CEO’s Blog: July 2019 Letter to Year 13

Before I commit this blog to print, a confession:  What you read below is both from a professional and personal perspective.  From the professional view, I have worked alongside hundreds of amazing young adults in Sixth Form settings for many years.  From the personal, my eldest son has just completed his A Level studies at his school’s Sixth Form.  My letter here is to them all.

Dear Year 13,

I want to take a few minutes of your time to share with you some of my thoughts about the times you’ve had at school, and the time that is to follow.  You’re well beyond clichés of “crossroads” and “milestones” by now.  However, if you’ve got your head screwed on, then you won’t be beyond some plain old advice – dolloped out in a spirit of humility and love.  Like so many things in your life, you decide what to do with the contents of this letter.  You have attained an age, and therefore a right, to make those decisions yourself.  You also bear a responsibility for those decisions too –  the accolades of accomplishments and the ownership of problems are yours.  May you be thoroughly prepared and equipped to deal with both. 

So, here goes.  I’ve written you a list.  I hope it makes sense.  If it does, that’s great.  If any of it resonates with you – even better.  The list is in no order, other than that in which the ideas came to me, which has little bearing on their importance.  It’s also by no means exhaustive, as you’ll see, but it is based on some of the challenges I know that some of you will face.

  1. Your identity is your most precious asset.  Don’t trade it for conformity, but neither parade it for provocation.  It isn’t a hairstyle, a tattoo, a fashion sense or a particular taste in music.  All those things are other people’s creations that you may admire to the point of emulation.  But, they’re not you.  Treat them as the superficialities they are.  What your identity actually is, is something for you to discover for yourself.
  2. The predetermined groups of which you are a member don’t define you.  Don’t be taken in by the misconception that there are traits or characteristics you should exhibit or actions you should take because of a group you are deemed to be a part of:  your gender, your ethnicity, your age, your abilities, your background.  Do not allow others to place guilt upon your shoulders for the actions or opinions of others in your ‘group’, or place expectations upon you for a ‘cause’.  This is the worst form of identity theft, and should be resisted.  And don’t judge others by their predetermined groups either!
  3. In an age of polarisation in so many parts of our world, do not confuse abstinence from debate as agreement with you.  Descartes wrote that “he who hid well, lived well.”  More recently, university students in the United States have coined the phrase that “silence is safe”.  Encourage dialogue with others as a means of finding truth.  There is a difference between legitimate and civilised debate over issues that matter and the deliberate intention to cause offence.  Don’t ever do the latter, and don’t ever allow those with differing views get away with accusing you of it as you engage in the former.  There are plenty who’ll try to.
  4. Read.  Read opinions that will challenge you, and those that will be affirming too.  Don’t believe all you read to be true, but do believe that you can find truth through reading. As with all things, don’t sell yourself and your abilities short when choosing what to read. Nothing is “beyond you” – but you may need to read something else first!  Be prepared to be profoundly moved by what you read. 
  5. It is better to live with remorse for your actions, than regret for your inaction.  So be active.  The world hasn’t agreed to give you anything, or make anything easy for you.  But statistically if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already been given chances in life that most of the planet’s other seven billion residents have not.  Don’t be a confirmatory embodiment of the stereotypical “entitled, snowflake, millennial”.  Your actions can change the world in as profound a way as those of previous generations, and they will.
  6. Never write lists with more than five key points in them.

Thank you for reading, especially those young people who will have read the above with consideration and scepticism.  Equal measures of both will serve you well in education, and in life.  If you’re able to do so, then my colleagues in our schools have served you well.  Time for you to “pay it forward”. 

I wish you success, happiness and fulfilment.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: May 2019 Know thyself

In a previous blog (February 2018), I wrote about John C Maxwell’s “Five Levels of Leadership”, and the privilege I have of working alongside other leaders at differing phases of their professional and personal development.  Maxwell compels us to devote time to the coaching, mentoring and supporting of leaders in that their development generates a ‘multiplier effect’ as they impact more meaningfully on those with whom they work and those who depend upon them.

