellies.

I’m looking forward to spreading a bit of that warmth around my own colleagues on my return. For now though, I’ll spend the flight home mulling over even more how I intend to change the world.

On marginal losses and mobile phones

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Earlier this week at work I had to go a day without email. It’s not until you experience an ‘internet outage moment’ that you realise how reliant you’ve become on technology.

When I first became a headteacher in 1998, email had only just begun to dribble into schools. Fax machines were all the rage and were understandably reluctant to be barged aside by the newcomer. As exciting as it was to receive your mail electronically, you couldn’t beat the thrill of teasing apart an envelope just itching to be opened. (In those days people seldom wrote to me.)

‘Email’ was clearly never going to catch on. It was clunky, could only be downloaded once a day and originated entirely from the LA. As a result, most of it was rubbish.

A few years later – at the turn of the millennium – a certain Nokia 3310 hit the scene, and like most young heads at the time, I had to have one. I considered myself to be an IT guru as I was the only headteacher out of 150 or so in the LA that had made the move to an electronic diary. I’d long since ditched the Letts, instead choosing to cart around a Filofax that was the size of a carry-on suitcase.

So when I had the opportunity to buy a digital Acer PDA, complete with stylus and touch screen, I jumped at the chance. It was a nightmare though because it wasn’t synced to the school so the secretary never had a clue what I was doing or where I was meant to be. Neither did I for that matter, but I looked cool.

You can imagine how excited I was when I heard the news of the re-emergence of the iconic 3310 as a dumbphone for a new (or old) smart generation of mobile technology users. In a sea of sameness, the current crop of phones fail to excite me like they once did. I no longer care about what the new iPhone may look like.

What was once fresh and exciting has now become conventional (which makes me all the more determined to ditch it). Eager to be reinvigorated, I visited the BETT show a few years ago but found the whole thing bitterly distasteful; aisle after aisle of seemingly over-prevaricating dotcom hipsters fresh out of college trying to convince me that everything I once knew about education was wrong. They’d clearly never set foot in a classroom. I won’t be going back.

What the whole Nokia thing has done though has made me yearn for certain things in life that are stripped back and simple. To be able to open a device and simply make a call appeals to me immensely. Only last month I was getting mildly manic as the stupid touch screen key pad on my phone failed to operate. It was only when I noticed that I was using the calculator app that I realised I’d crossed a line.

All of us need to reboot at times and whilst I could never go back to a paper diary or dial-up, there are a number of things going on around me in schools that could do with being Nokia’d.

With Lent underway, now might be as good a time as any to think about what we need to give up in schools. Too often we get swept away by the rhetoric and find ourselves doing things without actually knowing why. We become institutionalised and set in our ways.

Or, more dangerously, we find ourselves doing things for other people beyond the school without thinking why. Ofsted, the DfE, local authority are all case in points.

To be fair though to the DfE and Ofsted, a lot has been done recently to demystify the myths surrounding expectations. But still, too many schools don’t want to strip back and are nervous about letting go. When I visit schools that are in the process of being brokered for sponsorship – schools that are in special measures – the one thing that stands out a mile off is that they are simply trying to do too much.

They need to de-clutter and recalibrate so that they focus only on the main thing. Forget marginal gains. From now on, I’m going for marginal losses and I urge you to do the same.

So what would be your 3310? If you could choose to rip out all the guff and go back to basics, without compromising on quality and efficiency, what would it be? I’d suggest the photocopier would be a good place to start. How I harp back to the days when I could just pop next door and press a green button and out pops a copy.

Instead, I now have to carry around with me in my briefcase the launch codes and encrypted authentication sequences required for every photocopier for every school in the trust. And that’s before we even move on to the Wi-Fi settings and door entry codes.

Maybe your 3310 would be your interactive whiteboard, stuffed so full of tech that all you do is use it as a screen to show the date? Perhaps it’s your dog-eared teacher record book or multi-tabbed electronic assessment tracking system?

Take a look at your displays. Do you quake with fear when you’ve been told that you’ve got to cram in every single child’s piece of triple-mounted work regardless of how it helps with learning?

