"What are the top skills headteachers need to create a good culture?"

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Jamie Lawrence
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This question was answered by Andy Buck, a former geography teacher turned headteacher turned leadership expert who has written multiple leadership books and now works with senior headteachers across the UK to improve schools and the school system. 

Jamie Lawrence, Managing Editor, HRZone: What are the top skills headteachers need to create a good culture?

Andy Buck, former headteacher and leadership trainer: The interesting thing is the use of the language here. Increasingly in my work with headteachers I’m drawing a distinction between culture and climate. Headteachers need to look after both of these.

Culture is the ‘way we do things around here’ - what people would see if they came along and saw what’s going on - what’s being done and how well is it being done and how typical and consistent the delivery is. Climate is how it feels to be in that school. That relates to stafff but equally and more importantly it relates to pupils.

The product of one’s leadership makes a difference to both climate and culture. If I think of what leaders do to create a positive cycle between climate and culture, and they influence each other of course, number one is providing real clarity.

Schools are complicated places, as are most organisations, so having clarity over what’s expected of people is important. It’s a bit dull, but it’s actually really critical. And it's important to keep that clarity as simple as possible - the KISS principle.

Secondly, it’s really important for leaders to show they care and that they can show forgiveness. They must also show a personal interest in people they work with and treat them as human beings rather than machines.

Clarity helps build culture and showing appreciation for individuals really helps build climate.

Finally, painting that positive, exciting vision of the future is essential, which doesn’t mean headteachers need to be charismatic,  but they need to in their own way - an authentic way - have an inspiring vision that makes people want to come with them on the journey.

To sum it all up, Dan Pink’s book Drive resonates in schools with the three key things that motivate people - which is what a good culture and climate should lead to.

Great organisations are full of people with bags of discretionary effort and Pink talks about mastery, autonomy and purpose. With mastery, clarity is very important - you can't get good at things if you don't know what's expected.

With autonomy, people should be able to be innovative, creative and flexible within the boundaries of what is expected.

Finally, purpose, and I guess against other organisations schools do have an advantage. The goal is to develop young lives, but even schools mustn't forget their purpose and take it for granted.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: So if you do these things, can you be a successful headteacher if you don't like children and aren't genuinely interested in seeing young people succeed?

Andy Buck, former headteacher and leadership trainer: No, I think it’s really hard. There are no other organisations that are really like schools - except maybe hospitals - in that as a leader you have three big constituent groups you have to manage and you come into direct contact with all of them.

Firstly, you have staff - schools are a people business and 70-80% of your money is spent on people. You then have 15x as many pupils and then you have 2x that of parents you’re engaging in your wider community. And they are all very distinct groups.

For school leaders you have to be thinking about how they’re feeling about you. If all three of those groups, especially pupils, think you are there for them, and they like the way you interact with them, then half your job is done as children will do anything for someone they think genuinely cares about them. That’s my experience anyway.

That clarity and care for children equally applies to tough love, by the way, but it's also about showing that you care and that you will forgive them from time to time.

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