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?


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?

Rashid Iqbal

Rashid was appointed as Director, Children and Families at London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a charitable Social Enterprise, in November 2013.

Rashid leads the provision of early education services in a growing portfolio of nurseries seeking to transform the lives of children in London, with a particular focus on serving the most disadvantaged communities.

Rashid was until recently a trustee of Transform Justice, a national charity that works to secure a more fair, more effective and more humane justice system.

Tell me a little about your career to date.

I’m a great believer that your career never makes sense looking forward. It often it only makes sense when you look back. At the moment, when I look back it seems that there’s always been something interesting about the intersection between education and care. Early in my career, I ran the students’ support service for students attending higher and further education. I then moved on to work in running admissions and welfare services and being part of the pastoral support in educational institutions, for those who were attending them. In my spare time and outside of employment, I was either teaching through community provision or leading and supporting community groups, or doing lots of creative stuff. I was part of an art collective that engaged with young people all over the country. I did a whole welfare rights training and worked in Liverpool where the welfare provision was very much shaped by the cultural context of Liverpool at the time, which was a time of the decline of heavy industry, such as shipping in the ‘80s and 90s. I supported people transitioning into and out of poverty and education.

I guess coming to LEYF now, looking back I can sort through these themes. Vocational training and career childcare is sometimes hugely underappreciated. It should be imbued with care and love. I often think that in childcare we work in the economy of love. You trust people to love your children fundamentally. That’s creates a huge community asset. So the challenge is how do we create in a vocational world an appetite and a capability for love- to enable people to love someone else’s most precious child or relationship?

How you would define both education and care?

I think they’re symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other, but particularly in the early years. Our babies need love. Without that love, which you might use synonymously with ‘care’ and which fundamentally nourishes their wellbeing, their physical development, their health and nutrition—they can’t grow.

I think across my career with all education, all ages of learners that still holds true. Every school, college and university has some kind of institutional care system that underpins and acts as an enabler of education through love and care. You can extract that same approach and philosophy to managing teams.

How did you learn to manage others?

I’ve been working for 20 years now. I think it’s probably fair to say that I didn’t really have much of a clue earlier on in my career. I learned on the job.

I think you go through that phase of becoming a technical expert and competent in your own role, in the early part of your career. Then you have that paradigm shift of then trying to move up and manage others. Suddenly it’s no longer sufficient for the ‘I’ to be good or ‘the best’. It’s about the ‘we’ being good. That’s a very big shift. I think that lots of people stumble at this point, because you sometimes hear yourself thinking, “Well I can do it, it is pretty simple do this and to do it well” But people are looking at you, saying, “I’m not you!”

I think probably as a younger person and as an ambitious young manager I was fixated on the outcome for the individual and for myself and my immediate team, rather than thinking about the whole system and my role in it. I see the same pattern now with some of my technically very competent and ambitious staff. Actually they often struggle to make that transition between the ‘I’ and then the small ‘we’ which is, “My team is the best”, to the bigger ‘We’, which is “how do we all change the system”.

You do need a bit of a competition. You need a bit of hunger, drive and entrepreneurialism amongst your upcoming managers and you need to nurture the aspiration of your leaders to get things done. But, importantly they have to shift from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ to the system and to work on creating, shaping and leading a culture and an environment. It becomes less about what you do and more about what you enable others to do. I think that was probably very bumpy for me in the early part of my career, particularly as I had to learn to actually care and pay attention to what people thought about me!

Are there any other things that you’ve taken up and adopted or styles or approaches that you’ve discarded and look at supporting others?

One of the things that I’ve adapted recently, as we grow, as LEYF grows, is thinking through what’s important. What are the priorities? There are a couple of things that I am interested in. One is about the 80/20 rule: where does that apply? What is it in LEYF that needs to be done this way because it’s the LEYF way and there is no alternative? What is it that the organization is more relaxed about and can encourage individuals’ autonomy, creativity and decision making? What is the optimal balance between the telling and the engaging, pushing and pulling? The core production and core construction?

The other approach that has changed is my obsession with succession planning. When I left my last organisation we had built a £10 million business unit from almost nothing. It was the only growing part of the organization. The rest was in static or in decline. That growth was primarily through contracting and the provision of children’s centres and nurseries, which was and is one of my passions. As I left, I saw that unit being dismantled. I realised that actually what I’d help drive through my own force of passion and energy and a ‘Che Guevaraesque’ standard bearing was fundamentally flawed because it rested upon a single person or team. What I hadn’t left was a strong legacy of people that could take on the baton for me.

