Not another leadership lecture
Against a backdrop of constant change, deep uncertainty and a fair dose of fear, we have all had to adapt like never before. I’m not here to preach; but I want to celebrate amazing creativity, innovation, determination and a group of people who have taken on new roles, people who have come together as teams and who have discovered things that they didn’t know they could do.
As a coach – most often in a leadership environment – I am working with individuals who are on a ‘leadership journey’. This means that references to classic leadership tools, guru’s statements and all the well-known instructions for success are familiar. We all have to learn, but there is little doubt that reflective and experiential learning is the most powerful way to embed our knowledge for effective future action.
What I have seen recently in my coaching conversations is powerful.
This is culture
“This is how we do things around here”.
Sound familiar? Just Google Culture or Organisational Culture Change and you can soon be overwhelmed. I’m going to hazard a guess that in the next six months or so we will be even more awash with solutions and ways of bringing about swift culture change. I’m also going to suggest that in six months time the bandwagon will not be seen for dust. Don’t get me wrong, the essence of culture change will be similar: 1. look at what you have; 2. Look at what you want; 3. Design something new; 4. Share it with everyone (at which point I am, I confess, rolling my eyes as this needs to be number ONE); 5. Check the new is in line with values and visions and what you really want; 6. Implement and keep under review. So, maybe not so different. But just read on to see how people in education are living and succeeding at change.
What WILL be different is the speed at which it can happen.
I found a nice piece in Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrock/2019/05/24/fastest-way-to-change-culture/#734ecf243d50, Thank you David Rock) where there is a suggestion that almost all organisations are thinking about a change in culture, but worryingly less than 20% of employees think they are up for it. Dr Rock talks about a model PHS – Priorities, Habits, Systems, which has been tried and tested and which he believes can effect a real difference in nine months.
Nine? We have just had three and a bit and look where we are now!!
So what happened?
What has just happened?!
What has just happened is that we have been forced to rethink our priorities, change our habits and use new systems in order to get work done.
Let’s think about this in the context of education, as this is where almost all my coaching conversations have been in the last three months. I’m working with Senior leaders – Executive Heads, Head Teachers, Deputies and Section leads across academy trusts. They have been busy, really busy since lockdown, and although many of them are tired, I am not seeing the same overwhelming exhaustion that many have near the end of term or a school year. This is about how they have had to juggle an array of different things.
Suddenly their staffing was diminished, with people shielding or self-isolating. Suddenly, the role looked more like child-care than education as they allowed other key workers to do their jobs. Suddenly they lost face to face contact, not just with colleagues, but importantly with the children. This wasn’t just about the children’s learning, it was about their well-being. Suddenly, the communication with parents changed. Suddenly the way that lessons and learning were delivered had to change. And this meant that the feedback to children had to change.
Did our wonderful teachers give up? Did they down tools? Oh no. There was no choice, change was upon us all.
If I had to construct a word cloud around education, I think that ‘Ofsted’, ‘Data’, ‘SATs’ would loom large. We have to be able to see how a school is faring because our next generations deserve to head into the world with the best chances we can give them, but the line between measuring what is done and doing what needs to be done gets shaky.
All of a sudden the priorities changed. It wasn’t about what Ofsted were going to say, it was about how the children were going to get the education they needed and how vulnerable families would be supported through education.
All at once, people’s roles changed, they were geographically separated and we immediately lost a common communication method. The ‘quick question’, the ‘door-stepping’ in the corridor, the ‘tea-room’ conversations: gone at a swipe.
Virtual meetings changed all this. Availability changed, planning changed (and, as an aside, aren’t we all much better at writing shopping lists now?), focus changed.
So what actually happened to our priorities? Working from home has provided some interesting insights as well as challenges. The reduced interruptions have meant clearer thought pathways, the ability to see more of the family (no commute time and short breaks stroking the dog or hanging out washing maybe?) have highlighted family life. Has the work still got done? Yes, albeit different work. People are telling me that they have identified (tangibly) the priorities that really matter. Dr Rock called them ‘sticky’ (I like this, it describes them completely). Because the individuals have identified new priorities for themselves they will be memorable and have shown themselves to be feasible (certainly at present).