What about assemblies? As a young headteacher I always way overcooked the goose as I thought that the show was all about me. Nowadays of course, you can’t beat a good old-fashioned story (no slides, animations or audio, just a chair), all very appropriate for World Book Day.

You’ve got me started. There are more: policies, target-setting, governing bodies, report writing, risk assessments, data analysis, homework, websites, lesson planning, school development plans, marking. I’m sure you could come up with plenty more in your school.

We could all do with taking a leaf out of Nokia’s book. Not as a commercial gimmick or publicity stunt, but as an act of real authenticity and purpose. Just as with our mobile phones, we know that we need certain things in our schools and that without them we couldn’t get by. But every now and again, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all go a bit retro?

 

The Art of Standing Out is available now on Amazon, published by John Catt Educational.

The ultimate oxymoron

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There is no such thing as rapid improvement. The two words simply don’t belong together. Rapid alterations, yes. I can live with that. Rapid change, possibly. But rapid improvement? Absolutely not.

Part of the problem is knowing what we mean by ‘rapid’. It was a phrase that was used many a time by HMI whilst doing our level best to move along a school that was stuck. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how impressive the changes, it was never rapid enough. So as a head I gave up bothering because I soon learnt that if I played the game and gave them ‘rapid’, they left me alone. But it was never going to stick. No sooner had I moved on to the next matter in hand, rapid turned into vapid. There was nothing there, it was meaningless, bland.

I raise this because we are fast approaching day 75 of sponsoring a new academy (working days only). In another 25, we reach the mythical 100-day milestone and by then research tells us that we should have made a difference. In reality this is just over half a school year, so whether it’s reasonable or not to see rapid improvement – with real demonstrable impact – is debatable.

We’ve hardly been pulling up trees during the first one hundred days at school. This mustn’t be mistaken for complacency or lethargy. On the contrary; we’ve been fervent in all that we do. But what we have been doing is watching, observing, listening and talking. This ensures that we lay firm foundations for long term systemic change. In turn the hope is that this will secure the deep-rooted improvements that we yearn.

Having found myself in this position a number of times in different schools throughout my career, what I’ve learnt is this: Horizontalism is the key. This means that leaders see the process of change not as a vertical upward trajectory akin to launching a rocket, but as a sideways segue, perhaps more like the meandering of a submersible as it probes beneath the surface.

The first one hundred days are indeed vital, so use them wisely. Don’t be rushed or hurried. Embrace the fact that rapid improvement is very much a slowburner and can only take off once you’ve been through three distinct phases:

ONE | Stabilise: This is where you need to show that as a leader things are simply not as bad as people may think (even if they are). You need to slow things down, calm things down. It’s crucial during this period that you are able to assess the situation critically and dispassionately and not get drawn into the politics or hubris of a school in crisis. Unless the seas are calm, turbulence prevails and meaningful change simply won’t happen. Creating such an illusion begins and ends with you.

TWO | Prioritise: Once you have turned the illusion into reality and established a sense of calm and stability, it becomes a lot easier to decide what your first important priorities are. With a steady ship you are able to recalibrate the compass. As a team, it is time to create a plan of action in the short, medium and long term. Together, you need to have a strong sense of OST, being clear of your new destination (Objective), how you are going to get there (Strategy) and who does what on the way (Tactics).

THREE | Visualise: This is the most powerful phase. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see the school that you want to create. You need to bring the OST to life by giving it a sense of mission, so that all stakeholders know not only where you want to go, but most importantly, why. To visualise therefore is to rationalise. This is where your vision and values come in to play, and by now, staff should know these inside out. Once you’ve achieved this, you are all set to take off and really make a meaningful difference in a way that will stick.

There could potentially be a fourth phase. If this were so, it would be this: Minimise. This is actually quite crucial as it reminds us that less is more. It really ought to operate alongside each of the phases above, which is why I’m inclined not to include it separately.

