A Note

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This research is published as part of Eugenie Teasley‘s Clore Social Fellowship. As part of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, each Fellow is required to undertake a piece of practice-based research. The purpose of the research is to help develop Fellows’ skills as critical users of research, and to help develop the evidence base for the sector as a whole. The research focus, methodology and output are all chosen by the Fellow.

The idea

What can leaders learn from teachers? Could pedagogical theories be relevant for chief execs and managers? Are the mechanics of teaching in any way useful beyond corralling a group of 30-odd children?

As a 2014 Fellow on the Clore Social Leadership Programme, I researched whether key teaching and learning theories are or could be used by leaders in the social sector to support the development of their teams. It’s a personal quest masquerading as a professional one: I used to be a classroom teacher, now I am not, and it would be so neat/such a relief if I could objectively prove that the skills and theories I learned back then are applicable and helpful in the world I am now in.

After leaving teaching in 2007, I gained a Masters in Education, worked at a educational non-profit in San Francisco (826 Valencia), before founding youth charity Spark+Mettle in 2011. It runs a range of personal and professional development programmes for less privileged 18–24 year olds.

Along the way I’ve constantly stolen adapted teaching techniques and principles and used them in my work. These range from the planning approaches for a curriculum (short, medium and long-term “schemes of work”) adapted to the strategic needs of an organisation, to pedagogical theories that I have been able to apply to my approach to building teams and running programmes. I should add that I am an archetypal leftie (wear Birkenstocks, read The Guardian—I even live in Brighton), so my view of good teaching is a progressive, interactive one. I’m not into a draconian, didactic, sage-on-stage approach. This also informs my views on good leadership. Let’s just say I’m not in Donald Trump’s corner.

My hypothesis is this:

Successful social sector leaders are intuitive educators. They employ a range of techniques to nurture effective teams and bring out the best in individual employees, many of which can be related back to key progressive pedagogical theories.

I chose as examples three pedagogical theories that have been particularly influential on me first as a teacher and later as a leader. I wanted to see whether they hold any value for other leaders in the social sector, as well as exploring other approaches that might link to different teaching and learning theories. I am aware that leading people is just one of many aspects to leadership, but it is one that it is central to effective leadership and increased impact.

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to try to discover what overlap there might be between teaching and leading. I conducted the interviews between May and September 2015, and posted the write-ups here during October and November. I summarised my findings in bite-size chunks, and I worked with a designer to create some beautiful printable and interactive pages that offer some answers and ask some questions to a broad audience.

If you’d like to find out more about this work, please get in touch: @eugenieeeevteasley@gmail.com.

Check-ins

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


Not one of the (successful, inspiring) social sector leaders I interviewed had anything much in the way of formal training early in their career around how to lead and manage and support other people.

There are lots of suggestions out there in the world wide web on the sorts of questions to ask. 101 questions, 20 questions, three (magic) questions… Based on the conversations, here are my five-tips on setting up and running successful one-to-one meetings—tips that could be applied across all sorts of other meetings. And in fact, it’s good to remember that not all “meetings” are meetings, and if you’re going to have any sort of meeting, then it’s worth doing it well.

One-to-one check-ins:

  1. Set up a regular time slot and stick to it
  2. Track key points from one check-in to the next (three columns: last time, today, next time)
  3. Show that you care
    • ask 3 questions for every 1 statement you make
    • celebrate achievements
    • allow space to talk through difficulties
    • be honest
    • explore ways they can play to their strengths more
  4. Connect back to their drive and motivation
  5. Keep your door open so there’s space for them to talk with you outside of the regular sessions

Reflection

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


 

When people train to be teachers, they often have to fill in a reflective journal, with questions like these. When I was training to be a teacher, it was one of the most useful learning tools of all. To be forced have the chance to stop and think on what I’d been doing—it was invaluable.

Leaders should be doing the same. Some are. Some have coaches who ask these sorts of questions to them. There are different lists out there. Three questions, tough questions, three more questions. Based on the findings from the interviews, I’m suggesting five, and I would highly, highly recommend regularly (= each month), jotting down your answers somewhere, somewhere near where you jotted down your answers the last time, so you can look back. Blog, notebook, napkin—whatever you like.

  1. What style of leadership have I been using most recently (coaching, directive, flexible, firm etc)? How has it been working?
  2. How has my time been divided between my own work, talking to my team (individually and together), meeting with others? Does anything need to change?
  3. What are the strengths and attitudes that I admire? How do these map onto my team at the moment?
  4. What do I want to see more of? How do people know I want more of it? How can I encourage it?
  5. What have I been avoiding? What’s one thing I can do today about it?