At LEYF we have 40 apprentices starting this week. I gave an induction talk, during which I told them: “One of you needs to take over from me because I’m leaving. When you start in LEYF, you don’t start to do a job. You start to do a vocation and a career. If you want it, this job—my job—is going to be vacant soon. If that’s what you want to do, you are going to have to work to get it done. Some of you just want to be great practitioners. Some of you will never want to be managers in your life. All that is fine. For the one or two of you that might want that progression, I’m just letting you know there’s going to be a vacancy here in the future.”

Now, as I said 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. We have an aspiring leaders program which I support. We have an ambition for 50% of our future leaders to come from our existing workforce, and we are delivering against t this aim.

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. I think when you’re a revolutionary or someone that sometimes has to be a rebel and a fighter then that forces you or requires a different mind-set. They say, and I have experienced the truism, that the forces of reaction, of counter-revolution, are always stronger than the forces of revolution. You only need to look at the political world to see this. So, delivering a deep, cultural change or a seismic shift requires you to think about building a legacy from the start.

How do you then help translate a culture like this or of other examples into giving people the confidence and ability to be able to take things on and do it themselves?

As always in these processes there’s a little bit of a messy period where you’re trying to get the definitions of what’s an input, what’s an outcome, how does this relate to whole performance measures entirely if it’s only a SMART target?

A recent example that comes to mind is this. We gave a mock Ofsted to one nursery team and they underperformed. We came back with, “Here is the framework within which we want you to improve. Here are the outcomes we think you need to achieve. We would like you to tell us how you plan to achieve them. So, get your heads together as a team and come back to us with a plan”.

That nursery struggled, the leadership team in particular struggled and no plausible plan was produced that tackled the issues that we could see, from the outside, was relatively obvious. What we were trying to do was to give them ownership of their own improvement journey. But, they hadn’t yet done the work, the real work required, and they hadn’t yet collectively got into the space where they could do that. So, we switched to a task list. The nursery manager revealed to our area manager that she was struggling. As a result, we switched much more to a ‘show and tell’ process. That was a conscious process, born from reflection, whereby we concluded our preferred approach was not helping that team. The more autonomy we’re giving the less they understand. The more freedom and responsibility we hand over, the more it’s overwhelming their collective capability, even if they are able individuals.

I think it was partly because they hadn’t understood themselves as a team or done the work with themselves as a team. We wanted to get them to the stage where highly directive intervention was not needed. But we had to step back and work with them to scaffold them to a stage where they more effectively recognised themselves as a team. Now they’re flying. They’re on that journey, back on that journey and they are leading much of it themselves.

How do you scaffold learning and development for your staff?

Different people in terms of scaffolding learning have different stretch. I think we’re very conscious of that in our approach because we have a much higher than national average of outstanding nurseries, as graded by Ofsted. Those outstanding leaders need stretch and need support, in as much as those nurseries that are in the good category or are going through a period struggling to maintain that good, need more of an approach to embed and reinforce skills and processes.

We also acquire a lot of nurseries that are struggling, for one reason or another. We also see a lot of nurseries that are inadequate or on the brink of tipping into inadequate. Through the acquisition process, we bring them into the LEYF family and we help them improve. We can see into the bottom, in the middle, at the top if you like of the hierarchies of that Ofsted performance framework which we are aware isn’t the only or indeed the best measure of excellent performance but in terms of the framework everyone in the sector understands. There are scaffolding and development requirements for all the settings and their teams in each of these categories.

One of the things that we do for our outstanding settings is we buddy them up with other settings. We get them to peer support other settings. It’s not just the managers that we ask to support other managers, it’s the practitioners too. Each of them will have a different area that they’re working on and can learn more from by sharing and teaching with others. The peer-to-peer approach is a different kind of development that has the additional benefits of helping to knit the organisation together along network or lateral, relational lines. It’s a stretch to both give and receive.

We also expect our nurseries to undertake action research. Some of those action research projects are based upon core values that they’ve identified themselves or things that they don’t think they’re doing as well or where they’re doing well but they want to do even better. It’s not always a deficit position.

Our expectations around people’s learning is relentless. I have at some stage said to a manager who’s just got an outstanding result from Ofsted, “ You understand I hope that actually anyone could get an outstanding once. Come back when you got a third one and then we have really got something to talk about.” I believe in pausing to celebrate success, but then it’s back to focusing on the next task.

How do you encourage positive attitudes among your staff?

There’s a constant reinvention and giving people constant areas of stretch, but also it’s about being conscious that they do sometimes need to go back to the thing that drove them to this career choice, in the first instance.

