The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

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Doing Great Work

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t, at least at some time, wrestle with issues of conflict between dealing with the pressing and urgent in their work and the need/ desire to give quality time to work that’s important but less pressing, immediate and urgent.

We have never worked in more connected ways. Even when we’re not meeting or interacting face to face, today’s work day is punctuated by a continual flow of emails. One of the problems, in my experience in most organisations is people don’t openly talk about expectations with regard to these issues. If, for example, somebody sends an email, by when should they anticipate or expect that it will have been seen and a reply received? On the subject of emails, are companies training their people in effective email etiquette and best practices? My suspicion is that very few do. And yet, within most companies there are vast hidden costs being incurred through inefficiency and lost productivity and effectiveness. All this also causes a great deal of stress and anxiety, especially for employees who want to be productive, to achieve and individually and collectively take their organisations forward.

One of many examples is where people (and I’m not going to claim innocence on this type of thing!) send multi-point emails. If I send someone a mail asking four different questions, and they can only answer two immediately, what are they to do? Answer on those two and make a commitment by when they will answer on the others? Hold off answering any of the points and keep the whole mail pending? There’s no easy answer.

Worse, the answer will vary within an organisation depending on who were the sender and the recipient. There are all sorts of issues about rank and status, but different people tend to operate with different practices and expectations (while all their colleagues have to figure out what’s expected).

Another very common issue with email is where people find it ambiguous about expectations when mail is sent outside work hours. Personally, I’ve often sent mails out of hours, but partly so that the mail would be available to the recipient as soon as they get in to work on the next day (or after a weekend). However, i do recognise it’s important to tell people that I’m not expecting them to be working out of hours. This particular issue has been perceived so negatively that France and other European countries have passed legislation prohibiting the sending of work related mail outside working hours. I personally feel it’s rather sad that it had to come to such a prescriptive ‘blunt instrument’ approach in those countries. people should have flexibility and an ability to work in the ways that suit them best, but we need to find better ways to make that fit with others’ working needs.

Emails are one of the bad interruptions that disturb our ability to carve out real quality blocks of time in the working day to do meaningful, high quality work. One of the others is face to face interruptions. it’s a very rare organisation where people stick to the rigours of using calendar scheduling to fix mutually agreeable times to meet, even for 10 minutes. Instead, you have the infamous, “I just need two minutes,” that invariably turns in to 15, which is then followed by 15 minutes of confused and muddled working as the individual tries to regain their focus on what they were immersed in the moment the interruption came. In the worst cases, your interruptions can get interrupted leaving you completely confused. I confess, one day last week i got home after a long day in the office, only to realise that an important email I’d started writing at 11.00am was still open on my laptop, nearly finished along with two others from during the afternoon that were barely started!

In open plan and glass offices it’s become fashionable to suggest that all leaders are duty bound to keep an ‘open door’ policy. However, i believe that if this is at the expense of failure to carve out decent blocks of time to do meaningful and important work, then it’s counter-productive. The urgent cannot always have precedence over the important. We have to be willing to have the conversations with our colleagues and team members about how to give each other the space and time to do meaningful blocks of work. Otherwise, we finish up filling each others’ days with urgency, leaving us no choice but to sacrifice personal time away from the office to do the truly important work in less disturbed circumstances. haven’t we all found that in two hours at home, we can complete more than we would in 8 office hours and to a better standard. However, it shouldn’t have to be that way and at the expense of personal space and time.

Another area where we struggle is with meetings. Meetings have been universally disliked for as long as i’ve worked in my life. yet, they can serve valuable purpose and cannot/ shouldn’t be avoided. Again, there need to be process discussions that ensure people understand what’s expected of them so that meetings can be truly effective;
a) people owe it to each other to come prepared. Too many turn up to meetings poorly prepared and meeting time is then spent getting people up to speed with where they should have been on arrival,
b) Focus needs to be on the meeting – not on laptops, mobile phones and other external things. We have an interesting challenge coming up with video conference technology installed for remote meetings. In the past, skype calls with groups have been messy and disjointed because people had the habit of leaving the room(!). Even those who stayed in the room sometimes took the opportunity to complete other, non-related work. If those meetings are to be effective, we’ll need more self-discipline than that!
c) Agenda creation for meetings can be a minefield if team members seek to ‘stack it’ with their personal agendas. People can be fond of requesting fixed finishing times for meetings, but go off at tangents, ride hobby-horses and use time wasting as a tactic to avoid decisions they disagree with. On the other hand, overly rigid meeting protocols stifle meaningful discussion rendering meetings sterile and mundane. It takes real effort on the part of all to find a happy medium.

I’d like to finish here, sharing a fun piece from Fast Company in which some senior employees from Tech companies share their thoughts on the habits they want to break so as to be more productive and efficient in their work;

Fast Company – Kicking Seven Work Habits

Right, I’m finishing there, because i acknowledge that habit 6 is most certainly one for me to tackle!

Are Work Habits Ruining Your Productivity?

http://m.fastcompany.com/3051473/are-work-habits-ruining-your-productivity?utm_source=mailchimp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=fast-company-daily-newsletter&position=6&partner=newsletter&campaign_date=09242015

Growth Mindset in Sports

Physical education, games and sports are a vital and integral part of a fully rounded holistic education. I also believe that for many children they also provide some of the most powerful and transferable experiences of what it means to be an effective learner. A child who develops a strong inclination towards a particular student quickly learns the natural connection between effort and outcomes – the more I train and apply myself, the better I become and the more success I can achieve in the sport.

