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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

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The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

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What Gareth Southgate can teach us about leading

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(This post can is also available in the TES here.)

If the World Cup is not your thing, then look away now. But if you have a passing interest in leadership and how the manager of England can teach us a thing or two about the art, then read on.

On the eve of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – Wednesday 4th July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.

Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 80’s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.

As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspirals all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.

It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.

Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.

And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.

You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.

Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.

The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.

But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.

Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:

Class is permanent

The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.

He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).

Know thyself

It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.

I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.

He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: ‘I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.’ He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.

Leading down the middle

Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands and feet.

The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent back bone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health and well-being.

OST

Successful leaders have a strong sense of Objective, Strategy, Tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no-one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.

With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.

When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.

Legacy

What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at Under-21s, Kane, Dier and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.

The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The Euros in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.

The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.

At long last we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the three lions seem to mean something.

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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.

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Live from the 15:17 to Newport

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I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

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So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

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Go, tell it on the mountain!

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It can’t have escaped your notice that earlier this week it was World Storytelling Day. As a leader, the only story you need to be telling is the one about you – who you are, what you stand for and why your school is the best party in town.

Telling powerful stories about the culture you have created as a headteacher is what makes you stand out as a truly great leader. Storytelling helps the best leaders nail their colours to the mast for all to see by bringing their values to life through metaphor and motto. Leaders that harness this power create a ‘legend’, a lasting legacy that lives on long after they’ve gone.

As with all good stories, it’s the way you tell them that matters. Let’s face it, as teachers, we all know how powerful a good story can be to a captivated audience. Telling stories to children is what we do really well.

As leaders, we need to learn how to translate this skill to adults. The principles aren’t really that much different. (Other than the small fact that those that are listening can just get up and leave.)

The best heads know that a compelling story well-told creates cultural glue. It’s about forming emotive connections that bind people together with a common language and sense of purpose. It’s what motivates people and gets them out of bed in the morning.

So important is the art of storytelling, that in James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, he argues that leaders even need to go so far as to invent their own language. In so doing, this then allows them to “sing the world into existence” because they’ve created their own vocabulary.

Seth Godin suggests a different art-form (in his book, ‘Tribes: We need you to lead us’). Rather than sing or tell stories, we must instead get our brushes out and ‘paint a picture of the future’ on our blank canvas.

To ensure your narrative comes to life, your values and beliefs become the star of the story – centre-stage characters that drive the plot. You need to embellish and develop people’s understanding of what drives these key characters; how they got there, where they came from and where they are going.

As with all good books, we need to fall in love with the people that are in them. If we don’t care much for the main characters and can’t associate ourselves with them, we don’t care much for the story. The same goes with your core ideology – your vision, values and reason for being.

As James Kerr says:

“Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.”

I believe that the best leaders all share a number of traits that make them become master storytellers. You need to try and exhibit them often, and as with anything worth doing well, you need to practise them often too. These character traits include: energising, discovering, imagining, celebrating, failing, questioning and dismantling. (You can read more about them in my book).

What is crucial as a leader is that you model these frequently, whilst at the same time giving out permissions to others to do the same.

For example, staff need to know that they have permission (or not) to fail often, or question often. They need to know the extent to which they can dismantle what’s not working in their classroom or the degree to which they can discover (and try out) new things without coming to you first.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, by giving these permissions out openly to all and as soon as you can, as a leader you are unwittingly defining the culture of the school without anyone necessarily knowing it.

In a recent article in The New York Times, research showed that when transforming challenging schools in Chicago, those traits mentioned above are commonplace. Although not identical to the ones I suggest, they certainly aren’t dissimilar:

“When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits that they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.”

What’s really interesting is that the key to embedding systemic change is not to do with what you do financially, structurally or administratively. It’s not about having the best ideas or always being right or being the most clever. Instead, it’s about how you engage, motivate and galvanise the people around you.

It’s about how well you tell your story.

“We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.”

Let’s be crystal clear about this. The stories that you tell about the culture that you’ve created start and end with you. It’s your name above the door: You set the weather. The team that you create are only as good as the culture that allows them to thrive (or not).

The New York Times sum it up perfectly:

“Principals set the culture by their very behaviour – the message is the person.”

Those seven traits mentioned above aren’t the complete picture. There is an eighth and it’s the one that I think is most important when creating a culture built to last: Articulating.

Being able to articulate your vision effectively can be a daunting and challenging prospect, whether it be in the form of a story, painting or song. It’s not good enough simply to tell or instruct people. Sending out an email, death by PowerPoint or a glossy laminated infographic won’t engage anyone.

I always remember a senior leader whom I first worked with as a new head. She couldn’t see why things weren’t being done. “I’ve sent them all a group email dozens of time,” she’d say. “I’ve told them in briefing over and over again. I don’t get what bit of it they don’t understand!” She really was getting very exasperated.

The answer of course was in the messaging, the storytelling. There was no connection, no buy-in and therefore a complete lack of emotional attachment from the staff. Shouting louder and stamping your feet simply won’t wash.

The wisest leaders understand then that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. As well as being visceral in their storytelling, they are also marketing and communication experts. They do this often, not by accident, but methodically and persistently.

They are highly proactive at continually seeking openings to tell their story at every opportunity, often by stealth, to anyone prepared (and sometimes not) to listen.

The best leaders sit people down and empower them and build consensus by bringing their vision to life in a way that is compelling and entirely believable. They are dogged and unwavering in equal measure.

Their story becomes their mantra.

And always remember this: If you don’t tell the story, who will? Seize the moment.

For no other reason then than it being international storytelling week, to close, here is one of my favourite stories about the importance of leadership, one that you might like to tell any budding future leader. Just promise me you won’t send them a memo.

It’s called ‘The Feast’ and it goes like this:

After yet another disastrous project that resulted in higher taxes and more hardship imposed on the people, a wise man let it be known at court that he was a master chef. One day he announced a feast at which he would prepare the most delicious new food. The King and all of his advisers were invited and couldn’t wait to attend.

When the various dignitaries arrived, full of anticipation, the food was presented in great style. But it proved to be disgusting.

“What is this abominable, poisonous mess you are asking us to eat?” cried the outraged guests. “You’re making us all sick!”

“This is my latest recipe,” explained the chef. “I made it up as I went along, putting in at random anything that came to hand without any rhyme or reason. It seemed like a good idea.”

“That’s absurd!” the King and all his advisors shouted at once. “That’s no way to prepare a meal.”

“I agree,” said the wise one before making a hasty exit. “But I thought it would be interesting, nonetheless, to try out a recipe based on your way of doing things.”