For lots of our staff, they don’t want to lose contact with children, especially as their management career progresses. I don’t want to lose contact with children. One of the delightful things about working with LEYF – and I experienced it today because our head office is in a nursery, is the proximity to children we have. I walked in this morning without taking my headphones off, in my own internal world, into our offices. Then suddenly there’s a three year-old child—let’s say she’s called Y—who I know relatively well. She’s knocking on the window and waving to me and wanting my attention. I get to go into the nursery and say hello. We have a two-minute chat. That keeps me grounded and takes me out of my task list and into being present in the moment with the child. What could be better?

On any given day it’s easy to be reminded that I work with children. All of my top team ‘adopt a child’ in one of our nurseries. They are asked to check in regularly on their development and wellbeing and report back, and to think about the impact of any decision we make on that child. They have a photo of their child and they bring the photo of that child to our meetings. We have a gallery of our children around the table. The top team are thus constantly connected, even just symbolically, to the reason that they joined this area of work in the first place, that’s one way in which we aim to remember why we’re here and what we are for.

Based around the Paulo Freire model, have you got any further thoughts on the benefits or the limitations of co-construction and co-design beyond what we’ve been discussing already?

We actually use both Freire and Vygotsky in our own pedagogy. We have a pedagogical approach to leadership. We have a defined leadership model.

One of the reasons why I love our apprentices so much is because we have apprentices for two years. You can do apprenticeship in child care in six weeks in some organizations. We do it with two years. They learn all this stuff, they understand development and learning theories. Our most knowledgeable staff are often our apprentices. They’ve grown up and will continue to grow within the organisation to be managers and deputy managers and room leaders.

But there is a period at the beginning of an apprentice scheme which is very much like parenting, because you are supporting children and then young people becoming young adults. A lot of the apprentices are under 21 and are finding a way of fitting into this strangely familial structure of care. Around 80% of them will stick with us, and a number of those will go onto our Aspiring Leadership programme.

One group of nurseries has an action research project which they’ve just launched. There’s an 11% gap in school reading age between boys and girls. They’ll do what we call a sounding board or a pizza evening. One of the things that I keep reminding our teams is that we’re a social enterprise. Don’t forget the ‘social’- it’s a critical shaper of who we are and how we work. So we have pizza evenings. It’s essentially a meeting but we call them pizza evenings. How we name things is important. We call them sounding boards. When I need advice or the Chief Exec needs advice we open up a sounding board. Anyone can come. It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, you can help- construct a way forward or help solve a problem.

I ran a sounding board in July about British values as I’m at times conflicted about this. We have our LEYF values. We’re a British company and a London based company. How do we translate this whole debate around British values, both the explicit and implicit purpose and politics behind this into something that’s useful and meaningful for a child? I asked, “Does anyone want to come?” 20 people came in their own time in the evening. We had pizza and good discussions. We came up with some ideas which converted to a policy which we then launched.

That was great because I don’t have all answers. I said to my team, “You guys have got over 200 years of childcare experience between you. I haven’t got that. My experience is not your experience. Around this table your experience is what you add. Give me your advice and give me your wise council. That’s what I need from you.”

Are there any processes for recognising personal attributes or personal strengths?

Yes, we do recognise individuals but equally we recognise team strengths. We give chocolates and cards as a way of saying ‘thank you’ and are always searching for new ways to give recognition that are appropriate to our organisation and sector. I think and we try and always remind ourselves to work from a strength-based position rather than a deficit model, as well as to value intrinsic motivations, rather than extrinsic. We try and show everyone that there’s a system, there’s a team and we work to address our issues and challenges. I do also try to focus my appreciation on the behaviours we most value and need to cherish as an organisation, this includes collaboration and cooperation, not just competition.

How would you define a manager or a leader?

For me, a manager is a function defined by its place in a hierarchy system. It draws authority from the place in that system. A manager’s job is to initiate or ensure the delivery of a set of replicable processes that give them the best and most predictable chance of success in a particular task. That for me is what a manager does.

A leader is very different. I believe leadership is a verb, not a noun. You lead. Once you call yourself a leader that’s the end, say good bye, it’s over. You are garlanded into ineffectiveness and praised into conformity.

A leader is someone who does something brave, who goes beyond the expected boundaries of their role. They have intent. Their intent is aligned in our world with our mission, which is to help children be the best that they can be and to work to change the world one child at a time. It’s the language that we use. Leadership without intent, to lead without intent is to manage or to manipulate.

The authority to lead is not drawn from a position in hierarchy like management. It’s drawn because there is a moral, social, ethical purpose that creates followers in the wake of a leadership momentum. In our world, the world of social enterprise, that’s how we need to teach leadership. An apprentice can lead. You can join in today and effect an act of leadership on your very first day by doing something that helps us improve what we do with the purpose that it helps children in a better way.