Strengths

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


What are you talking about?

Not actual muscle—or not necessarily actual muscle. There’s a lot of research, and a lot of controversy, about strengths. In fact people can’t even settle on what to call them: strengths, attitudes, capabilities, soft skills, virtues… There’s everything from Myers-Briggs to Aristotle, via Benjamin Franklin. And there is a lot of thinking going on around them in Psychology today. So I’ve taken Angela Duckworth’s two key strengths—grit and self-control—as an example. These have been found to contribute significantly to all-round success both at school and in life.

What is increasingly less controversial is that it is better if teachers and leaders and everyone the world over works from a strengths-based rather than a deficit-driven model. In other words, focus on what people are doing well, and build on that, rather than highlighting what they are doing badly. People are more likely to do what they do well even better, than to do what they do badly a bit better.

“I would say [these strengths and soft skills] are the most important thing to develop in life generally,” says Njoki Yaxley. “I’ve often thought it is perhaps the main thing required in life—and valued it more so than actual educational attainment—as it is what I can attribute a lot of my successes (and failures to).”

How can this be incorporated into an organisation?

A myriad of different ways. The interviewees suggested lots of good ideas:

  • review the organisation’s values: what strengths, capabilities, working styles or virtues tie in with these?
  • decide whether you want to develop a comprehensive competency model that applies to all staff, or if you want to work on an individual basis to identify, develop and assess strengths
  • when designing strategy around new strands of  work, projects or roles, include what strengths will be needed on the resource list
  • include strengths in each job spec and make time during induction to identify and focus on key strengths—this is what Kazvare Knox does
  • find ways to acknowledge strengths regularly by building them into check ins and performance reviews
  • find ways to acknowledge them ad hoc by celebrating with surprise treats and trips
  • put in writing what people are good at (and what they like doing, which is often the same thing), so that others can see it and come to them if they need help—a bit like the “one-pagers” that Ruth Marvel says the teams use at Scope

Have you got any strengths lists I could check out as starting points?

Yes.Yes I do.

Check out how KIPP schools in the United States have adopted  and assess Angela Duckworth’s seven key strengths:

http://www.kipp.org/our-approach/strengths-and-behaviors

Take the VIA survey, developed by Martin Seligman and others:

http://www.viacharacter.org/www/The-Survey

Or take a different tack and look at the capabilities approach, as developed by Sen and the Nussbaum. Here’s a Wikipedia entry to get you started:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_approach#Nussbaum.27s_central_capabilities

Scaffold

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


 

What do you mean by scaffolding?

Lev Vygotsky was a developmental psychologist who came up with a very useful pedagogical theory called the Zone of Proximal Development. It is a method of stretching students appropriately, so that they can grown in their knowledge, understanding and independence, at a pace that is right for them. For it to work well, teachers need to be aware of the level at which the student is working, and a sense of where they can get to next, and “scaffold” support for them to get there. Once they are there, the teacher scaffolds again to help them get further.

You can see why this might be useful in organisations too. Dame Mary Marsh calls it “absolutely crucial.” Pretty much everyone agreed.

  • it keeps people engaged
  • it provides constant development and learning opportunities that
  • it creates a safe space in which people are encouraged to make mistakes and to learn from them 
  • it doesn’t just have to be done by a line manager: buddy and peer-support systems are alternative ways to scaffold too

But it also comes with warnings: “Different people in terms of scaffolding learning have different stretch,” says Rashid Iqbal. So:

  • you can’t build the same scaffolding for everyone, or for the same person all the time
  • it’s also important to keep an individual’s development in line with the needs of the organisation too, so the ideal would be to map individual’s growth opportunities onto organisational strategy.

So how do I do it?

Scaffolding has underlying assumptions—namely that you know the level that the person is working at, you have high expectations of what they can do, and that they have the will and the bandwidth to learn and develop and stretch. Not all of these are true all of the time. And if you’re not sure, ask.

  • Discover what they are doing well
    • What do you feel as though you are achieving?
    • What are you excited by or proud of right now?
  • Discover their current willingness or ability to stretch
    • How are you feeling about the workload and your focus? Are you happy to keep going as you are?
    • What would you like to be doing? What would you like to learn? What skills or approaches would you like to take up?
  • Discover what sort of scaffolding you should offer, and for how long
    • What support do you need to help get to that level?
    • How can I best help you get there?
    • When do you want to start, and when should we check in again?

