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?

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:


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


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


  • 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.

Pedram Parasmand

Pedram has worked in the area of personal and professional development for over 5 years and previously taught in South East London. He creates environments that supports others become more self-aware and develop skills to lead fulfilled and meaningful lives. He is interested in approaches that look at the whole person—not just what they are doing, but who they are being. His work is inspired amongst other things by Authentic Leadership, behavioural science and mindfulness. He is currently training with CTI as a ‘co-active’​ coach.

He is a co-founder and Director of The Skills Lab, a start-up which aims to facilitates cultural change in organisations that allow people to develop the soft-skills needed to learn, work and lead happy lives. He has previously worked at Teach First where he designed and trained others to deliver workshops and programmes in areas of self-awareness, mindset, and leadership. He was also the Programme Director for the Governor Impact Programme.

He is a founding trustee of Spark+Mettle. He is also a school Governor at Spa Special school in Southwark where he chairs the Education Committee. He holds a Masters in Theoretical Physics from Imperial College London.

What was the first role you had in which you had to manage or support other people?

It was over ten years ago when I was a teacher. I supported people in departments informally, as well as all the students.

How did you learn to support other people?

Through trial and error. It wasn’t formal. I don’t even think I even thought about it too explicitly at the time either.

How has your style changed about supporting or managing other people in this last decade?

In the last decade, I’ve tried to become much less directive. It becomes a much more collaborative approach where people have the space to be able to make their own decisions, to grow within the role that they’re doing, and they also have ownership departments as well.

What were the problems about being directive?

It was just too much hard work. Honestly I didn’t feel like people had ownership of the things that they were doing. I would constantly be chasing up and checking that they’re doing something, making it much harder. Recently I’ve worked in a way that enables people to collaboratively come together and create this big project from scratch. Then we attribute who is doing what, we’re clear about what needs to be done by when and by whom.

That way it just keeps things moving without me getting involved too much, if that makes sense. It’s not that I’m taking a step back. It’s just I’ve got the overview; I’m not getting too involved in the detail. I’ve just set the scope and the boundaries and let people do whatever they want with it.

Are there any other techniques or approaches that you’ve taken up or discarded for supporting others?

I’m still experimenting now. When it comes to check ins with team members, sometimes it’s really up to them to talk about whatever they want to talk about whether it’s their role or their personal development. But some things end up slipping. So recently I’ve played around with the format, given it some structure by focusing on annual objectives and leaving space for conversation around them.

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 creates a space for creativity and much more collaboration. It also encourages risk taking and people pushing themselves a bit more. I never want to ever create that illusion or a sense that people think that I know it all. I might have this position of responsibility but I’m process facilitating this and everybody’s opinion is just as valid. But it takes a lot longer. Sometimes what I might see as a very simple fix to a problem might take a half hour chat with someone to find their own solution. But once you get to the other end you hope that the impact is that the learning has stuck a bit more and you don’t have to go through it again.

Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups of people and then how you work with individuals?

I see them both as the same thing in my context. It starts off as a team thing and then it devolves into individuals. I use a coaching approach. I say to the team, “What does success look like and what should the objectives and outcomes be?” However I have my own ideas and everything which I will chip in which makes me more of a process facilitator rather than a coach.

I’m not precious about my role. I don’t want other people to not feel like they’re growing if I’m working with them.

How do you go about setting expectations?

I have an open and transparent conversation at the beginning. I ask team members to answer four questions.

  • What does success look like?
  • What’s my role in it?
  • When does it need to be done by?
  • How much time do I need to spend on it?

Does your organisation have any approaches or processes for recognizing character strengths and soft skills?

We’ve got ten competency areas that we use to reflect on and it’s quite rigorous. Every grade has a description of what the expectations are for your personal and professional competencies. Then you report against those. It forms part of your appraisal rating. You get appraised at the end of the year by how well you’ve met your role objectives and how well you’ve met your professional competencies. Then based on that, you can see areas of strengths and weakness. The ones that are developmental areas form part of your professional development plan which I then try to refer back to in check-ins. But this is based on areas for improvement as opposed to improving the strengths people already have. I’ve actually been trying to work with strengths but it is complicated.

How would you define a teacher?

For me the old concept of the teacher is defunct. It’s different now. The attitude that “I have got this stuff in my head that you need to put in your heads” does not work anymore. No teacher can any longer proclaim to know it all. To me, a teacher is someone who facilitates the growth of other people’s knowledge and skills.

Is teaching or education an aspect of leadership?

I see the parallel in terms of what I think teachers should be and in terms of what I describe leaders to also be. In my role and in my team as a facilitator I’m aware that I don’t have all the current knowledge or perspectives that other people do. It’s about creating and holding the space where people to feel empowered to bring all of themselves to their work and have a sense of ownership over it, so they feel that they have a stake in it. For me, leading people is about being an enabler; and I’m still on a my own journey to learn how to best bring the best out of people for common good.

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.