I’m not interested in “leaders” per se. ‘Leader’ is a self-serving, counter-intuitively self-defeating title. Labelling someone too much is a way of ensnaring them in narcissism and thereby attenuating their potential impact and disturbance upon the established system. Calling someone a ‘leader’ can neuter their nuisance potential or trap them into the same pattern of behaviour that once made them successful but may not be enough for the next but more significant challenge. I am much more comfortable talking about acts of leadership, or actions that lead or inspire and cause other to follow.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’ll leave you with a little insight. Last year we had children starting meetings in our nurseries. The children meet to plan what they want to do, no matter their age. They have meetings, they minute them—albeit in a symbolic way- and the outcome is an activity at the setting that the children choose. Last year we had nearly a thousand children’s planning meetings in our nurseries where staff supported children to ask them what it is that they wanted to do. Hopefully that little fact gives you insight into how we try to live what we believe.

Kazvare Knox

Kazvare is the CEO of youth charity Spark+Mettle. She joined the organisation initially as an intern and in three years has grown to take the lead after I went on maternity leave. I have been amazed by her constancy and commitment to supporting those who have been working alongside her, and learned a huge amount myself from her approach to bringing out the best in others while also holding them to account.  Kazvare has worked with young people and has done so for many years, both in local government and with charitable organisations. She has been managing and supporting others in a professional capacity for ten years.

Kazvare has also set up her own graphic illustration and design venture and she has previously been contracted to do freelance design work for BBC One’s popular reality show The Apprentice. She also loves books and has been a longlist reader for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the past two years. She has a BA in Classics from Warwick University and an MA in African Studies from The School of Oriental and African Studies.

In one to three sentences, describe your leadership style when it comes to supporting others.

I really like structure and clarity; I think it’s great for productivity and morale for people to know what they’re doing and what is expected of them. I try to foster an environment where the whole team feels listened to and valued. Within the bounds of an overall structure and strategy, I also believe in having flexibility and letting others tackle their tasks with creativity and initiative. I strive to work with excellence so I think leading by example is important. This is all the aim anyway!

How has your style changed since you began leading and supporting others? Which techniques and approaches have you taken up, and which have you discarded?

I first started supporting others aged 6—I think that being the eldest child is the best training ground for leading others! However, I think I’ve learned the most from watching other people. My past two jobs have probably most informed my style. In my former, I picked up tips on how to formally manage supervisions and in my current role, I have learned the importance of helping people play to their strengths. I think in both, I have seen that encouraging a team and/or individuals is both crucial and fruitful.

How would you define the purpose of supporting staff in their roles?

The purpose of supporting staff is to empower them to do their job well and effectively. This in turn helps the organisation overall, so the larger purpose is to have a brilliantly functioning organisation.

How do you set expectations?

The first place to start is the contract and job description. I think also sharing the organisation’s overarching aims and vision and how each person’s role feeds into that is key. From there, I think having agreed monthly and quarterly goals and targets is good and then checking in at the appropriate times to make sure that these are met.

What approaches do you find particularly successful when managing or supporting others? Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups, and how you work with individuals?

I think that across the board clarity, honesty and kindness go a long way!

In an ideal world, with fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in your team?

As a starting point, I would love to be able to spend a good proportion of time really exploring what the team’s strengths are—their own individual gifts and talents, and how these then benefit and blend into the wider team. In an ideal world, each team member would have a coach to work with them and as an organisation, we would carve out regular, consistent times in the year to make sure we are all playing to our strengths.

Reflecting on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, what opportunities are there for you to “scaffold” growth and development amongst your teams? What challenges are there?

Regular supervision meetings have been a great opportunity to scaffold growth and development. Time is a consistent challenge—making sure that a good amount is carved out each month for each person, amidst other commitments, deadlines and meetings. Another challenge for me would be that although I have learned a great deal through my own experience and watching others, I would love to have more training so I can be more effective in helping my team grow and develop further.

Paolo Freire was a proponent of a co-designed approach to education. To what extend do you involve your team in the design of a project that they are working on? What are the benefits and limitations of this approach?

I think this is super important. Especially because not all my ideas are always that great! The benefits of this are that people feel more invested, and sometimes some great things are produced as a result. At other times though I think that having ‘too many cooks’ and ideas can be detrimental to a project. There should always be points though where other people are informing the design of a project.

Angela Duckworth has developed a system for tracking character strengths. In your opinion, how important are these strengths or soft skills? Do you have any approaches or processes for recognising them in your organisation? When is it useful, and when is it not?

They are hugely important! I’ve woven in character strengths exploration into the induction period so that I can see which strengths that the new team member has. I also started weaving this into their monthly and quarterly goals—so asking them to think about how they might use their strengths to achieve their set KPIs.

What is the link, if any, between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

I think there is a strong correlation between the two. An organisation is made up of teams and people, so it should follow that if the teams of people are well supported, the organisation as a whole will benefit.

