Shedding the Emperor’s Clothes: An Interview with Conrad Hughes 

Last week, Jane had the honour of meeting and talking with Conrad Hughes, Director General of the International School of Geneva. Here, we share some of the key takeaways from the interview. 

Jane Gay: As an international school leader, what are your fellow international school leaders telling you about their schools and their leadership? 

Conrad Hughes: I think we’re in an era when international schools are reinventing themselves as inclusive schools and leadership is focused more on the psychological, emotional, and cultural dimensions of leadership than on strategic, technical and logistical issues alone.


JG: Take me back on that journey 12 years ago. How do you think your vision has changed over time for your school? 

CH: I’ve been on my own personal journey. I took a coaching course. I became a life coach and that gave me a renewed appreciation of the way an organization works and the way the human mind works. Obviously, everybody is different but ultimately, we’re all driven by our core values. There needs to be an alignment between the values that motivate us, the vision of where we want to go and then the practice on the ground to build up capacity and take us there. What are the capabilities that we’re bringing out of people? I think that 10 or 12 years ago I was probably thinking about leadership less in terms of those psychological facets.


JG: What does the school’s definition of global citizen mean?

CH: That’s a good question. We refer to a normative vision of global citizenship at the International School of Geneva. It’s really the literature from UNESCO and the United Nations: the reimagining our futures together and new social contract paper (2021) and the ‘Transforming Education summit’ in New York (2022). These outline global challenges that are in the focus, I think, of every human being in some way, shape or form. 

The global citizen is someone who is connected to and feels responsible for other human beings and the planet. In practical terms, this means doing what she, he or they can to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are ideas of what society might look like in 2030 and 2050 if we operationalize the right type of educational model. Now, the question on measurement. It’s difficult to measure these philosophical constructs.  I think ultimately, it’s the stories that school can tell. It’s the profile of the graduate, the wonderful things that students do and staff and in fact, parents do for that matter. The behavior of the school community that will give us some evidence of the extent of our mission alignment or not.


JG: You talk about fragmentation. Could you explain what fragmentation is and how we can work together more effectively to solve education challenges that we are facing currently? 

CH: There are public schools, state schools, independent schools, international schools, state and private universities and different examination boards. It’s sometimes difficult to get departments to align let alone to seek some sort of alignment and standards by a district or region. The Bologna Agreement, where certain university degree equivalences were standardized was incredibly laborious and difficult to achieve. So, the observation is that if the challenges that we’re facing today are global, we need a response based on international cooperation. Hence the role of non-governmental organizations and all of the UN affiliated groups. But I think all of us working in the educational sector need to bear this in mind, and the way around it, or something to do to improve the situation, is to be in contact with stakeholders from different educational sectors. At our school, although we’re an international school and we’re, devoted to the education of our students we’re also constantly in exchanges with other schools, and through some of our outreach work via UNESCO, for example, educational ministries. The idea is that this will not only bring us together in our global imperative to face the SDGs, but it’s also a richness for every institution to have some synergy with an organization that’s different.


JG: You mentioned working with, stakeholders and exchanging ideas. As much as we want to provide to the students what we sell, the great ideas then underpin them, how do we align these with the competing interests of stakeholders?

CH: I think it’s misguided in 2023 to think of competition, especially if you’re in a school. Each school needs to look within at what their values are: what is our mission? What do we want for our students? If schools are trying to identify themselves in terms of what other schools are doing, I think they’ve lost their way from the start. So, I’d encourage all school leaders, as counterintuitive as it might seem, not to be swayed by too much market research and competitor analysis. I think that sort of corporate model will actually take you away from your core raison d’être which has to be connected to the people that you’re serving. With open source generative artificial intelligence, the knowledge economy, we have been a part of for the last decades, the way that information circulates, you might as well share instead of hoarding. I think that the days of hoarding and hiding are over when it comes education. It’s pretty pointless.


JG: As a leader, how is coaching playing its part in moving international school staff towards their optimal selves. And how often do you have coaching sessions with your international school teachers and leaders?