Over recent months I have been asked to work formally with several colleagues across a number of organisations, in addition to the regular and occasional times I spend with leaders within our own Trust.  Initially I found this work a daunting prospect, filled with self-doubt of my own limitations (Michelle Obama’s “imposter syndrome”) combined with a profound burden of responsibility to help in a meaningful and positive way.  In reality, the main antidote to the doubt is via the affirmation and feedback from those colleagues I am working to support, together with others who notice the impact from our dialogue.

One of the first areas usually explored with a colleague on their leadership journey relates to their explicit efforts towards self-awareness and self-development.  The extraction of solutions from within is almost a definition of coaching, and so it makes good sense to engage in dialogue that relates to the learning they have undertaken, if any, relating to their own sense of self.  When considering the future, it is so important to have as clear an understanding as we can of ourselves and how we relate to our contexts.  The argument is a simple one:  If you are going to buy a new house for your future, with a complex range of features and a history of change over time, you would inevitably want a detailed survey of its current state before you move in.  Likewise, we should want a “structural survey” of ourselves even more.  We can always reconsider the house purchase, or move elsewhere.  We have no such luxury with ourselves, where our personality and our preferences and prejudices are very much “sitting tenants” with whom we co-reside!

Until I undertook several myself, I was quite cynical of personality profiling or diagnostic testing.  However, I was convinced otherwise once I’d sat the Kolbe A test, and the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey.  Working several years ago with a group of students each of whom by their own admission “didn’t have a plan” and an external facilitator, I took the tests (as much to make the point that I wouldn’t expect them to do or share anything that I wasn’t prepared to).  Through both the initial results and then through deeper reflection and discussion with others, I gained a huge amount of self-awareness from them.  I recommend such tests to others quite frequently, and certainly to those with whom I’m working in a developmental capacity.  Not only do the results give rich conversation themes for us and reduce the ‘imposter syndrome’ risk on my part, but they also signal the willingness of the colleague to look at themselves as a starting point before looking at their career development.  As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, a long time before Simon Sinek, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Such diagnostics are also useful in that they are inherently positive.  They highlight what we’re good at, scenarios that make us productive, situations that make us happy.  All too often, we focus on comparison with others that can almost inevitably leads to disappointment at falling short.  On a planet with seven billion residents, there will always be someone “better” – stronger, richer, wiser…  Self-improvement is the putting away of the childhood comparisons with others that psychologists argue is necessary for children to generate rapid learning, and turning to the much healthier pursuit of comparing oneself today with oneself yesterday.  Here, our ‘structural survey’ lets us know which features of our personality are going to withstand the tests of time and the elements, and perhaps where we need to get our tools out.  Working with young people, we know only too well that the tools we all have for such improvement are those readily to hand, and of our own making.  Faulty or inappropriate tools will lead to a faulty outcome.  Using the same faulty tools repeatedly will create an inherently unstable and unsustainable building of a life in which to live.  Arguably then, our key responsibility is to be there to help those whom we care about, and care for, to fashion and then select the best tools they can – and the positive outcomes will follow.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!

Finally, the phrase “know thyself” dates back to the temples of Ancient Egypt at Luxor, and was perhaps placed into more common usage by the Ancient Greeks.  It has stood the test of time through its openness to interpretation and universal application.  Its earliest meaning related to a rejection of the adulation and criticism from others.  Later, it became a compulsion to seek enlightenment and peace from within.  Alexander Pope wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.  The proper study of mankind is Man.”  The phrase even endures into the modern age, with the phrase in its Latin form temet nosce inscribed on the Oracle’s door in the movie blockbuster The Matrix (see below).  But of all these cultural usages, the one that resonates the most with me – especially having worked with so many young people – is Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that “There are three things extremely hard – steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”  We can but try!

Thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: April 2019 Wellbeing – More than a kite mark

Back in the 1990s, when I first assumed formal leadership responsibility in a school and started to correspond regularly with parents, I noticed a problem.  Our school letterheaded paper on which all letters would be sent (and, pre-email, there were many) had an area in which to type that was just about half of the size of the A4 sheet itself.  Underneath the obligatory school crest, address, phone and fax numbers, headteacher name and qualifications was the “window” within which the contents needed to be inserted. 

Beneath that modest white space of parchment, there was a plethora of assorted logos and icons.  The school proudly reported its “Arts Mark”, “Sports Mark”, and “Language Specialist School” statuses.  An Assistant Head counterpart at the school once wagged that if we collect enough subject-specific accolades, perhaps we could be described as “comprehensive” again!  We were a “Fair Trade” school.  We were even insistent on declaring to the world that we’d been successful in a “Big Lottery Fund” application.  In amongst the logos sat – no larger or smaller than the others – the school’s “Investor in People” status.

Some years later when I took up the headship at John Taylor, we explored the “Investor in People” process and accreditation.  As is the case with many of the ‘kite marks’ above – and numerous others – it is the audit, evaluation, action planning and implementation that is valuable as opposed to the letterhead logo.  However, we were minded not to pursue this approach at that time for two reasons.  First, there were cost implications.  By this stage, school funding was becoming much less generous than it had been in the late 1990s and the cost/benefit of even a relatively-modest amount of money needed to be considered before being spent.  Second, it was pointed out to me that studies had shown that there was no direct correlation between holding the IiP accolade and demonstrating the attributes that define a “good employer”: recruitment and retention rates, employee satisfaction surveys, numbers of grievances, training and development budgets, attendance levels and absenteeism etc. In short, organisations which profess to “invest in people” didn’t seem to ‘walk the talk’ any more than any others.  Despite the obvious counter: “What would these organisations be like without this status?” we chose to move on to other priorities.

I remain open-minded on the value of ‘formal’ designations, audits and awards for such areas of our work.  Certainly, to provide evidence of a basic standard of provision, and to assure others (for example, governors) that schools take issues seriously such accreditations can prove beneficial.  They also can empower a lead colleague to drive forward change and improvement by giving an external impetus to what would otherwise have been just another school priority.  When areas such as wellbeing are, correctly, described as “everyone’s responsibility”, without structure they can easily slide into becoming no one’s.  Accreditation, and then subsequent reassessment, reduces this risk.  Recently we have witnessed a resurgence in quality marks, including those associated with wellbeing.

However, in themselves such designations are insufficient to ensure that an organisation’s culture is one in which wellbeing is considered as a priority and all stakeholders work positively and harmoniously.  As Peter Drucker famously wrote “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and the highlighted cases we regularly read of organisations – including schools and MATs – with “toxic” cultures show that a kite mark can’t protect you. 

So, from where does a culture conducive to wellbeing emanate?  In my opinion, the answer is leadership.  Given that cultures are by definition enduring and resilient, the maintenance and development of cultures is not the sole responsibility of a school’s most senior leaders, and nor does our responsibility end when our tenure in a school does.  Drucker’s distinction between leadership and management stems from the difference between structure (the domain of management) and culture (the realm of leadership).  Structures can be changed pragmatically, rapidly, and with limited turbulence.  Culture far less so.  This is why so much attention is paid to the legacy of leaders – their presence endures, for good or ill, long after their departure from the role and the organisation. 

When we recruit new colleagues, we always advise them of their own empowerment in the “inter-view” process.  They have to consider whether their way of working, and their philosophical outlook, chimes with ours.  If there is a ‘cultural dissonance’, neither they nor we will be truly satisfied in the relationship, despite any superficial KPIs that may point to effective performance. 

I have written previously about the generosity, energy and talent of the colleagues I work alongside.  We see those attributes in abundance when it comes to the wellbeing of children, families, and their colleagues.  Supporting individuals through personal and professional challenges, organising staff social gatherings such as Christmas parties and sporting events like participation in the Derby 10k recently, and raising awareness and funds for charities and causes that personally affect our communities are all to be cherished.  A kite mark cannot guarantee to deliver any of these things, only great people can.

Thanks for reading.

Mike