How would you define ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’?

Someone who is able to instruct another person or other people, or impart knowledge and ideas.

How would you define a ‘leader’?

Someone who is able to influence and inspire others; someone who is able to provide vision and guidance.

Diarmuid ÓNéill

Diarmuid ÓNéill has just stepped down as CEO of Retrak, an international development organisation working with street children. Retrak works in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Brazil with the aim of creating an environment where no child is forced to live on the street. During his five year tenure the organisation has grown a team of 18 to a team of almost 180, and from working with around 1,000 beneficiaries to over 17,000.

Previously, he was a research scientist working on global warming at Edinburgh University investigating natural levels of greenhouse gases and with a team of scientists designing new technology to run automated experiments in a variety of tropical and forested locations. A career change followed that where he worked with community organisations and marginalised young people in Brazil and later, in Bradford. Where the use of sport, art and accredited informal education was used to help young people gain qualifications & employment.

From 2004 to 2008 he was Chair of Q2, a regeneration company that dispersed European & UK government funding to locally run projects in Bradford. He has also worked in IT with Xerox & IBM; and consulted for charities such as Tearfund and The Lighthouse Group in the areas of fundraising and strategy.

Away from work he enjoys cycling, swimming, squash, scuba diving (when he can) and the company of friends. A Clore Social Leadership Fellow, he is currently on a short sabbatical.

How would you describe your style or approach to managing and supporting people?

It’s about empowering and unlocking people. I handed in my notice six months ago. Since then, almost all of my direct reports and people that work really close to me have said, “I never thought I was able to do X until you pushed me in that direction.” One of the biggest things is that I see potential in people. I can really give them the space and push them—sometimes scarily so. A lot of times if I think they’re a little bit wobbly in themselves I’ll give them the training to go with it. So if there is one particularly dominant aspect of my leadership style, that’s it: I see people.

How did you learn to support others?

I’ve not done formal academic management training. I have been on several day & week long courses on the subject matter. But overall I’ve not had a lot of – nothing like the level of support and input in courses that I give to people in my organization. I’ve never had that. I’ve learnt from books. I read tons of books about strategy, organisational & personal development and then I try and see what sticks.

For me it’s having people to run ideas by. I’ve got maybe seven or eight external allies that I’ll talk to by phone or email. They’re my stabilizers as I take off having being given the model or the tools. I think you have to manage the risks, try & put capabalities to mitigate the risks & review the residual risk involved but in the end you & the people around just have to step out.

Is it intuitive, how far you can push team members? It makes me think about Vygotsky, about the zone of proximal development and scaffolding. Some people really need help slowly going there. Then others maybe can experiment and are happy to be a bit wobbly. How do you know?

I hadn’t realized it was intuitive until I read that [description of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development]. There are some people I’ve tried to push, even with scaffolding, who don’t want to stretch. They and I then just don’t connect. Eventually they go in different directions because its what the organisation & they need so if they cannot then sadly the leave the ‘bus.’

What are the challenges around devising or intuiting different ways for people to grow?

You’ve got to be very accepting of mistakes and create a safe platform or environment for people to make those mistakes and not be worried about it. Again it goes back to putting capabilities in place to manage risk according to your risk appetite & the person/organisation’s willingness to stretch.

How much space can you make for mistakes within the team, especially when their work impacts extremely vulnerable children?

You isolate the mistakes and the kind of environment that they’re really experimenting in. Where things are really risky like working with children, that’s not the area you experiment with. It would be doing something new or fresh such as redesigning a program or writing a research paper. It’s that 80/20 approach so you make 20% a bit about the risk and the rest of it is structured. There’s a huge challenge because it takes a lot of time. I think the bigger you are as an organisation, the harder it becomes. When you are medium sized or small that agility is essential if you want / need to grow.

How do you support and manage teams?

Every four to six weeks you have one-to-one time with your your line manager. What I’m trying to do is get people to connect. And one of the first questions they should be asked is, “What was a success?” so that you celebrate it, because I think that’s really important in terms of moulding and motivating people, more than talking about the ‘bad stuff.’. If you can tell someone about the success who understands what it costs you to get that success, then I think it really motivates you to keep going.

I think that listening is really important and that regular connection with people is vital. It gives a sense of ownership and empowerment and they are then able to deliver something which helps build their capacity and stature and sense of purpose and belonging.

The responsibility as a CEO to tell people when they’re wrong too is really important. It is not always easy at all but critical for everyone involved. Fierce conversations are a healthy ingredient when it comes to supporting & managing teams. We need to walk with our team on the journey, while at the same time guiding them where they need you to go.

Are there ways within Retrak that people are able to contribute and design and shape how it works?

