The Power of Big Relationships

What better day to post a blog about “relationships” than on February 14th, St Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry: there are no love poems or red roses henceforth, just a good dose of research, neuroscience and common sense.

In any organisation, success relies so much on its staff. The phrase “you’re only as good as your team” or even “you’re only a strong as your weakest link” spring to mind. But surely that organisation has a moral obligation to invest in its staff to ensure their success? Surely that is mutually beneficial: staff success = organisational success.

In his book Leadership Plain and Simple, Steve Radcliffe said:

Basically, to get things done, we first generate possibilities and ideas of what could be. We then choose certain opportunities and priorities that we’ll plan to focus on. And then we’ll take actions inside those opportunities. And this leads to results.

2012, P55.

But there is something that is missing from the formula above. All of those components rely on one crucial element: relationships. You have to have relationships big enough to get the job done. And by ‘big enough’, Radcliffe means ‘strong enough’ or ‘good enough’.

If it were represented as a model, it would look like this:

James Kerr supports this idea; in his book Legacy he says:

High performing teams promote a culture of honesty, authenticity and safe conflict.

2013, P126

As a busy leader, it is easy to overlook this seemingly “fluffy” aspect of leadership. Who has time to spend on building relationships? How do you go about that in an INSET?

But one thing the last 12 months has taught me as a leader is the fundamental importance of spending time establishing, cultivating, broadening and deepening relationships. After all, who could have predicted that so many teams – who ordinarily worked in close proximity to each other – would be working remotely, adding a layer of complexity to relationships we had never experienced before.

Be under no illusion, relationships take time to establish, mature and take root. It is not a process that happens once and is done. It is an ongoing process that needs constant revisiting and refining.

In order to engage people, you need a relationship with them. If people feel listened to by you, feel that their opinion matters to you, believe that you actively want them involved, and get acknowledged by you, then you’ll be going a long way to engage them.

The more time you invest in nurturing the relationship, the bigger the relationship will become. This will then transform from engagement to delivery.

Radcliffe observes that leaders build big relationships but he also says that leaders make big requests.

This is where some leaders tend to shy away. How can they make a big request if they have no relationship? I’m not talking about the standard requests that come with the job – say a Phase Leader asking a member of their team for a piece of data – I’m talking more about the big requests linked to whole school improvement or change; the big requests that require full engagement and 100% commitment; the big requests that require colleagues to be in #LeaderMode and @OurBest.

Given the year of challenges we have been faced with – with particular reference to remote working – I am glad that I spent much of my first year as Deputy establishing, growing and cultivating Big Relationships with leaders at all levels. This investment in time has paid dividends over the last 12 months.

During one meeting, a colleague likened Lockdown 1.0 to “having one of your senses removed” (Smith, 2020) and I could not agree more. Usually, on a daily basis, we have hundreds of conversations with colleagues – most “corridor conversations” or incidental exchanges, others more planned and deliberate. During these exchanges, we are privvy to expression – both facial and body language – tone of voice, pace, speed and inflection. We are also aware of (or can be made aware of ) the context of the conversation and how it fit’s into the Big Picture.

When working remotely this was removed. We had to rely on the relationships we had built with each other prior to Lockdown.

For some leaders, spending time building relationships may sound a bit “soft” or “a waste of time” but in their book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the brain gain advantage Swart, Chrisholm and Brown pose the question why is the soft stuff so hard?

The quotation that begins the chapter captures the tone of this blog thus far:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

They suggest that “whilst it is generally agreed that the hard stuff is what can be measured, definitions of the soft stuff are legion, from brand design through emotional intelligence, to talent development, engagement, innovation and “people issues”. (2015, P76)

Douglas R Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soups, writing in Strategy and Business defined the soft stuff as: “problems of intention, understanding, communication and interpersonal effectiveness.” (2015, P76) My initial thoughts were that all Conant just defined are tabled, discussed, and developed during the period of forming Big Relationships.

Swart et al then made me consider Big Relationships from a different angle: one of neuroscience. Is our brain wired in a particular way that makes forming Big Relationships easier or more challenging? Does the balance of hormones affect our ability to establish, develop and cultivate Big Relationships? I was completely engaged.

Communication: the fundamental tool of leadership.

