Growing teams and building relationships. Reflections of a headteacher. Part one:
Growing teams and building relationships
Reflections of a headteacher
I have been reflecting a lot on relationships recently and how they make or break a team and hold the space for a school’s culture and ethos to grow, learn and flourish.
Relationships in any team matter.
Relationships in a school are the cogs that make the culture work. Relationships when you are values-led are even more under the spotlight of scrutiny. When relationships are strained the ethos could be shaken. It is the culture that holds the team together, the values that create the space to reflect, to discuss and to stay pointing in the same direction. Our team have started the Fierce Conversations training model, we are taking steps to connect and collaborate in a coaching culture where we communicate and challenge in a constructive and collegiate way.
Growing a team from scratch is intense: it takes a great deal of investment to establish new relationships; it takes energy to get to know one another; it takes time for team dynamics to embed. The Values-led approach has helped us to accelerate this process, but we are still in the early days of team formation.
Becoming a Headteacher both changes and enhances the relationships you have with others. The complexity of the different dynamics and the sense of trying to be everything to everyone, but feeling like you are spread too thin and letting everyone down could become quite overwhelming if not managed carefully and constantly. Being the figurehead of a school community brings with it the responsibilities of modelling the types of relationships you want to see across all of the stakeholders, but heads are humans too and we make mistakes like the next person. Our approach is also shaped by previous influences, what is trust, or support or autonomy to one person, is received differently by another. Our understanding is based on context, perspective and previous experiences.
We/ I have got some things right this year, and we/I have got some things wrong. It is our learning as leaders and educators that enables us to reflect, refine, realign and recalibrate.
HR and people management are a vital part of the role of a Headteacher, but the training opportunities are few and far between. HR CPD tends to start at Deputy Headteacher level when you start your NPQH, and tends to focus more on capability and competence than performance and harmony. Reading beyond education into organisational cultures there seems to be a greater focus on structures and systems beyond the school gate that we as school leaders can draw from.
In 15 years of teaching I don’t think I have ever had any words of wisdom imparted to me about the pivotal relationships for a headteacher. So I hadn’t realised until a term in to our school opening, just how important the relationships with my PA and my SBL were going to be in keeping my head above water. I have been involved in the recruitment of teachers and leaders for most of my career so feel quite confident in this domain, but I had not really been exposed to the appointment, training and line management of operations staff before becoming a headteacher.
When do we learn these softer skills as a leader?
My thoughts on who to appoint, what to look for and how to foster these relationships are shared below. I have reflected on what worked, what didn’t work and what we have learned. It is still early days but going in to our 2nd round of team members we can consciously adjust things as we scale the team up:
The relationship with your PA: When we first recruited for this role, I was advised by HR to go for the opposite of me: someone with school experience, someone who was meticulous with admin, someone who knew the lay of the land, someone who was quiet and calm, someone who would be a swan to counter balance me as a ball of energy. We had a strong field – we were down to our last 2 candidates – they were both great potential appointments. I was happy to work with either of them as I could see what they could both bring to my role, but my instinct said I needed someone to compliment my leadership style rather than contrast it, but I listened to the external advice and went with the panel’s choice. The skills were all there to support me as a new headteacher in a new role, in a new school.
A term in, we parted in mutual agreement that it was not working – she returned to her old school to a new role there. We both agreed that our working styles had not gelled, our expectations were not aligned and I felt like I was compromising my workload and my wellbeing to support someone who was still growing in confidence in the role. Line managing and performance managing a PA was totally new to me, I had made some mistakes, we had struggled to get in to a daily/ weekly groove of how we communicated and organised ourselves as a unit. Moreover, I realised that I had not looked for the qualities of resilience, confidence, ability to be proactive or use initiative at interview and it had come to light that this was more important than school-based experience.
I went back to the other candidate and had an honest conversation about the recruitment process and the opportunity, apologising for my error in judgement and for not listening to my instincts. A term in, my working patterns have been revolutionised by someone who is always one step ahead of me, whilst running behind me and catching the balls I drop along my way. My PA was a virtual administrator for a long time, she works flexible hours, she has a ‘can-do’ attitude and we talk openly about what is working and not working. She is my gatekeeper – I trust and respect her to make sound judgement calls. We jest at school about life before my PA; that is the impression and impact she has made on all of us.
The relationship with your SBL (we moved all SBMs to SBLs at our trust and they sit on our SLTs to acknowledge their vital role in the school leadership structure): Our field was really strong at application and interview, we had a talented group of experience professionals who we could all see would bring value to the school in different ways. Managing a start-up budget is not for the feint-hearted – we needed a creative thinker to make our money go as far as possible and someone with tenacity to fight our corner when needed. Moreover, I had heard testimonials from experienced headteachers that the support staff team are often the hardest group to lead change with. Fixed mindsets, traditional systems and ring fenced roles were not part of my vision for an effective and efficient school operations team. I knew I needed someone who could drive this. I was also aware that managing upwards to challenge me needed someone really confident, someone with a voice who could balance setting up the systems in a brand new school with being strategic about the longer term bigger picture.
If my PA is my sentry at the gate, then my SBL is the guard dog (not the most flattering of images but metaphorically you get what I mean). The dynamic between the two of them is also of vital importance. The 3 of us are a unit and our skills set compliment one another.
Part Two to follow…….