In the end, leadership is all about developing the right habits. As a school leader, I suspect you will be achieving your successes through a whole range of habits you don’t even know you have. One habit that I think underpins pretty much everything great leaders do is ‘asking first’. If you want to understand your self and your context better, you need to ask questions of yourself, others and your context. You need to interrogate the data you have at your disposal. Only by doing this are you in a position to identify what you need to make your priorities for actions. And only then can you decide on how you will implement these priorities: your leadership approach.
Based on over 20 years in a whole range of senior leadership roles, I think school leaders at all levels only have three types of conversation!
‘Monkey on the shoulder’ conversations
Someone comes to talk to you about an issue and concern. Before you know it, you’ve ended up with a job! I call these your ‘monkey on the shoulder’ conversations where the monkey has quickly jumped from them onto you. Of course, there is a time and place where this is appropriate. If something is high-risk and looking like it is about to go wrong, you may well need to step in. If a colleague is really stressed out for some reason and just can’t cope, you need to help. But if your habit is to take on jobs from others without thinking, you aren’t really leading, you are just doing.
I can remember as a young head of year letting a huge number of monkeys jump on my back. Looking back, there were a number of reasons why this tended to happen: firstly, because I genuinely wanted to help out someone who I thought was very busy. Secondly, because I wanted the other person to think I was capable and good at my job, and thirdly, because it often felt like it would be quicker and easier to do something myself. Finally, because the reality of culture in my school at that time was that heads of year were seen as firefighters, not team leaders. Whilst there is a place for ’monkey on the shoulder’ conversations, you shouldn’t have too many.
‘Wise owl’ conversations
These are dialogues in which you end up giving advice, making suggestions or even just telling someone what to do. At least with these, you don’t end up with the job! Hopefully, the other person will be able to apply what they have learnt in the conversation in the future. But if they keep coming back to you with similar questions, and if you continue to just answer them, they can become over-dependent upon you. These conversations don’t build capacity or competence in your colleagues. In fact, they do the reverse.
The important habit I am suggesting all leaders need to keep developing, is that of ‘asking first’. Here, leaders just ask brilliant questions. Initially, these help you understand the situation; both the context and an individual’s capacity to manage it. Only then can you decide the best way to proceed. If at this point you identify that you need to intervene and take the job off them or give them advice, then that’s fine. You have made a conscious decision to do that. Not because it’s what you are predisposed to do, but because it’s what the situation needs.
Of course, if you both have time, spending a tiny bit longer on the conversation and staying in questioning mode can very often help people work out for themselves what they need to do. These mini-coaching conversations don’t have to take long. It is more about you using a coaching leadership style than it is actually formally coaching. In a nutshell, aim to ask questions that help the other person to:
1. understand the background or situation
2. work out what they want to do or their aim
3. consider their options and work out their strategy or approach
4. decide what they are going to do or implement
5. work out how this can continue as a sustainable solution
As the words in bold highlight, this approach to structuring these conversations uses the acronym of BASIC.
You will be surprised, even in a one-minute conversation, how much of this ground can be covered. You leave the conversation with no task to undertake. Your colleague leaves feeling they have been properly listened to and having had the opportunity to think through the situation. They are also less likely to ask you the same question again next time.
So, those are the questions. What about listening to the answers? That’s another story, and will be covered in part two of this blog to follow shortly.
Andy Buck is Managing Director of Leadership Matters and is leading the session Leading for Impact at ASCL Annual Conference 2017.