Mike Myatt summarised in Forbes magazine: “It is simply impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator.” And I agree. Communication is foundational to all relationships – personal, professional, with pupils or with adults – and permeates relationships at all levels.

Humans communicate with their whole body, with intentional as well as non-intentional movements, with stance and stillness, with both what is actioned and what is not. At levels below our conscious awareness our brain is using its automatic ability to assign intent to a whole range of signals from other people to which our conscious brain, with its limited processing capacity, does not always pay attention.

This is called Theory of Mind (ToM). Having a Theory of Mind means that we can distinguish between our self and others, understand that other people’s behaviours are driven by their goals and beliefs, not ours, and that our knowledge and perspective is different to everyone else’s. (P79)

As Gallese says, “Most of the time, our understanding of social situations is immediate, automatic and reflex-like.” This again confirms the need to invest time building the automaticity of relationships, given that under current circumstances – as I said earlier – that “sense” can be taken away.

When I talk about leadership, I refer to leadership at all levels: from a class teacher’s view point, Sue Cowley wrote: “The more effective a teacher is at interacting – at communicating knowledge, attitudes, expectations and so on – the more likely it is that the pupils will learn and behave.”

In summary, Swart et at neatly summarise The Power of Relationship:

“Leadership communication, in order to be effective, needs to build a relationship between people. We are more likely to be influenced by someone with whom you have a relationship of trust, and with whom you share some beliefs. A trusted leader who communicates with integrity can develop relationships of trust with people in their organisation, even with those whom they have never met. Those relationships can, in turn, become the basis for changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.” (2015, P84)

For me, on my mission to be an authentic leader, the “soft stuff” is definitely the place to start. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have high expectations and won’t hold people to account. Far from it. I would even go as far as to say with the “soft stuff” established and embedded, the stuff will become less hard.

Consider yourself as a leader: where do you spend most of your time? Working on “the hard stuff”? Would this be easier if we front loaded our leadership paying attention to “soft stuff”? How does this fit with your values as a leader? Who in your support network is best to assist with this?

To close, take some time to reflect on this: Rita Pierson – in her TED Talk Every Kid Needs a Champion – said “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Can the same be said for us as leaders?

What do I care about?

What do you care about? Education has been a life saver for me, but has proved daunting as well.

Steve Radcliffe says:

The first question to ask yourself is ‘What do you care about?’ What matters to you, what’s important to you, what your value most or what you have most passion for. You can only be a great leader for things you care about. If the answer doesn’t give you an energy boost, by tapping into your energy of passion, pride and possibility, you haven’t got to the real issue yet.

Leadership Plain and Simple (2012)

I always knew I wanted to go into teaching. From a very early age, I would play “teachers” and terrorise my younger brother by setting spelling tests and giving out detentions; my neighbours used to know when lunchtime had ended because the ‘two whistle system’ was well established.

I loved school. I loved learning. I still do. My mum always encouraged me to do my best and give 100% effort in all my studies. But when I reflect back on my experiences of school, I know appreciate how much of a journey I have been on.

As a child, my attendance at school wasn’t great and there were lots of reasons for this: I suffered with severe asthma as a youngster, which affected my chest a considerable amount of the time – particularly in the winter. This led to lots of time off. This was eventually brought under control but my attendance didn’t really improve. At the age of 7, my mum and dad separated. My mum, brother and I moved out of the family home and moved in with my grandparents, then my aunty and uncle, then to another town (meaning a change of school), then to another village, (meaning a taxi-ride followed by a bus-ride every day), then back to the first town (meaning a change of school again). This erratic and unsettled period of time spanned two-and-a-half to three years – my Key Stage 2 career.

But my patchy attendance started before this – back in Key Stage 1. It seems from old reports that I found that I would have the “odd day off here and there” for no apparent reason – the very thing that I have conversations with parents about now.

If I were in school now, I would be a “pupil premium child” – single parent family, safeguarding concerns, poor attendance. By all accounts, I would be one of those statistics lumped in the disadvantaged groups who was destined to “not amount to much”.

I remember vividly arriving to school one Monday morning having stayed at my dads for the weekend – my dad wasn’t a great support; he drank and smoked a lot and before my parents separated, this often led to the police being on our doorstep. He didn’t really value education either, which meant he didn’t really support or encourage me or my brother – and being sat in my year 6 classroom with Mr O’ Boyle (the Headteacher) and him saying: “right everyone, take out your maths homework so we can mark it together.”

