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Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.
Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.
In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture. Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.
With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.
Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.
One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.
As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.
Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.
First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.
Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.
Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.
Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.
Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.
Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”
There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.
I’ve just started a course that requires a high level of self-reflection and I’ve got to say it’s scary business. Reflection is something that we as leaders and indeed as educators do on a regular basis. We constantly try to find better ways to engage our audience, to deliver better outcomes for students, to strengthen and broaden opportunities for the communities we serve. Having said that there is a great deal of reflection on the behaviour of others. I’m questioning though, how deeply we reflect on our own behaviour?
As leaders we constantly analyse behaviour to look for answers as to why things did or do not happen. Unfortunately we are not always as good at analysing our own. It’s a brave thing to really reflect on your practice. There is a significant difference between thinking about what you have done and really reflecting on its impact. It’s not about negative self-talk, “I should have done this”, “Why did I do that?”’ “You’ve really messed up this time.” It should be a positive process of analysing your action, your responses and trying to identify your impact. Did your leadership drive the impact you were looking for? Did you, as I am learning at present subconsciously negate the possible outcome you were trying to achieve? It takes a great deal of courage to really drill down. It can be quite confronting at times and can leave you feeling very vulnerable when you see the harsh realities.
An easy way to dip your toe into self-reflection is by reading about leadership so you have an increasing understanding of what makes a good leader, observing others, listening to their stories and reflecting on how you would have responded in the same situations, or how you might approach a new situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify a better way of doing things almost absolves you of any fault and allows a safe space to start the practice of self-reflection. There may even be some parallels to your own context that might enable you to make some positive change. From here you can began to look inwardly to really examine what it is that could be holding you back. It may be a chance to break out of a routine that may not be as effective or efficient as it first was. I’m not suggesting that we are all flawed, what I do believe however is that everyone not matter who you are has some personal characteristic that can be developed, grown or enhanced.
Reflection is hard. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin, or just don’t want to begin. It can be quite challenging. For many of us seeing an accurate picture of ourselves with deficiencies, faults and areas for improvement can be quite confronting. The egocentric among us will proclaim “it’s them who have the problem, I know what I’m doing”. The altruist will reflect quite harshly on how they have let others down. Getting the balance right may take practice. The point of reflection is to analyse your behaviours, actions and decisions, opening them up to personal scrutiny and facing your own fears about your own professional judgment. Without true deep self-reflection I believe that you may be limiting your potential. Subconsciously you know when your best effort was not put forward and denying this and not reflecting will not make it go away, it will always be there gnawing at you. The difficulty is being 100% truthful with yourself. We have an inbuilt self-protective system that allows us to reason and justify our actions. It’s one thing to recognise our limitations, it’s another to act on improving them.
Self-reflection is possibly the first practice you will discard when things get busy but that is probably the time when it is needed most. Done correctly it can help you make accurate decisions in stressful and busy times. It is actually a really helpful tool to keep you centred, remembering the why it is that you do something. Allowing yourself quarantined time to think about your work, maybe the car trip, maybe a sneaky cup of coffee on the way to or from work can provide great opportunities for this. The point being that if you don’t dedicate time for reflection, the full agenda takes over and you move on to your next task. It’s not just the thinking about your actions that’s important here. Making plans of action, developing pathways, exploring other alternatives and testing out theories are all part of the reflective process.
Next time you go for a walk leave the phone at home and use the time to truly reflect on your leadership, you might be amazed at the answers. Try answering the following questions:
- Are you making a positive impact? How do you know?
- Would your staff choose to work at a school you lead?
- Do staff choose to follow your direction? Do they do this because they want to or because they are directed to?
- How do you feel about coming to school? Are you happy?
There is a great poem on self-reflection by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr titled “The Man In The Glass”, I highly recommend it.