One of the things that freaked people out was when I introduced the Children’s Councils. The kids became involved in everything, including recruitment, even for my position. Some staff were quite angry about it because they were having to give something up (for example we said the children have 40% of the vote for staff) and suddenly there was another party in this conversation that the staff don’t necessarily know what way they children are going to go. The really fascinating thing is that it’s become a valuable component of who we are. You hear them talk about it all the time, “The Children’s Council said this.” I think what that’s done is really empowered staff to talk about program design. It’s created a sense of expectation that the children will be part of whatever the plans and programs are. It also helps us to close the feedback loop by ensuring our beneficiaries are genuinely shaping what we do.

How important is it to have an organisation’s values clearly defined?

It’s very important. I think if you run an organization based on values – you should integrate them into your performance management system. Our values are: Boldness, Excellence, Respect and Innovation. The boldness one is really about tenacity, about speaking out and about never letting go and constantly knocking on doors on behalf of children’s rights and things like that. You hear the kids say to our staff, “That’s not very bold.” The one thing I would stress here is as leaders, if you do put values in place then you had better ensure you are ‘living them out.’ It is better not to have values than not live ones out.

What is the link between well-supported teams and the impact an organisation makes?

The children are so vulnerable and have been so marginalized and had such a lack of opportunities that we need to be as brilliant as we can be in order that they have brilliant services to hopefully be brilliant in whatever they do as a result of all of that. My way of looking after the staff is how I want that modelled to the children, so that the children see that this is the possibility – they see us giving staff opportunities to grow & learn then they know we are serious about doing that with them.

How, ideally, would you like to bring out the best in the people you work with?

One of things I think we are profoundly poor at in this sector is developing people. I think we’re actually terrible about it. We pay it lip service, but it’s the first thing that gets caught in a budget. It’s the first thing, often, that a donor won’t fund.

One of the things that I did when I first started was I created the position of a Learning and Development Director. How are we going to learn and develop as an organization in order to reach our strategy? How are we going to help the kids learn and develop as a result of that kind of organization? We didn’t have the money to bring brilliant, experienced (the finished product if you like) people so we had to bring in people who were really keen at the early or middle of their careers and wanted to develop.

The core strategic question is: if we’re going to create a world where no child is forced to live in the street then what ‘s the learning and development process that you’d need to do all the time to get you to that end?

So is learning critical to an organisation’s success?

Yes. Especially when you’re working with young children or young people, if your staff aren’t learning then how on earth can you encourage the children to be doing the same thing? That reflects. I think it’s a critical thing to be doing in an organization. For us, it was one of three key things that made Retrak successful: learning and development, having a strategy and a really clear vision (that 150 kids contributed to), and going after grants based on our M&E (trying, if you like to build an evidence base for every programme we designed then sought grant funding for that).

Njoki Yaxley

Njoki came to England 14 years ago from Kenya and lives in Norwich.She initially studied at the University of East Anglia where she successfully completed a law degree.

She first fell in love with the housing sector whilst volunteering for a local Citizens Advice Bureau, when she was asked to write a report looking at the plight of housing for ex-offenders. This sparked her passion for the sector and she then went on to work for a national housing association whilst also completing a Masters Degree in Housing and Regeneration. During this time she took on a variety of roles including helping customers struggling with rent arrears right through to securing grant funding for new affordable housing developments.

She currently works within a governance and compliance team at a social housing organisation where she is responsible for co-coordinating the group’s internal audit and risk management program. She is also the Clore Social NHF sponsored fellow (2014).

In one to three sentences, describe your leadership style when it comes to supporting others.

I tend to be very directive- explaining things very clearly. I’m trying to flex my style so it is less directional and more flexible

How has your style changed since you began leading and supporting others? Which techniques and approaches have you taken up, and which have you discarded?

In my earlier years, I was really good at delegating and ensuring we performed as team. I also chose people for their strengths. Over the years, I think I’ve forgotten this technique and perhaps stifled this aspect of my leadership

How would you define the purpose of supporting staff in their roles?

I would say purpose is to enable them to make and take decisions effectively. Knowing that they are able to resolve most problems without relying on too much direction

How do you set expectations?

I try to be as clear and as honest as possible. I also try to listen to what the person has to say—if there is not much use for them, then it’s best not to proceed and perhaps try and do it in their preferred style

What approaches do you find particularly successful when managing or supporting others? Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups, and how you work with individuals?

I would say that the most successful is when I use the ‘more time to think’ approach coupled with pertinent questions (in other words a sort of coaching methodology). In teams or groups, I would use simple questions—there is a system we use at my organisation called UIC—that works well for us.

In an ideal world, with fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in your team?

