In researching and writing on leadership I have made an effort to get as many ‘primary sources’ into my work by interviewing real-life leaders. One of the team suggested that I should pop just round the corner from our office one day and interview the Head Teacher of the local school there. When I asked why him particularly I was told that he had taken on what was a failing school, with a terrible reputation, and completely transformed it. So much so that he had been asked by the local council to turn his attentions to another basket-case school and sort that out. Leaving someone else in charge of the first establishment he did indeed turn the second one around, found a successor to carry on the good work there and came back. This was definitely someone I had to meet, and an appointment was made.
Not being a parent, walking into a school for the first time a many years was an odd experience. I arrived not through the main gate and, not knowing where I should announce myself I turned to two pupils who had entered behind me. Not only were they instantly polite and courteous, one of them immediately took charge and showed me to reception before going off to start his own day. I don’t remember my school having a reception area, but while I sat waiting (obviously I had arrived early – this was a summons to the headmaster’s study!) I spent a few minutes examining a noticeboard in the reception area. One of the items pinned there was a simple A4 sheet of paper on which were written the school’s values. The values themselves were not exceptional. They weren’t differentiators. They were simple things you might want to see held as values in any organisation. My interest was in the process that had been used to arrive at them
During the course of the interview I mentioned that I had noticed them and that, like a reception area, they were not something my school had – I mean as a written set of values – we had school rules and a code of conduct! My question was whether the Head had brought them with him from previous experience or conviction, decided on them as the right values for the school, or conducted a process of consulting with staff, with staff and pupils, with staff, pupils and parents, or by some other means. My interest in this was fuelled by having been asked repeatedly by professionals in the HR and L&D fields, as well as by business and other leaders, whether the top-down or bottom-up (consulting) approach to defining values worked better in my opinion. I was initially surprised, and then delighted, when the Head waved a hand, dismissing all my theories and conjecture and said: “Oh no, the values were here when I arrived. It was just that nobody was doing them. I asked whether the school had a set of written values and when I saw them I said, ‘Fine, they’re good. That’s what we’ll do.’ And that’s what we did.”
So it wasn’t any complex decision making process about what the values should be, or who should be consulted, that made the difference, it was simply a leader saying ‘we will conduct ourselves the way we have said we will.’ This was backed up by two personal behaviours: “I never walk past anything I don’t like,” and “Never have conversations in your head – always have the conversation in person. Of course this only works if you are clearly leading by example – but then leading means you go first.
On another occasion I was heading up a leadership development course for the UK business of a global company. The Global CEO came to introduce the programme and announced: “I’m going to run briefly through the results and the strategy and then I am going to talk about leadership. What was particularly memorable to the group was the difference between the two parts of his address. The results and the strategy were all shown as charts, graphs and graphics on PowerPoint. When he had concluded that part he turned the projector off and told a succession of stories, with great verve and good humour, all from his personal work experience. Each one carefully chosen to illustrate a value he wanted his people to exemplify. He was saying ‘this is how I want you to lead, this is how I want you to behave.’ The company values were written up on the wall, but he never gestured at the chart or referred to it directly or obliquely. He simply told a story that covered off each one, with a clear explanation of why it was a value in the company.
The head teacher achieved in three years the second time what took ten years at the first school. He used the same tools and techniques, he told me, but tailored to the environment. It was in fact a slightly softer approach. He had still ‘laid down the law’ from the beginning at an assembly, but acknowledged that most people there wanted to do well, they were being held back by a small undisciplined and disruptive minority, by poor morale and by lax standards. Part of any discipline is the reward, he told me, use sanctions sparingly and not indiscriminately. You need to make sure it’s fair – and seen to be fair.
And the last word on leadership from this highly successful and principled turnaround chief? “Find out what you believe in and don’t deviate from that.” The things an organisation truly believes in are its values. Wherever they come from your job as a leader is to make them crystal clear to everyone at all times.