Finally, identify who helps you grow

This is the final blog the series of three that each contain short exercises to help you reflect on your leadership journey to date, pinning down what motivates you and how to increase your impact. In this final blog, I focus on the importance of networks and relationships.

It can be easy to think of leaders in isolation, such as the myth of the ‘Superhead’ who singlehandedly turns around a school, but more often than not, it is the relationships these people develop that leads to change.

The recent Radio 4 series Seriously… Five Women Who Broke the Class Ceiling, showcased trailblazing women, such as Monica McWilliams, one of only two women who was involved in brokering the Good Friday peace agreement. She spoke of how lonely it was to be one of the first women taking a leadership position in a time of great conflict and how important it is to be surrounded by a strong network:

“We had a great team of women around us…My message to women is don’t do this on your own.”

Whilst you might not be negotiating yourself out of entrenched conflict in the way that Monica did (although it might feel like it some days!), the same lessons apply. Remember that schools are no more and no less than the teachers, support staff, parents and students who come and go each day. What gets people working together towards a common goal is relationships and networks. As Margaret Hefferman puts it in her TED talk, ‘What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks’, and how strong that mortar is depends on how much time you invest in people.

Exercise three: Networks

Time: 10 minutes

1) List all the people you have spoken to about work over the last few months, both in and out of school. They can be those who you bounce ideas around with, speak with to gain their buy-in or just let off a bit of steam with.

2) Now colour code your network in relation to these three categories, as outlined by Herminia Ibarra in her book Think Like a Leader, Act Like a Leader:

  • Operational: people in your organisation that help you get the day to day of your job done
  • Personal: friends, family and colleagues you are close to, who you can trust and turn to when things are difficult
  • Strategic: A blend of people internally and externally who bring new insights and help to connect you with new people and opportunities

3) Now look at those lists and ask yourself the following:

  • How many people are in each category?
  • How many people in my network speak, look and think like me?
  • What are the strengths of my network?
  • Where are the gaps?

When people are time poor, they tend to form ‘Just like me’ convenience networks in order to get their job done. Unfortunately, that means that you can often get stuck in a rut, with the same solutions being applied to the same problems with the same unsuccessful results. Diversity in your network helps renew thought processes and challenge ‘group think’. Ibarra outlines that not only should your networks comprise operational, personal and strategic, they should also be:

  • Broad: Span people internally and externally to your organisation, encompassing a range of ages, levels of seniority and experiences
  • Connected: Through your networks you should be able to reach out to a range of people internally and externally
  • Dynamic: Your network should change as you grow, develop and take on new opportunities

If you’ve spotted (like many of us!) that you want to grow your network, here are some practical tips on how you can go about it:

  • Look out for panel discussions and conferences where you can go along to meet new people and hear interesting ideas. If the thought of this sounds terrifying, go with someone from your school so you’ve got moral support, and turn up early so you can get to meet the organisers and chat informally to them before the event starts. The Festival of Education, WomenEd or a Leadership Matters conference can be a great place to start. You could even sign up to our mailing list at LKMco to hear what events we have on the horizon!
  • No one person has the capacity to go to every event. Therefore, be selective about what you can go to and invest fully in that event: turn up early, listen (and even tweet!) throughout, ask a question at the end, and then stay afterwards to network and find out more.
  • Carve out 10-20 minutes of your day where you go onto Twitter and see what current research and thinking there is out there that’s aligned with your area of specialism. There’s a range of live chats to get involved in too, such as #SLTchat or #UKResChat, that can help get you connected to new people working in a similar space to you.
  • Take time to connect with old colleagues or people who might be in another school who you’ve always been meaning to get in touch with. If you don’t have an immediate link, consider who in your network might be able to connect you. If it feels awkward contacting them out of the blue, consider whether there are any specific questions or issues you might want to talk through with them. Remember that this isn’t just a one-way relationship; what new insights and connections can you offer in exchange for support from your networks?

I hope you’ve found this exercise and the ones on the previous blogs a useful way in to start thinking (or get you re-energised!) about your leadership journey. It’s important to note that, just like with school improvement, there’s no one silver bullet. Taking time to reflect, just as you have by reading this blog, is one of many steps to take on your way to becoming an effective leader.

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