Co-design

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.


 

What is co-design and why should I incorporate it?

Co-design was championed as a progressive method for learning and teaching by Paulo Freire. It was known as critical pedagogy. I asked all interviewees to what extent they thought co-design was useful within their organisations.

The benefits are huge—in the short, medium and long term:

  • it makes people feel trusted and capable
  • it gives people a sense of ownership over their work
  • it inspires creative thinking and collaboration
  • it is motivating

“People want to be able to self-determine. They want to be trusted. They want to feel like they can be successful. They just need the basic building blocks to be clear about what’s needed and what good looks like. Then a manager’s job is to support somebody to deliver that in a way that works. Good teachers do that too.” Ruth Marvel

But it’s not a panacea. Co-design has its limitations and needs to be used thoughtfully and with good structures in place.

  • it works only if people have the bandwidth to cope with creating their own work pattern
  • you have to make sure you are asking the right questions at the start otherwise people will feel lost
  • you must share objectives and timelines at the start so that there is forward momentum
  • build in extra time because it takes longer than if you just tell people what to do

“It can feel like paralysis if there’s not strong enough direction,” says Carey Oppenheim.

What’s the best practice then?

Have a very clear idea at the start what you want to achieve from the project that is going to be co-designed. As the leader, or lead-facilitator, your role is to firmly delineate the parameters of the project:

  • aims
  • objectives
  • timeline
  • skills needed
  • resources available

The project needs a well-facilitated kick-off session or workshop, where the team (especially if they don’t know each other) has an opportunity to understand the project and to ask questions and to engage with the others involved.

Different team members will need different levels of support, structure and guidance. When people are given space to shape the project and how they are going to work, the leader, or lead-facilitator, needs to check in constantly—a bit like you’re Miles Davis giving people freedom to improvise while also ensuring that everyone is playing in time, in tune.

As with many projects, momentum will build quickly at the start, but might fade at different moments for different team members as they each face different obstacles. It’s important to plan for varied energy levels, to check in regularly, and to build in time for the team to re-energise and have fun.

Be prepared for mistakes, and build in time to use them as learning opportunities.

At the end of the project, make sure there is time to celebrate, and also time to reflect on:

  • what went well
  • what we could have done more (or less) of
  • what we’d like to do differently next time

 

Plenary

I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit. The final bit, in fact.


 

For anyone in education, lesson plans are often headed by the learning aim and objectives, and rounded off with a plenary—ten minutes or so at the end of the class during which students can reflect on their learning.

This is my version of that.

My hypothesis was:

Successful social sector leaders are intuitive educators. They employ a range of techniques to nurture effective teams and bring out the best in individual employees, many of which can be related back to key progressive pedagogical theories.

Apparently if you’re a real deal social scientist, you should set yourself up with a hypothesis that you try to disprove.

Apparently I am not a real deal social scientist.

I interviewed ten leaders in the social sector, all at various stages of their career. None of them had had access, at least early in their career, to training on leading and managing others. Yet despite their diverse backgrounds and roles, and their pot-luck styles of learning on the go, there was consistency in their approaches.

What is clear, above all else, is that there is overlap between the role of a good teacher and a good leader.  That overlap usually contains the ability to:

  • have high expectations, lead by example and model the behaviour you expect to see in others
  • set clear aims and objectives
  • establish firm boundaries about what is and isn’t possible
  • create opportunities for people to co-design and shape their work
  • empathise with others and moderate style of interaction according to their needs (from being firm and directive to open and collaborative)
  • get to know your team members and their willingness to stretch and develop their role and targets accordingly
  • praise strengths and celebrate achievements
  • make time regularly to give positive, specific feedback
  • tackle difficult or failing situations quickly and face on

I surveyed the world of social sector folk to find out I could usefully produce that would enable them to reflect on and improve how they lead and manage people. Their preferences were as follows:

  1. Bite-size examples of best practice
  2. Prompts for personal reflection
  3. Sample questions to prepare for away days, board meetings, team check-ins, 1-to-1s etc
  4. A printable poster of key insights
  5. A curated collection of online resources
  6. A written report

So I’m working with a designer to develop a downloadable sheet with bite-size examples of best practice. And prompts for personal reflection. And a few sample questions.