Priorities have shifted from the day to day, from the data and measurement of what is being done, to actually making the schools safe places for key worker children and to providing home-learning for others.
Many schools have been providing food parcels and support in their communities and have been getting to know and understand them better. Communication with parents has been different, (phone, not ‘at the school gate’), but focussed on the families.
Habits or ways of working become comfortable, ingrained and easy to continue – which is why change is tough. It takes effort and it can also be worrying. Psychologists will tell us that the best way to change a habit is to do something we haven’t done before. This feels uncomfortable so our default is often to stay the same. In his book ‘Rip it Up’, Richard Wiseman asks us to rip pages from the book as we work through it. He was spot on when he predicted that I was saying ‘noooooo’. Who tears up a book? This is it in a nutshell, even if something is harmless, it can feel very un-nerving to do it if it is out of our normal sphere of action.
And what’s happened in this pandemic?
Habits have had to change, overnight. Completely. All those little communications, the way we plan (no certainty these days!), the way that feedback goes to children on their work, (the way that marking disappeared?), the way we would commute, work late, separate home and work. We’ve all had to embrace technology. Online lessons, online meetings, shared documents, meetings at unusual times. Not all of these things are advantageous, but we’ve seen seismic shifts in habit.
On the whole, the people I have been coaching have worked right through, many with no Easter holiday or half term and although exams are not going to be missed in some ways there are some serious milestones which have disappeared. The importance of these was raised by one Head Teacher and reminds me of how important these things are. It is easy enough to lose track of which day it is when routine disappears and even that feels strange. It is uncomfortable and a sign that we need some kind of stability in our lives.
Systems help us to achieve things and allow us to work from a framework or with new infrastructure.
How many of us really wanted to have so many virtual meetings? Why didn’t we do it before? Why was it that we didn’t set up that shared document system to speed up reviewing? Why did we always assume that meetings had to be at certain times? That feedback had to be done in a certain way? That communication, if not face to face, could be left?
Systems have had to change too, in order to accommodate the new ways of working and our shifting priorities.
How has this all made a difference to schools?
Again, from the Priorities/Habits/Systems model, we hear that experience of insights to new culture will engender strong motivation. All change leaders urge us to talk about it all the time – and who hasn’t recently? We are told that to reach our goals and achieve the ambition for our organisation, we have to have a shared vision. Never has this been seen more practically than now. We have to LIVE our culture. LIVE our priorities.
I’m not telling you this as a leadership coach, this is what senior leaders in education have been saying to me.
“We (the team) are working so well together. The cohesion and collaboration is really good”
“Phoning the parents has been great, we’ve started to understand each other so much better”
“We all know what we are aiming for”
“Everyone has been so flexible. We have different roles, but we are still getting everything done”
“I know that I really need to see my own children in the evenings”
“We are finding ways to give feedback to the children”
“I’m loving the ‘child-care element’, but I’m looking forward to really teaching again and seeing all the children”
“People are less overwhelmed and they are willing to get stuck in”
There are stories of teachers and LSAs coming in to redecorate, to build outdoor class-rooms, to develop things for the children’s return, there is a sense of achievement, success in challenging times, creativity and innovation. There is lots of kindness, there is trust and delegation because people are working remotely.
And in future?
The reason that I believe we can make lasting change is that this has all been tangible, it has been experiential and although the change itself was outside our control, we have all made our own changes so that we could get on with what we do. Our Senior leaders in education have been showing all the things that leadership gurus tell us we need for good leadership and effective organisations. They have been living their visions, defining their values, understanding their priorities and learning how to communicate effectively.
Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to all of the people I have coached in the last few months, and from whom I have taken inspiration, because they have all demonstrated all the important qualities and behaviours that we are going to need for the next phase. They have learned and reflected and this is what can help us to bottle this all up into the Positive Vibes bottle and carry it on into next year.
I take my hat off to you all.