An incoming head must inspire change
Change can be empowering for some but challenging for others. An interim headship, designed to provide a platform for an incoming head, must inspire people to cope with change. Coach and mentor Mike Buchanan reports
In August 2021, while enjoying the warmth of the summer sun in the tranquil peace of our Kent farm, I received a call asking if I might be interested in an interim headship, starting in a few weeks’ time. While I have decades of experience as a school leader and am active professionally as a strategic consultant, I was not really looking for such a role. Nonetheless intrigued, I asked about the role and the school, and why I was the person whom they had called. It turned out I already knew the school and the role was a 12-month change project to realign the school ready for a new head. Now this excited me as I could see how I might be able to add some value.
The fundamentals at the school were sound but not secure. The pupils were, on the whole, happy and wished to be at the school. Academic outcomes were good overall and the pupils had some opportunities for personal development. The market for future recruitment was clearly defined. The school had the potential to make reasonable surpluses to enable its future development. The employees were committed and loyal. So what were the issues which meant change was needed?
First things first
Before agreeing to taking on the role of interim head, I asked to have a conversation with the governors as I wanted to better understand their perspective or, as it turned out, perspectives. I met with two pairs of governors over Zoom and simply asked them to tell me about the school. During one conversation, the pair talked over each other and were at odds with each other for an hour. During the second paired conversation, one of the governors talked about the future of the school and painted an enticing picture of possibilities, while the other talked about debilitating operational financial matters. Now I knew I could add value and there was at least one person with a vision for the future.
The school is young and still has many of the characteristics of a start- up. Like many start-ups, the original founders, as represented by the governors, are extremely committed to the original purpose, but a mature, formal governance structure was slow to emerge. Some policies and processes had not kept up with the growth of the school, the demands of the market and organisational effectiveness. There were many committed and loyal employees who wished to contribute to the future success of the school. Often, they were working hard with varying degrees of efficiency and/or efficacy as a result of a lack of clarity of purpose and coordination. Evaluation of impact was not systematic. Where a vacuum existed, it was often filled by those who happened to be interested, even if this was not their remit or strength. The result was that there was much activity, uncoordinated systems, gaps and people inefficiently deployed.
Like many organisations, this school had lost its way and issues that should have been addressed had been ignored, sidestepped or put in the ‘too hard’ box by successive combinations of governors and executives. Dysfunctional governance and leadership had become the norm with governors often acting unilaterally and operationally, thereby disempowering the leadership of the school.
My starting point was to clarify what it is we were trying to achieve in each area and gain agreement about this, to simplify our approach so that we have consistency and coherence, to enable the people best placed to lead, manage and implement while removing barriers and providing resources for them to be successful. Clarity of roles, responsibility and authority, alongside expectations of outcomes and behaviours was the starting point for sustained success as a lack of clarity was often the source of frustration and inaction.
Change is a challenge
I recognise that change, if not the uncertainty which comes with it, is welcomed by some and feared by others. My disposition is to be as open and frank with people as possible so that they are well-informed and understand the reasoning for change. This helps to minimise uninformed speculation and unproductive gossip. I wished to avoid ‘either/or’ thinking where possible in preference of ‘both/and’ approaches. My approach is based around questioning which, for some, may suggest doubt about the nature of what has gone before, but is properly designed to prompt thinking and the imaging of possibilities. I understand that this is not something with which many are familiar and hence there’s a period of learning to be undergone.
My aim was to engage with employees, parents and pupils as much as possible in areas where such consultation is real and meaningful. Equally, the role of the head of an independent school is that of both an education and business leader and, therefore, the head must reserve the right to make organisational and business decisions within the framework agreed with governors, and to be held to account for them.
My priorities were challenging and supporting people, and the establishment of effective financial control and systems. With around 100 school days of my tenure remaining after an initial period of familiarisation, my aim was to ensure the new head was well-placed to start in September 2022. This meant using my 100 days with pinpoint accuracy so my specific focus was on:
- Supporting effective governance which provides direction, oversight, support and productive challenge by developing a framework for a five-year plan
- Taking a step towards a meticulous, effective, sustainable business by creating a budget which seeks a 10% operating surplus in 2022-23
- Making some immediate, symbolic, strategic investments in facilities
- Undertaking a curriculum realignment to increase teaching time and unlock further opportunities for improving the pupil experience in areas such as sport, PSHE, activities and the academic
Of course, we were successful in much but not all of these areas, and there was much pain involved in addressing long- standing issues. Nonetheless, the school is now in a much more secure position and, importantly, it has a permanent head with the skills, vision and energy to help the school and its people thrive.
Quick-fire lessons from the past 12 months:
- Clarity of purpose makes things so much simpler – see our simple framework for our five-year plan
- Honesty and integrity shine through even the most difficult of tasks
- Punishment and control never motivate
- Good governance matters, good governance matters, good governance matters
- Ignoring issues in the hope they solve themselves rarely (never) works
- People behave according to how they feel and it’s best always to have this in your mind.
Mike Buchanan is the founder of PositivelyLeading.co.uk and is the former executive director of HMC.