Connect Your People To Your Purpose

By André Double: Author – Leading Your International School.

“Schools and our organisations are being reinvented”. (Double & Cook) Leading Your International School, 2023). Now more than ever, people and their purpose really do matter. 

Setting the scene

A considered glance at our schools tell us that changes to models of learning and pedagogical practices mean learning is now ‘anywhere – anytime’ (RMIT, 2022) and far more learner- centred than ever before. Future leaders will not have all the answers in this evolving workspace. We need more people to fulfill their potential. The answer to the future challenges we face may lie somewhere in our approach to how we develop and prepare our next generation of international school leaders. People and their purpose matter. To help us on this journey we need to recognise workplaces as brimming with talent just waiting to be actualised. 

Research from the Pew Center in the USA states that “About four-in-ten workers (39%) say their job or career is extremely or very important to their overall identity. Roughly a third (34%) say it is somewhat important and 27% say it’s not too or not at all important. Workers with a postgraduate degree are the most likely to see their job or career as central to their overall identity – 53% say it is”.

At Leading Your International School our mission is to ‘Level Up International School Leadership. We believe that leadership and its opportunities should be available to anyone – regardless of age, background, wealth. appearance or personal identity. Leadership IS inclusivity. Yet before we go any further it is worth pointing out as the researcher James Spillane has previously noted, ‘not everyone wants to lead’. So before we get carried away with the idea that ‘everyone is a leader in our school’, an understanding of the fact that many are not interested in or simply don’t want to be courted by its possibilities is needed. Allowing teachers to be specialists in what they do is perfectly acceptable. One thing that should be available to every member of staff in your school is the opportunity to be the best version of themselves and to fulfill their potential. Does your school currently provide that opportunity? How much of what staff do makes a contribution to their own personal development? If not much, then what might it take to be able to move this forward? Here we discuss three barriers that may be limiting the potential of your staff. 

Removing unnecessary hierarchical lines

Historically, the embedding of hierarchical lines in some of our international schools has existed to add a certain amount of residual to the role of principal, which is often understood and in many marketing cases, even necessary. In some cultural contexts (admittedly, not all) in South-East Asia, the school leader can be seen by the wider community as the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. Certainly in China, for example, there is a deep level of respect for the school leader, as purveyor of knowledge and wisdom (often influenced by the number of years in the role). The more years of experience – the greater level of authority, perceived wisdom and associated level of respect. Yet, it is this exact mindset that can sometimes serve to inhibit the greatest strength of any organisation – its people. When a leader has an unhealthy interpretation of the level of their own importance and maneuvers staff around them like chess pieces to protect their gravitas, a toxic culture can quickly envelop a school. Hierarchical lines inhibit growth; they limit opportunity and the possibilities for people to fulfill their potential. The skill of any great leader is in leading when they need to, not when they don’t. 

What’s in a title?

You may be surprised at just how motivating a title can be at work, and equally how demotivating and jealous some people can be of others. In Bob Townsend’s classic leadership book ‘Up The Organization’, we learned about some of the most creative job titles that were used at the Avis Rent-A-Car company – particularly when it came to dealing with complaints. Giving staff exceptionally meaningful and purposeful job titles may just be the start of their route to self-actualisation. So instead of ‘Head of Marketing’ why not ‘Director of External Communication Strategy; or instead of ‘Vice Principal’ Academic, why not ‘Director of School Academic Advancement’. Word can often mean far more that we think they do. Consider even individually personalizing the job title. As long as staff can perform the central functions of the role, does it even matter? 

Use policies to tell people what they can expect from you

For as long as I can remember, school policies have been used to communicate to staff what the school expects from them. What teaching should look like, the time they should arrive and depart, how staff should dress or the language they should use to communicate with students. Use your school’s policies to communicate to staff what they can expect from you. Tell them how their purpose matters and describe ways in which you intend to help them achieve it. 

As I noted in the book “If you allow your staff to connect with a wider purpose that enables them to both develop themselves personally and make a significant contribution to your school’s Vision, Values and Virtues, then through that personal development, your vision is likely to be far more self- sustaining”. So how do you connect your people to their purpose? Here we explain further. 

Connect your people to their purpose:

  • Know your people. A good place to start is by measuring how well you think you know your people, and then how well you really know them. Informal ‘culture conversations’ coaching conversations and well crafted staff surveys can all help. What are their interests? What is important to them and what do they want to achieve in their lives? 
  • Ready now/ready in a year/ready later. A simple exercise to complete with your HR team may be a ready now/ready later exercise for potential internal leadership positions. Viewed positively, the aim should always be for people to become ‘ready now’. Provide ways in which people can develop their own leadership capabilities. 
  • Talk your people up – not down. Never lose sight of the power of potential. Live in the present, respect the past and affect the future. Tell your people they are capable of great things and the chances are they may well deliver. 
  • Provide formal linkages. Great people spend their time with – great people. Work incredibly hard to connect your people to others who can help them on their journey. Use your portfolio of contacts and link people with like-minded skills, ideas and passions. Success breeds success. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Choose carefully. 
  • Intertwine your school goals and personal goals with each other. Over the years I’ve found school leaders great at esposing to everyone what their aims, goals and objectives are for their school, but less so about their people. So find ways to connect your people to your school’s goals and your school to your people’s goals.
  • Present real life challenges and scenarios. Schools are great at presenting challenges to students, less so for staff. Detail areas of research the school needs help with; design challenges you are facing; timetabling options you need; sustainability targets you have – then get out of the way and watch people get stuck in. 
  • Create pockets of excellence. Excellence exists everywhere. You just need to know what it looks like and where to find it. Provide opportunities for staff to be truly excellent at what they do and what they want to do. Have your Drama department work with your marketing department for a day to upskill them and supercharge their confidence. Give HR the autonomy to work closely with your senior leaders and middle leaders for a day to learn the nuts and bolts of the role. Use this understanding to develop internal professional development plans that are unique, individualized and focused on potential, rather than the past. 
  • Scrap all capability measures. Too often schools feel the need to pace a teacher on a ‘performance measure’ with endless observations, meetings that neither party wants to be at, are incredibly uncomfortable and represent an incredibly poor financial investment. Flip your thinking and deliver pro-active coaching for those that need the support. Nicholas McKie of Persyou Ltd is a great place to start. 
  • Give your people the freedom, time and space to be creative. The big tech companies in Silicon Valley have know for years that great ideas aren’t manufactured. They rarely come from structured meetings with agendas. They come when we least expect them. Dedicated space and time for people to be creative. As children we spend most of our time ‘learning through play’ and are incessantly modeled that it stops when we reach Secondary School. Ask why? 
  • Provide the right tools, resources and support. If you are serious about your staff reaching their potential, then give them the right tools, training and support to do so. 

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed the above, then please consider ordering a copy of my book: Leading Your International School. 

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