There are lists aplenty when it comes to what makes a great leader. They need to be courageous, creative, ethical, compassionate, strong, connected and have the ability to make strategic decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. However when stress takes hold, when the workload builds up and that overwhelming feeling rushes over us like an insurmountable wave our focus can be impacted and we run the risk of losing sight of what is really important. I read an article recently that stated that two thirds of leaders surveyed in the study believed that their stress level is higher today than it was 5 years ago. Why is that? In some ways I guess it’s a rhetorical question. We know the demands of the job are increasing, we know the skill set is expanding; we know too well the hours are extending. I know at times the day to day demands can be intense. I hear about leaders who are feeling the pressure to keep up with the evolving nature of the educational landscape. We are certainly under the microscope of producing results, having impact from an intense educational reform platform. So, what impact is this having on our leaders and what can we do to right the ship?
In my conversations with colleagues there seems to be a culture of soldiering on. We are leaders, we can deal with pressure, we don’t have time to slow down, the work needs to be done. It could be perceived as a sign of weakness if we we’re not coping. I also hear of some colleagues who feel they need to appear to be stressed as if there is some unwritten expectation of leadership that you need to be over worked, overloaded and turning out eighteen hour days. Whilst I agree as leaders we need to work hard, we should work hard, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibility. I also believe that we need to strike the right work life balance. We need to be able to identify our own signals of stress and ensure we are able to put things in place to manage our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our staff……..outlets away from work for every leader are vitally important.
So what are the things that seem to cause us stress? During this period of significant educational reform the ever increasing workload plays a major role. We seem to almost get a handle on one concept and another is handed to us, with two more waiting in the wings and then the required compliance matters which never escape us. As leaders we need to be very focussed on what is important. What is it that will have impact? If it has no impact, if it does not relate to what will make a difference for students then eliminate it. It’s been said thousands of times before, but doing a few things well is far better than doing a number of things poorly. Assess what is achievable and work towards it, when we overload our schedules we set ourselves and others up for failure. Much of our stress comes from circumstances beyond our control. Whilst I recognise that we can never eliminate all of the low impact initiatives, we must certainly do everything in our power to make sure the main thing, is the main thing. Focus on what you can take carriage of and make a difference in that area. The external pressure will always be there, by acknowledging this and accepting that it is beyond your control allows you to move on and get on with the job. I believe this is a positive and proactive approach. Showing leadership in this area will not only reduce your stress but will go a long way to eliminating the stress of your staff.
It can be highly stressful dealing with conflict and difficult personalities. I know of many leaders who lose sleep thinking about how they are going have a difficult conversation. The ability to mediate and lead negotiations between personalities to find successful outcomes can be a very difficult and taxing process. It can be challenging to find common ground and at times decisions need to be made that may not please opposing sides. This can weigh heavily on us as leaders. It is common that one side will have a very limited view and cannot see the wider implications of their actions. This tests our skill when trying to navigate these discussions making sure that we listen attentively whilst trying to guide both parties to a successful resolution. Understanding the difference between personal and professional opinion and being able to distinctly separate them so that your judgement is not clouded can be a difficult task. I’ve found that having a plan, thinking through the conversations and trying to anticipate alternatives is helpful and assists greatly in preparation for potentially difficult conversations. Identifying your personal and professional opinion on the subject and trying to view it from the first floor rather than ground level gives some perspective. In difficult conversations perception can become reality for some, so trying to consider how your responses may be perceived is also a useful preparation tool. If you are temporarily able to see your responses through the eyes of others and utilise a degree of emotional intelligence you can be more strategic in your management which maximises the opportunity for a successful resolution.
Another area of frustration I hear from leaders is the roller coaster ride that is maintaining momentum in the implementation of initiatives. We see it regularly. The high quality professional learning has been delivered, the fire in the belly has been ignited, and there is a definitive way forward. The staff are on board, you can almost smell the enthusiasm and passion in the air and then 24 hours later, it’s died down and the flaws in the plan have been highlighted. The reasons why it can’t be achieved have taken you on the one step forward, two steps back dance. I know that feeling I hear you say, it happens here, I leave work in the afternoon feeling great and then by the next morning the weight is firmly back on my shoulders. I believe that we need to focus on progress not perfection. We need to look for and celebrate the small steps forward. Setting long term goals with small increments built in develops the idea that drops in a bucket add up. I’ve found this approach alleviates the frustration. It allows you to anticipate the road blocks and set appropriate detours along the way. Take time out to celebrate the progress and reflect on the incremental achievements. But most importantly don’t ride yourself too hard, there are many working parts to a well-oiled machine and sometimes they just need a little extra oil.