I would like to be able to let them lead more, and take on more ownership and responsibility, beyond simple delegation

Reflecting on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, what opportunities are there for you “scaffold” growth and development amongst your teams? What challenges are there?

The opportunities lie in 121- or face to face opportunities, as well as securing help and connections where possible for faster growth. The challenge would be in getting or changing culture to allow for the growth, as well securing funds to enable that growth to happen.

Paolo Freire was a proponent of a co-designed approach to education. To what extend do you involve your team in the design of a project that they are working on? What are the benefits and limitations of this approach?

This is actually something that we do at our organisation relatively well. So project or teams are designed co-creatively and using experiences of all the teams. The benefit of this, is that projects actually deliver what they set out to do, and work is shared relatively fairly across teams. Also the actions or changes are set out in a way that they understand. There are some limitations when trying to use this process, but overall it is very easily understood.

Angela Duckworth has developed a system for tracking character strengths. In your opinion, how important are these strengths or soft skills? Do you have any approaches or processes for recognising them in your organisation? When is it useful, and when is it not?

I would say they are actually the soft skills she describes are the most important thing to develop in life generally. 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). I would say it is useful when the person is working in the comfort zone/ area of strength. It is not useful when the person simply doesn’t enjoy doing the task and is not working from an area of strength. It would also be difficult to measure in terms of performance management, although in reality grit and self control is what produces results.

What is the link, if any, between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

Well-supported teams in theory should have the best results and impact. A well-supported team would be able to anticipate, avoid and manage a variety of scenarios, being highly resilient and therefore more likely to sustain itself.

How would you define ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’?

A teacher or educator comes in many shapes and forms. I would describe them as a ‘parent, or coach- someone who believes in the person, and their abilities so highly- that they (the person becomes highly successful)

How would you define a ‘leader’?

A leader is someone who similarly encourages people, and hopefully enables them to shine too. I would say that the key difference between them and a teacher is in the expectations that leaders have. Typically, leaders are seen in the corporate view- business-like, successful, and profit minded. They have a variety of responsibilities usually laid out by law and are meant to agree to the wishes of shareholders and boards.

Dame Mary Marsh

Dame Mary Marsh is a non-executive director of HSBC Bank plc and a member of the Governing Body at London Business School.

She was the Founding Director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme from 2008 to 2015 and the Chief Executive of the charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) from 2000 to 2008.

Prior to this she was in education. . She started her career as a Geography teacher and later became Deputy Head of St Christopher School in Letchworth. From 1987-9 she completed an executive MBA at London Business School. She was appointed Headteacher of Queens’ School in Hertfordshire in 1990 and moved to be Head of Holland Park School, London in 1995.

In the 2007 New Year Honours she was awarded a DBE for “services to families and children”.


For how many years have you held leadership positions?

Certainly 25: there’s 10 years as a head, the last 15 years NSPCC and at Clore Social, but then I was a deputy head for 10 years before all that. So it could be 35. It was as small school and I was the only deputy head so I did all sorts of things while I was there. I had to run the junior school and the Montessori for a while after the head of the junior school left on short notice following some other changes of staff there. The head said, “You’re going to have to go and stabilize this.” I took on running it. I didn’t know anything about primary education at all. I learnt a lot actually. I think all secondary teachers should spend some time in primary schools and understand the fundamentals of learning.

In those early roles how did you learn to support other people that you were working with?

I’ve always had good relationships with the people I’ve worked with. That passion that I have for growing other people has driven me through the whole journey. I think that’s a big driver for me.

When you were deputy head and head, did you make up techniques or approaches of how to work and support others in the school?

I’ve always had a very open door, always been very accessible, always been around and about. I’ve always tried to give a narrative, give a direction from quite early on. When I look back at some of those moments when I’ve done that it’s always felt pretty brave. My techniques were values-based—even though I might not initially have expressed it that way, because it’s become clearer that that’s how you explicitly define it now.

Have there been any techniques or approaches particularly around managing or supporting others that you have tried and then not continued with? 

I think handling a demoralised teaching workforce at Holland Park was challenging, particularly as I was trying to do it in this inclusive way. There could have been another approach which would have been a bit more confrontational approach. I did try and avoid that, but it was fragile with many conflicting stakeholders too.

I think having the right people around you in your senior team is critical. I may have taken too long in getting to that sometimes because of my passion to work with people and give them a chance to develop. Maybe I could have been harder-edged about who’s there with me. Sometimes it’s been quite hard to disentangle and certainly the London schools of the ’80s and ’90s were challenging places.

What is the link between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?