Minimising is about being clear of what the main thing is and sticking to it relentlessly. The best leaders ask the question, ‘what is it that we need to do less of?’ This ensures that our OST remains to the point, is purposeful and at the same time being both specific and realistic. Leaders that understand this have a strong sense of USP. They know what their school’s unique selling point is and how this relates to the community that they serve. Above all, they keep things simple.

 

You can read more about some of these ideas in The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond published by John Catt in 2016 and available on Amazon.

On rigour and vigour

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As we settle down to a new term and get to that point when we finally remember how the job’s meant to be done, it all comes down to two things: Rigour and Vigour.

We must never forget how important these two are and make an extra effort to sharpen our saw. As with a new teacher getting to grips with a new class, if we as leaders fail to invest time in these two right at the start, then before we know it, it’s too late. We must be rigorous and vigorous in all that we do, so that we make clear to the people around us what our expectations are and how we want them to behave.

The most thoughtful leaders embrace the need to be rigorous. Rigour is simply the quality of being extremely thorough and careful. It’s about being meticulous in all that you do, paying  great attention to detail. Rigorous leaders are diligent and precise and in order to be so know that they need to sit back and watch and reflect on what they are seeing.

In our multi academy trust, we are currently supporting a new school that we are bringing in to the fold. The school has  been floundering somewhat and finds itself on the wrong side of Ofsted. It was once an outstanding school and the staff are understandably jaded and lost at sea. Shock, denial and frustration have all taken their toll over the past few years. They need to regroup – we need to regroup – so that together we can  take stock and recalibrate. The staff  were heading in the wrong direction, but with rigour at the helm, it won’t take us long to change course. We’ve already got two other schools in the MAT that were once in measures and are now standingout, so we are well-placed to inject the necessary rigour in a way that is as careful as it is recklessly cautious.

To the staff in this new school, we have told them to lead us. We will watch and follow and nudge and cajole. But we shall do so with high levels of rigour by tapping into the energies that resonate throughout the school and those of the other academies across the trust.

This is where the vigour comes in. They may not know it yet, but every member of staff has been given the permission to be vigorous. Whilst as leaders, it is our job to all become the CEOs – chief energy officers – I want us to draw as much strength from their energies as they do from ours. It then becomes infectious and all-consuming as we bounce ideas off each other in a culture where everyone has the permission to fail and to fail often.

I’ve told all the staff that I have no intention of making any changes for at least a term. They have all been told that they are all standout teachers, they just don’t know it yet. They need the time and space to fall back in love with teaching. They need to reclaim their mojo – their va va voom – or whatever else you might call it. They need to delve deep inside themselves – their chambers and their valves – and rekindle their values and beliefs. It’s got nothing to do with pedagogy or targets or tests. Not at this stage, that will come later. For now, it’s all about vigour and the 3 Es: Effort, Energy and Enthusiasm.

Get this right and you’ve cracked it. Andy Buck, for example, talks of the importance of discretionary effort. Known also as ‘going the extra mile’, Andy reminds us that it’s not all about leadership from the top that gets results. Instead, it comes from deeper down within the organisation, most probably a line manager or phase leader. It’s about meticulous attention to detail and showing that you care. Staff appreciate rigour because it shows that you are prepared to really invest time in them by not being superficial or shallow. As a headteacher, I myself appreciate rigour from those that hold me to account because I know it means that we are not just scratching away on the surface but really getting to the heart of the matter.

So if you are a new Headteacher in a school, or stepping up as deputy or senior leader, put away your spreadsheets and trackers and templates. Please don’t start talking about SATs and SIPs and the need to tighten up. Again, that will come later. Instead, have the courage to stand back and climb high. It’s only when you are up there that you can really and truly appreciate how good your school is. And when you’ve done that, climb back down and dive deep. But don’t make the mistake of diving in, however tempting it may be. Two-footed tackles get you nowhere. Instead, jog on behind and try and occasionally knick the ball off them. And when you do, dribble alongside a bit and then carefully pass it back before peeling off and running beside someone else.

Your staff will thank you for it. The children will thank you for it. And you will sleep well at night knowing that thank heavens, you did the right thing.

 

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.