My heart sank.

I’d taken my maths book home. I’d taken my maths book to my dads house. But amongst the chaos of the weekend, I had not completed it.

Mr O’Boyle wasn’t the most understanding of teachers, nor was he that compassionate so I daren’t tell him I hadn’t done it.

I was now in panic mode. What should I do? As the class moved closer to him with their maths books and pencils, I hung back and waited for them to overtake me. I sheepishly sat near the back of the room. I had a plan. I would do the homework now. I would keep a few questions ahead.

(Thinking about this now with the knowledge we have of cognitive science, I would have been in complete cognitive overload!)

The plan was working… until I was asked the answer to a question… How I managed to keep it together, I do not know. Maths was never my strongest subject!

Needless to say that wasn’t my greatest day at school.

Fortunately, I was reasonably clever and could cope with situations such as this and the more they presented themselves, the more adept I became at dealing with them.

I do wander what my outcomes would have been like if I had a stable primary education? A stable home-life?

As I started at secondary school, things did settle down somewhat. We moved to a house in a nice area and mum had a stable job. Things were looking up. They remained that way for much of my secondary school career.

My attendance was still patchy (as you can see from the slightly pointed comment from my Head of Year: “well done… perhaps attendance could improve further?”) – but this was more habitual rather than for any other reason. Habits are hard to break.

I enjoyed secondary school. I was successful at secondary school. I went through all of my secondary career in the top set for every subject and enjoyed engaging with challenging material that made me think.

I found something I was good at – performing arts – and started to participate in productions (the first one being Shakespeare’s The Tempest). This was tricky to balance though as rehearsals were after school.

I had lots of small successes throughout secondary school. This led to me becoming Deputy Head Boy in Year 11 and gaining 11 A to C grades at GCSE. And then it was onto the next thing… Sixth Form

It was in Sixth Form that my love for education blossomed. I studied English Literature, Performing Arts, Art and Design and Philosophy and Ethics. A Levels were different. Very different. The level at which we were expected to engage was higher, the demand put on us to read around a subject was more intense. I loved it. I thrived off it. My attendance improved, my relationships with teachers and peers became more established and I felt more like I was meant to be there.

It was still a bit of a balancing act. I had a part time job now to support myself a bit more as things were still tight at home. But this was fine. I had to make it work.

All in all, I did well in A Levels – three As and a B. Decent. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself. Then it was onto the next thing… university.

I was the first one in my family to go to university. I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I loved performing arts to the secondary education course at the University of South Wales Institute (UWIC) in Cardiff was perfect.

My mum was reluctant at first – turns out it wasn’t because she didn’t want me to go, it was because she knew she couldn’t fund it. But that didn’t matter. I applied for the the Maintenance Grant and secured a job.

Throughout uni I balanced the demands of an undergraduate qualification, school placements and a job. I had to work to support myself. If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t have lasted. At times, it was challenging. At times, I considered giving up. But I didn’t. Ironically, my attendance at university was outstanding – I didn’t miss a day!

I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Cardiff; I made some wonderful friends, networked with some wonderful people, graduated with a First Class honours and won Student of the Year at the same time. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself.

Then it was on to the next thing… a job. I was fortunate in that I secured a job straight after graduating. A secondary school in Neath, South Wales.

When I take stock of my journey to this point there is a certain irony – my attendance at primary school was questionable – now I was going to be on the other side of the classroom, the teacher.

I can now look proudly back on a decade long teaching career (where I’m pleased to say, I have had very little time off school).

It certainly sounds cliched but I can attest to the fact that the experiences I had of early education, sixth form and university definitely shaped me. Me as a product of the education system, but more importantly, me as an educator – the kind of teacher (and now leader) I am.

So you’re probably thinking what on earth does this post have to do with the title “what do I care about?”

I care about social mobility.

I care about education being the most powerful tool for moving children out of poverty (and I use that word deliberately and I include myself in that category).

I care about education giving children options.

I care about valuing every child regardless of their background or perceived barriers.

I care about giving every child the chance to succeed.

And why do I care so much about this? Because I know first hand that it works, that education makes a difference, that education makes people.

I know because I am one of those people and I won’t stop until we have an education system that does for all children what it has done for me.

Corenna Khieu: Show Them That You Care