Key actions

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 specific actions leaders can take to support individual and teams better?

This is a fun one.

Make time for fun. Provide space for fun and humour. This could be done by an impromptu trip to the seaside when everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed. A team night out to a comedy club. Or even get an improv guru (such as John Cremer) to come and work with the team. “Off-plan” days are something Tom Bewick is a fan of. If humour bubbles up from within the organisation, give space to it and appreciate it—as Carey Oppenheim does at the Early Intervention Foundation where one staff member, unprompted, started sending out a “Friday Feeling” e-bulletin with a tongue-in-cheek round-up of the week’s events.

Show that you care. There are a gazillion ways to do this, and the ten interviewees highlighted some of the most important. Firstly, talk to them, regularly, as individuals and in teams, about who they are and how they are doing, not about the project. Regularly, that’s the important bit. Pedram Parasmand has lots of good ideas around this. Asking open questions about them, not their work, says Ruth Marvel, shows that you view them as a whole person (not just a collection of skills, knowledge and experiences). And keep your door open. Maybe literally, if you have one, as often as you can. That was Dame Mary Marsh‘s policy.

Start succession planning now. Rashid Iqbal is very persuasive about this. He tells new cohorts of apprentices that he won’t be there forever and they can, if they want, work towards taking his place. “It’s not just about me, it’s more about the ‘we’ culture and system, and it’s more about the aspiration of the leaders throughout the system…How do I create a legacy in leadership? I’ve shifted a little more from telling to nurturing, from pushing to pulling, although I will always be switching between the two”.

Be honest. We need praise, and a lot of it, but we don’t need hot air. That’s a euphemism. Ruth Campbell says it as clear as it should be said, the best approach is “straightforward and bullshit-free.”Diarmuid ÓNéill is a fan of fierce conversations. “The responsibility as a CEO to tell people when they’re wrong too is really important,” he says. “It is not always easy at all but critical for everyone involved.”

Connect their work back to the organisation’s vision and mission. Diarmuid and Rashid both have neat ways of doing this. Diarmuid convened children’s councils during which the street children Retrak supports share their ideas and help shape strategy and insight for team members. Rashid also supports children’s planning meetings in the LEYF nurseries, that feed directly into the work of the senior team as well as the local nurseries. And each member of staff “adopts” a child, and brings a photo of them into meetings, to remind themselves of whom they are working to support.

What’s this got to do with pedagogy?

All these actions apply to good teaching. Students need to know that you care for them as an individual, not just as a potential C-grade. They need lightness and humour to counter the graft that you chuck at them day in day out. They need honesty around where they are at, as well as direction on how to improve. And I suppose that there is a parallel between how adults need a reminder of how their work has an impact on the beneficiaries, and how students need to have personalised learning: we need to make sure that what we do feels relevant both to our values and who we are, as well as to the bigger goal (be that an organisation’s mission, or a school’s academic success). It comes down to a whole-adult / whole-child approach.


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