We know that stress can hinder us, but it can also be a force that fortifies our efforts. To use it as a motivator we need to be able to recognise it coming on and monitor our own stress responses. I know when I’m getting stressed. I lose focus, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I will never get the work done. I look at the list, the pile of papers, the full calendar and try to navigate safe passage. I don’t listen as well at this time, I know I’m preoccupied thinking about what needs to be done. It’s at this time that I have to stop and go for a walk, visit a class, take a time out. This short period away allows me to develop some perspective. The work will get done, it always does. In times of high stress I believe we have a tendency to over think the work, to make things more complicated than they need to be. I find making a list of what needs to be done today and what can wait helps to put things in perspective. Thinking about each task and asking, will it really matter if it does not get done today? Defining the task and clarifying what the expectation is assists in bringing it to its simplest form making it more manageable. Using this method I can make an immediate to do list allowing me to focus on the most important tasks in an organised manner. I then set very clear timeframes, you will not be doing your best work during an all-nighter. Be realistic about what you can achieve, depriving yourself of sleep and some down time will not help alleviate your stress. Remember balance is key. Making time to unwind, prioritize what is important. Sometimes the task immediately in front of us gets all the attention when it could possibly be the task that can wait. It’s important to think the tasks through and evaluate what has to be done today and by whom. I believe this is critically important as leaders. If we can use this method when running our eye over the whole school we can help alleviate the pressure our staff feel as well. Let them know they have time, ensure they are able to identify what is important and allow them the ebb and flow of a balanced work environment.
As the leader of your workplace the culture you create in ensuring that there is the right balance rests solely on your shoulders. Listen carefully, observe closely and lead by example in maintaining a healthy balance. Getting the work life balance can be difficult thing, but it’s vitally important. Your wellbeing goes a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. The right balance starts at the top. People will look to you to see what the expectation is. I’ve often listened to world class athletes who whilst working at the top of their personal performance on a daily basis also talk about the importance of recovery. They spend almost as much time preparing and performing as they do systematically recovering in preparation to do it all again. They also take time to discuss their performance and schedules with someone. Reaching out and talking to a colleague can help put things in perspective. Stress is part of leadership, you can let it rule you or you can take charge. After reading this blog why not try to answer the following questions. What are you doing to recover? How do you manage your stress? Do you recognise the signs? What strategies have you got in place to alleviate it? Develop a plan, because we need you to be at the top of your game every day. Our students are too important for you not to be. At the end of the day you are charged with making a positive impact on the students you serve, I’m sure you’ll agree that thought alone has a positive impact on your wellbeing.
Developing leadership capacity is not an isolated incident, it’s a strategic investment in the long term future of your organisation. Principals and educational leaders need to be proactive and intentional in developing leadership capacity. Strong educational leaders have the ability to identify talent. They specifically target future leaders and dedicate time and energy in providing opportunities for growth.
Over the last 3 years I have witnessed an increasing turnover of senior leadership across the education sector. Given that, in the last 2 years 1000 of the 2219 NSW Public School Principals are either new or new to their school and there is an estimated 50% replacement over the next 3 years of the 10000 cross sectorial Principals Australia wide we are facing a time of unprecedented leadership change. Principals across the globe face higher levels of pressure than ever before with increased societal and political demands and greater scrutiny on performance, the job is challenging and complex and requires the right type of leaders.
If you asked Principals worldwide how many felt prepared for their job prior to entering the principalship I’d be surprised if more than 30% felt ready or adequately prepared for the challenge. The question has to be asked what are you doing to develop the next generation of leaders at your school? How many schools have leadership preparation programs in place to support their aspiring leaders?
One of the challenges for leaders when they are developing others is finding the right person. Sometimes we look for people who have so many similarities to our leadership style that we run the risk of developing a clone not a new leader. At best this is a replacement plan not a succession plan. A succession plan identifies talent and strategically grooms for the future rather than immediate turn over. Aspiring leader programs should be mid to long term specifically developing skills and capabilities and providing targeted opportunities for development.
