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?

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.

A Venn diagram

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.

 


 

So, after all this, what overlap is there between teaching and leading?

I asked pretty much every one of my interviewees to define a teacher or educator, and then to define a leader. I guess I was encouraging them to find distinctions between the two. The answers I’ve summarised on the Venn diagram above. In case you can’t see it, it goes a little bit like this:

Teacher:

  • provide objectives
  • show, tell, review, assess
  • believe in abilities of others
  • imparts knowledge

Both:

  • coach (enable, guide, empower)
  • ask questions

Leader

  • influence and inspire others
  • provide vision and guidance
  • open to counter-arguments and challenges
  • aware that part of broader movement, bigger picture

 

A couple of warnings to go along with these: Tom Bewick rightly pointed out that lots of people have had bad experiences at school, so the concept of a teacher can be alienating. And Rashid Iqbal said, in no uncertain terms, “Once you call yourself a leader, that’s the end, say goodbye, it’s over. You are garlanded into ineffectiveness and praised into conformity.”

What strikes me, however, is that in my mind, and in my experience, a good teacher needs to be able to do and be all of the above, as does a good leader. We might associate some of these attributes or approaches with one over the other, but in fact leaders need to practise and develop all of these skills, as do teachers. This is particularly true in a world where, for both teachers and leaders, the moments to be directive or draconian are fewer and further between than they once were. Students should no longer be seen just vessels into which knowledge should be constantly poured, just as workers should no longer handled as mindless bots existing to achieve the task in hand.

For both teachers and leaders, this is a time to hone the attitudes of flexibility and openness, while exercising judgment as to when to deploy skills such as truth-telling and clear direction, or coaching and collaboration. It’s also a time to reflect, regularly, on our own approach and style, to review when it has worked, and when it hasn’t, and to consider what we need to do more of and notice when we need to change.

If we can nail that, then we can serve as great role-models to others. And if we can’t, then our honesty and transparency about how we are leading will enable us to serve as authentic role-models too.

The Point

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.


Your paperwork should not trump your people.

“Sorry, John, but I’ve got a pressing deadline—can we reschedule our check-in for next Thursday? Hope the project is on track.”

For many of the leaders I interviewed, although there’s an awareness of the importance of supporting individuals and teams, this aspect of work often gets shunted by deadlines, meetings, campaigns or other frontline work.

So it was good to hear a range of views on why it’s important to devote time and attention to the people that make up the organisation. As Tom Bewick put it: “The organisation is not separate from its people.” There are lots of reasons to focus on the people, but some of the chief reasons are:

  • it enables leaders to bring out the best in indivudals, to glue teams together, empowering and energising them, which in turn leads to better impact on the ground. This view was clearly stated by Ruth Campbell and Kazvare Knox.
  • it is a great way to model how you work with beneficiaries, according to both Diarmuid ÓNéill and Rashid Iqbal.
  • it builds teams’ resilience and enables them “to anticipate, avoid and manage a variety of scenarios” according to Njoki Yaxley.

And if it is possible to find ways of teams or departments to feedback and support each other, all the better. Dame Mary Marsh is a strong advocate for getting people out of their functional silos as this enables them to “gain richer understanding and different perspectives.”

What’s this got to do with pedagogy?

This aspect of leadership links to the importance of feedback in teaching. It’s where a lot of the richest learning can happen. And as Diarmuid points out, “learning is critical to an organisation’s success.” Giving time and attention to individuals—time that is focused on who they are as opposed to the project they are working on—gives the leader an opportunity to listen, respond and adapt to their needs, enabling them to maximise their own potential  and setting them on track to do their best at the job in hand.

In other words, it’s crucial. A brilliant and impactful organisation is more often than not made up of well-supported, energised individuals. Intrinsic motivation for the organisation’s vision can burn out quickly when the leader’s focus is relentlessly on the goal or the beneficiaries and ignores—or forgets to prioritise—the needs of the humans who are helping them to do what they set out to do.