So, as the concept of ‘Growth Mindset’ has developed over the last few years, it was important that specific attention be paid to its application in the area of sport. So, I was very pleased to see from this article that a book has been written on that subject;

Mindsetworks – Blog – Put Me In Coach – Growth Mindset in the World of Sports

Whilst I’m very keen to read the book, the article suggests that the writers have done a good job. One of the points that struck me was one where from time to time i’ve deliberately chosen to have provocative and thoughtful debates with teachers – how should children be chosen for school sports teams? All too often, the child with the high level of innate early talent gets called up for the team over the child who may be starting from a lower base, but who has the growth mindset and potential to work and strive to develop the technical skills.

The other thing the article talks about is the areas where sports coaches can sometimes have ‘blind spots’. Whilst they may pride themselves on a growth mindset approach towards the children and their technical skills and competence in the sport, they may harbour fixed mindset attitudes towards things like resilience, motivation and mental toughness. It’s important that coaches recognise that these are all things that can be learned and tailor their approaches accordingly.

Higher quality coaching that utilises and harnesses the power of growth mindset thinking can ensure that more children get more rich and rewarding experiences from their engagement with games and sports.

Be a Go-Giver

I believe in 10 years from now, people are going to look back and reflect that the work of Adam Grant had a profound impact on our organisations, and even on the wider society. His work is associated with research in to what makes people productive and successful.

What I’ve particularly liked about his work and what has motivated me to continue to follow his ideas is the inclination and motivation he exhibits to promote thinking that enables us to create better organisations – ones in which good people flourish and the less good mend their ways or lose.

I’ve written here in the blog in the past about Grant’s books;

Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness
Being an Original

I’ve also been fond of giving his books as gifts.

So, I was pleased to come across this a few days ago – a video of a recent TED talk given by Grant that brings up to date some of his thinking on giving. In it, he makes some particularly valuable points about how to identify ‘agreeable takers’ who are perhaps some of the most dangerous people in the workplace. He also highlights how givers tend to both be the biggest strugglers and the biggest winners in organisations – there are no half measures with the givers. I also took away his thoughts about how to identify at the time of interviewing prospective employees, who is a taker, a giver or a matcher.

Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

More Evidence on Performance Management

Continuing with a recent theme here are some further thoughts regarding Performance Management systems and processes in companies and organisations, after I read this article today;

Entrepreneur – The 3 Performance Management Mistakes You Need To Stop Making

To my mind, the frequency of such articles about ‘fixing’ performance management are a measure of the problems and challenges that exist, as I’ve highlighted in my earlier articles. When i was in Delhi, initially there was no performance management system. The HR and senior team did considerable research in to what was done by other organisations. We polled our teachers and other staff and had endless hours of meetings and discussions looking at different models that we could adopt.

Ultimately, though, we came to a point where there was a crunch question we had to answer – will introduction of this system raise engagement, employee motivation and delivery of the vision, mission and values to a higher level than being achieved with no PM system? Every time we asked the question, we failed to have an answer about which we could be really confident. And so, for over two years we went around and around the issues. We genuinely feared that we could finish up with something that was worse than nothing – and we couldn’t accept that.

One of the other questions that had us all stumped was – could we arrive at a scenario where every individual in the organisation was being told that their performance was at least satisfactory, if not better, and yet be failing to achieve the organisation’s overall objectives. To my knowledge, there is no process by which you can add up all the sum total of implications of all employees’ performance management objectives to determine whether they add up to the collective goals of the organisation.

A further issue raised by a number of teachers was – you say that you want us to work with a team focus, to function in teams and work for each other – yet you talk of a performance system that will judge and rate us individually. I have to say, I think they had a very valid point.

I have also sometimes worried that if performance management discussions are focused on the negative and weaknesses, this is potentially demoralizing, but if they focus on the positive staff will extrapolate that this justifies bigger raises etc. Ultimately, we want to be stimulating dialogue and discussion that ensures all team members understand where the organisation is going, their role in that progress and the standards/ metrics for individual performance within that collective performance.

The four mistakes highlighted by the article for correction are; Ignoring signs, Setting vague goals, Using subjective scoring and Delays/ Putting Off PM meetings.

The first is a fundamental of leadership and management – one needs to determine what measurables enable you to guage the health and direction of effort, track them relentlessly and be ready to take corrective action when things are not happening the way they need to. In fact, rigidly timed PM systems can get in the way of the timely intervention. If an individual needs to be redirected, that needs to happen sooner, not when their PM meeting next comes around. For the third point, the article advocates rubrics. However, I really wonder just how many different sets of these rubrics would need to exist and what this would amount to in time commitment. In addition, to be good a rubric has to be very carefully drafted and educators consider this a specialised skill. Any rubric is only as good as the common shared understanding of the words used in it. Differing understanding will lead to differing interpretations of expectations.

The article doesn’t address what I consider (see yesterday’s article) to be the biggest weakness of PM systems – that they are inherently backward looking. I feel the way forward does lie through structures of dialogue that are formative, forward focused and strongly aligned to the goals and aspirations of both the individual and the organisation.

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