Providing the right environment and conditions for our aspiring leaders is crucial. We must create opportunities to learn where they feel safe to take appropriate educational risks for student and staff benefit. Imagine a circus acrobat learning a new trick without a safety net, very few would take the risk, especially after the first acrobat makes a mistake. I’m not suggesting that we provide no guidance and allow education risk taking behaviour without any evidence or rationale to support the initiative. On the contrary I believe targeting and guiding aspiring leaders into specific areas helps establish informed and calculated education decision making..
At times it can be difficult to stretch our aspiring leaders out of their comfort zones and look for new opportunities as it is their current skill set that has served them well to this point. This is the skill set they rely on when they encounter new situations. The same can be said for giving aspiring leaders the same types of tasks repeatedly. To grow, aspiring leaders need new and challenging opportunities. There are also the aspiring leaders that we need to temper. This can be a difficult situation for a Principal as we don’t want to curb the enthusiasm. In both cases I believe Principals should ask questions rather than provide answers. We have the ability to use our experience to provide alternative scenarios that can expand ideas and develop and mould our future leaders in a supportive yet challenging environment. As Principals we have a responsibility to provide experiences for our aspiring leaders that develop their skill sets. We must provide feedback and allow them to examine their decisions and actions and place a critical lens over how they would or would not conduct that task if faced with it again.
As leaders we need to understand that at times you need to coach and at others you need to mentor. Coaching allows you to guide aspiring leaders through processes that you have encountered before, where you are developing their skill set in routines and systems, it is very much task orientated. Mentoring on the other hand challenges and increases capacity, it allows for career and personal development, it develops the leader as a person. Both situations though have times when they place aspiring leaders in their stretch zone and add a degree of stress. Aspiring leaders won’t learn to deal with stress unless they are working through challenging situations. These challenging experiences require them to “ride the wave”. They need to understand that in stressful situations tasks can seem insurmountable but careful planning and working through your process logically will see you on the other side of the wave. This ability to overcome obstacles and stressful situations is critical in developing their capacity to succeed.
As a Principal you must be honest with aspiring leaders and assist them to develop their areas of weakness. It does the aspiring leader no favours if you embellish their achievements. Developing strength of character is a critical factor in today’s everyone’s a winner world. To be able to take on-board constructive advice even if it is unpopular is essential for growth. By being honest and pinpointing areas for development you are providing a clear professional pathway. When providing feedback it is important to build in opportunities for self-reflection. These must be honest and really have the aspiring leader examine their commitment, perseverance and discipline in achieving their goals. Open, honest self-reflection about their dedication and ability to grow and change is essential for increased leadership capacity.
One area of growth for aspiring leaders that can be particularly challenging is seeing the big picture. For many their leadership journey to this point has revolved around ensuring that their grade, stage or team has been able to work effectively. Their primary leadership focus has been to successfully resource, organise and navigate a clear path for their team as a part of the bigger whole school picture. The development of a whole school focus and even greater still, a whole system focus can be quite a difficult concept. There are times when competing priorities will test their ability to guide their stage, team or grade into areas for the greater good. This is an area where Principals need to work extremely closely with their aspiring leaders to ensure a clear and consistent message is being delivered.
As Principals we must purposefully invest in our future leaders to ensure we have a pool of highly competent professionals ready to take on the next level of responsibility. I suggest once you have identified the next generation of leaders ask them the following questions. What do you they want to achieve in the next 6 months, 12 months, 2 years? What performance measures do they have in place to keep them on track? You then need to support them as they map out a plan that fosters their development and provides appropriate leadership opportunities.
It is our responsibility as Principals to grow the next level of leaders. It’s an investment in the future. As with most good investments being wise about choice and being strategic in implementation ensures you receive a dividend on maturity. As we know, leadership requires following a path of inward and outward reflection, it’s not linear and there are obstacles along the way but the continual growth on that journey certainly makes it worthwhile. As Principals we must select carefully, invest wisely and enjoy the journey with our aspiring leaders.