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.

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

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.

 

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.