CH: Well, if you look at our school, the International School of Geneva, all of the principals are certified coaches, or have gone through high-level coaching, or are doing that and have worked or are working with a professional coach. What this does, fundamentally, is it stops you thinking about yourself all the time, you decenter and you think much more about the person in front of you. And you realise that your job is to ask powerful questions and to create a framework around the person that you’re interacting with so that person might find within the keys to unlock potential. Coaching isn’t telling people what to do. It’s being a good listener and putting back some questions respectfully. The coach is there to create an environment that allows for personal growth. 

What we’ve done is we’ve changed our evaluation system to bring in principles of coaching and what we call one-to-one growth conversation. Every staff member has a series of discussions with their supervisors that are really structured around the principles of coaching. I’m interested in trust, giving confidence and support, and allowing for some creative freedom when it comes to staff. It’s about treating them like adults. I prefer that model to a traditional observation evaluation, judgmental approach. I’m not saying that the latter piece isn’t necessary because it can become necessary. True growth, however, is a psychic intrapersonal phenomenon. True growth comes from within. 


JG: What do you think are the relevant skills of modern international school leaders? 

CH: Well, I think you’d be hard for us to find an international school leader who is not at least aware of change management theories. Some of the design and strategies that are needed to bring about change. 

Secondly is, it’s really important for international school leaders to understand what we mean by diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice and to be willing to act on that  to embrace that and to understand that it’s their job. A School Head is recruiting staff, dealing with high level student wellbeing or disciplinary issues. They are a diplomat and an advocate for the school in addressing the larger community on the moral imperatives of the organization. So sensitivity to questions of diversity and inclusion is vital, I would say. 

And then there’s a way that you embrace technology. You need to have a position. I’m not going to say that everybody has to think the same way. You can’t call yourself a strong leader of a school, even less an international school and not have a clear vision of what your position is in terms of technology for learning. Those are just some of the themes, I think are important.


JG: As a leader, how do you measure your own self-awareness?

CH: I ask for feedback from others, including people who might give me tough feedback. I think it’s important to have someone outside of your professional environment who can bounce ideas off you. I seek critical feedback. I tend to survey stakeholders to know what they’re thinking. I think it’s a mental exercise that you need to try and uphold, which is to step outside of yourself and look back on yourself, which is very, very difficult to do.  It’s daily work. If you don’t do it, you rely on the voices of a handful of people around you, which creates the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome, a fatal error for any leader.  


JG: And last one, what advice would you give to a new school leader.

CH:  Be ethical, Be kind. Be a good person. 


JG: What advice would you give to your younger yourself ?

CH: To keep going. Enjoy it. 


JG: So all of these experiences have shaped you as a leader?

Conrad Hughes: To me, being a leader is not just about your achievements. It’s also a series of blessings.  I’ve had wonderful people, mentors and coaches in my life who have reached out a hand to me and given me opportunities, and I won’t forget that. Never forget the people who helped you get to where you are.

To connect with Conrad on LinkedIn, click HERE.

3 thoughts on “<strong>Shedding the Emperor’s Clothes: An Interview with Conrad Hughes</strong> ”

  1. A special thanks to Conrad Hughes for sharing his views on our International Schools and their leadership. This was a compelling discussion – considered, highly purposeful and uniquely relevant. If you aren’t already following Conrad and tuning in to his speeches, then I’d recommend you do so. He is a leader who values substance over soundbite, is passionate about environmental sustainability and the sharing of best practices in education. We look forward to learning more from him in the time ahead.

  2. Thank you Conrad for the blog. One of the most considered minds there is in international education, Conrad challenges us to think how we can work together to build a more sustainable and collaborative model of what international education.

  3. I cannot agree more with you Conrad, when you mentioned ‘it’s really important for international school leaders to understand what we mean by diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice and to be willing to act on that to embrace that and to understand that it’s their job’. Meanwhile, it’s also crucial to anyone who works in an international school, as part of international education. I can feel how valuable and precious that an ethical leader is! Thank you to Conrad for sharing your insightful thoughts!

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