I think it is important to get people out of their functional silos and to think holistically. If people are going to be ready to be in senior teams they’ve got to start having a wider view. To start with I would always make the line management of any subject area by the senior team in a school to be absolutely not their specialism. At NSPCC I did a lot to get people out of their functional silos and I’d get them to collaborate across boundaries. I did budget challenge meetings with the senior team (called the Leadership team) where every function presenting their annual budget would have a robust discussion with other members of the senior team. It meant giving a richer understanding to us all but also getting people to be interrogated from a different perspective. I think that’s a really healthy thing to do.

Do you believe that the same expectations should be applied to everyone whether they were part of the team, you yourself, or the people who you were working to support?

That’s essential. At St Christopher School in Letchworth, a key idea from the early leaders was that you should never expect more of children than you do of yourself. I think if you’re going to have expectations of other people, there’s just no integrity to it if you don’t hold yourself to the same.

I was just wondering through your work over the last 30 or more years what opportunities there have been for you to scaffold opportunities for growth and development, not actually amongst the beneficiaries or the students but amongst the teams that you’ve been working with or who’ve been working with you?

I think that this concept in relation to learning is absolutely key. Often I’ve described it as being a bit like a tree: until you’ve got the shape of the tree you can’t hang the leaves on it. I’ve always given people development opportunities. People have often said, “But you’ve given all these people that have had fantastic learning opportunities. Now they’re off and going to another job. Why have you done that?” My line always is that if you do develop people – and yes, they may well move on – that that will always attract the next lot of people you recruit to be all as strong or stronger because they’ll see coming and working with you and your team is a good place to be.

To what extent do you think that co-designing projects or programs is beneficial and what the limitations of that approach might be?

An interesting document to look at is the All Party Parliamentary Commission on Leadership and Management that was published last year. I was a commissioner on that. The final conclusions were that there were three things that were seen to be critical. They apply across all organizations – public, private and the social sector. The first one was clarity of purpose and sticking to it. The second one was people. The third one was potential, making sure that you were building for the longer term. I think that purpose, people and potential is a really good three-legged stool to build any organisation on. I think that in order to make the most of what’s available, you have got to start with the people you have. You’ve got to develop them. They’re going to develop best by learning from others as well as for themselves. But it takes time. You can’t do many shortcuts.

Have you had any processes for recognising character strengths or soft skills within any of your organisations or teams?

I like the things that Duckworth has in her view —zest, curiosity, optimism. One thing that I have always written into job specs is the ability to sustain good humour. I just do think it works across all approaches to life, the optimism and energy. This whole thing about lifelong learning, is learning all the time, so the curiosity that she mentions is absolutely key.

Are there any formal or informal ways that you recognise strengths and skills?

I think finding ways to thank people is really important. You can do a lot of it by just what you say. I think I’ve had aspirations to do the personal note thing to lots of people. I think the postcard is still quite a good way of saying thank you. But I probably should have done much more of it.

How would you define a teacher or educator?

A teacher is a brilliant educator. I don’t think they’re separate. I think we know a lot from cognitive psychology about learning and about motivation and about character building. We’ve known this for a long time but we’ve been very slow to communicate it. For example, the best context for learning is high challenge and low threat, but there are lots of people who are educationalists, and maybe even who have spent time actually directly teaching a lot of people who think fear is a very good weapon in getting people to learn. I think high expectations, ambition, aspiration are very different from fear.

How would you define a leader?

Leaders are coaches: the skill of a coach is enabling somebody to find their own way. Teaching is more than coaching when you’re actually teaching concepts and content understanding, but I think the way in which you do it very much can be strengthened by a coaching approach. That is what effective leaders are. They are also good at telling a narrative that makes sense to people, so they follow because they know where they’re going. They know why they’re going where they’re going. They know what you’re trying to get to. They understand some of the means of getting there because it’s all been articulated in a way that makes sense. And the good leader has the grit and determination too to see it through.

Do you think you would have been a different type of leader if you hadn’t taught first?

I don’t know really, because I didn’t train as teacher. I just went and taught as one could in those days. Then I did a diploma in education later, before I then did my MBA at London Business School. No, because I think there have just been lots of influences on me. I do think that the degree to which I’ve had cross sector exposure and engagement has been as significant as the fact that I did work as a teacher. I think that cross sector perspective is really important.

What’s always fascinated me is that when I used to meet as a head with chief executives of major FTSE 100 companies, fundamentally the issues that we were grappling with were the same because they were often about people. That’s what I do at the moment for HSBC. I have a particular interest for the Board about people, values and culture. I spend quite a bit of time are reviewing things with our regional head of HR and understanding what we’re doing about bringing the development of people consistently across the business, because obviously conduct, values, culture is a big, big issue. I’m applying the same things in my discussion at HSBC as I did with all of the Clore Social Leadership Fellows. It’s quite an interesting spectrum with more similarities than differences.