Backing Winners or Solving Problems?

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Few types of ‘managers/ leaders’  pride themselves more on their skills at solving problems than school administrators. Many school Heads revel in the image of themselves as the calm vortex in the middle of a chaotic storm. For them, the more manically busy the school day, the more they believe they are proving their worth as leaders. They take great satisfaction and achieve much of their status from their zen-like unruffled calm as they solve problems left, right and centre.

Whilst i don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, I think this is a mistake and there is a better way of leading schools that can give them the scope to be better institutions delivering a better education for all pupils.

My starting point is an experience that has stuck with me for many years, that I’ve seen mirrored subsequently in the literature for personal development, happiness and, I believe, applies to organisations as well. The experience was when I was in my late 20’s and working for a Private Bank in the UK – providing a wide range of financial services to the richest clients of our bank. I had been managing an office for around 18 months and its performance was going really well; outperforming on sales and revenue targets, customer retention and all other measures. However, our Region was marginally under performing against targets. I had a regular monthly meeting with the Regional Sales Head.

We had a good rapport and the meeting that day took the form of a wide ranging brainstorming session. In the late afternoon we were batting around ideas  in a ‘reject nothing’ environment. At a particular point, I commented that most of our discussion related to problems – the offices with the biggest sales target deficits, the sales staff who weren’t achieving up to expectations etc.  We agreed to talk about what it might look like if we reversed and deliberately took control of Pareto’s Principal.

What would it look like if we spent 80% of our time and energy on the 20% who were achieving at the highest levels?

The Pareto Principle is better known as the 80:20 Rule. It states that 20% of a company’s customers contribute 80% of the profits, 20% give 80% of the problems and can be applied in many other ways. The important thing is to reccognise the principle, not to get hung up on the exact numbers. It had been set out in a book by Richard Koch around the time of our discussion. I still have my original first edition copy of the book

We were both excited by the idea and formulated some thoughts about what our days and actions might look like if we deliberately and consciously focused our energies on our 20% best customers and particularly in the sales team, the 20% of sales staff who were performing best.

There were a few months left in the financial year. During that time we did more on-the-job observations with our best staff, arranged an advanced sales skills course aimed at the best performing sales staff. One of the tougher parts was that we both set about being somewhat elusive for the ‘problem’ staff. Either we weren’t available, or we arranged pre-planned short ‘touch base meetings in which discussion would deliberately get cut short if they started talking about problems. When they did, the key was to always ensure that they left the table still owning their own problem.

Personally, the first effect I experienced was a lightening and enjoying my work more. I felt less weighed down by negativity. Across the Region, the responses were very positive. One very strong, high performing sales person turned down a job offer to go elsewhere (he was on the verge of agreeing to go). Three sales people who had been consistently weak over a number of years resigned and informed they wished to leave the company over a period of 6 months. This created the opportunity to promote and take on some new employees. The sales performance of the Region rose. Stronger performers became more ready to come forward and support less experienced (but positive) colleagues.

So, my question here is, applying the same principles, what would a similar Pareto approach in a school look like? Firstly, I think Principals would need to stop saying, “my door is always open,” to all. More selectivity is vital to ensure that 80% of time is available to go towards those who are positive, achieving and applying positive mindsets. Now, I can immediately hear the cries of callousness, of giving up on some people without giving them a chance to improve etc. However, I’m not advocating that school leaders ignore the under achievers, whiners and overly negative, but simply reduce the amount of time they spend with them to having them acknowledge their own ownership for the issues, commit to a timetable to deal with them and occasionally to follow up to see that they have done so.

The reality is that even if leaders could free up 10% of their time in a school day to spend with high achievers, coaching and supporting them to raise their game still further, three things in particular would happen;

a) Those high achievers with strong growth mindset would be enabled to achieve still more, have higher levels of motivation knowing that they are appreciated and valued (not ignored and left to fend for themselves because they’re not problems),

b) The leader would find they have more energy and drive.  Invariably, the kinds of people we are talking about here, the ‘problem’ people are energy takers or drainers. They stride in to the leader’s office with; “There’s a problem I think you need to know about,” They leave after some time task free and the leader just inherited yet another task to add to their already overloaded schedule.

c) There would actually be less problems. The culture of the organisation would be way more empowered. What the leader would be much more likely to hear about is situations that had arisen, been dealt with and were no longer of concern. It’s not a compliment to the leader if everything has to rise to the top for a decision. In a culture where attention is given to those who solve problems, that becomes the default expectation.

One final thought – if you were to ask most leaders they could probably list out their staff members who sap their energy (and that of their colleagues) and those who underperform, are overly negative in their mindsets and who sap time. What they may not have stopped to consider is how much they could do with the time freed up if they stopped pandering to these people’s toxicity. Also, many will argue that they have to tolerate these individuals in their teams because they are good subject experts or bring some skills which would be hard to replace. However, i believe this is mistaken and that it fails to take full account of the overall harm that toxicity and negativity brings.

As leaders, we steer our organisations in the direction where we place the majority of our attention. If we focus on problems, even successfully solved problems, that’s what we’ll have. Instead, I’m arguing for a stronger focus on positive, self-directed teams and individuals who accept accountability, take ownership and responsibility and move the organisation forward.

Footnote! I’m not advocating here that we apply 80:20 to pupils or to ‘customers’ (parents). This is where schools are not like conventional businesses, who might pick and choose the customers they want to give most attention on the basis of profitability etc.  That would be unethical. In fact, on that issue I believe that schools tend to err towards paying too much attention to students who lie at both ends of the bell curve, often leaving those in the middle not getting as much support to fulfil their potential. But that’s for another article, another day.

 

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