My obsession since I joined Kensington has been culture and ethos. I know this is true for many leaders and I’m sure my former life in marketing plays its part. Nevertheless, it is monumentally important and ignored or sidelined at your peril. With the right culture and ethos, anything can be achieved. Of course, the converse is also true.
Of course, ‘how things are done around here’, happens whether you ‘do’ ethos or not. Every organisation has its own set of cultural norms: what people say it’s like; what it is actually like day-to-day, and the deep rooted culture that is so ingrained it is rarely if ever considered explicitly. Kensington was no different. Much of what was good here still is. If anything, the changes that have been made have been tweaks. Small changes that have combined to make a seismic difference.
So, what have I learnt along the way that might be of value?
- Culture is an oil tanker not a jet ski
It has taken me a long time to realise that culture change is happening but it really doesn’t happen quickly.
Take some work we did around teacher ownership. What seems like a life time ago, the standard response when a child wasn’t doing very well was, ‘put them in an intervention’. Essentially: make them someone else’s problem. Clearly, this was an issue around attitude and culture. So we worked hard to improve it. We changed how Pupil Progress Meetings were run so that teachers didn’t come looking for answers but came with solutions. We empowered them as the experts on their children. We provided CPD so that they had a greater range of knowledge and strategies at their finger tips. We encouraged risk taking and made it clear that this was a team effort: when it went wrong, we reassured them and encouraged them to try something else – ‘this is hard you know’.
The result…’this child doesn’t get it. They need an intervention.’ Incredibly frustrating. All this work. All these changes. With seemingly zero impact. Where were we going wrong?
The answer…patience. Things were changing. Imperceptibly at first but they were. Over time, attitudes did change. Now the idea that our teachers wouldn’t be the first port of call to solve these problems would be abhorrent…to them! This pattern has repeated many times over.
Tip: Play the long game. Culture change is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
- Less is more
Back in my pre-teaching days, I read Lovemarks, a book by Kevin Roberts (then CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi.) The one thing that stuck with me was that if you want people to love – in this example – your brand, you have to accept that some people will hate it.
If you read many vision statements (particularly school ones) it is clear that this is not something people have been willing to accept. I can fully sympathise. It’s hard.
Academic excellence is important – that goes without saying. But so is exemplary behaviour – of course! And we can’t forget the whole child – absolutely not: the arts; sport etc. Well surely keeping children safe is the most important – yup. The obesity crisis…ok. And so on. No wonder that so many visions end up as the most verbose collections of every single buzz word you can ever imagine.
In developing your culture and ethos it is essential to be clear on what really matters to you: your children, parents, staff, community. What makes your school different? If you can get it right, people will love what you’re doing. Equally, it won’t be for everyone. Not all families or potential staff members will buy into what you’re doing and, you know what, that’s alright.
Tip: Be bold. Simplicity is key. It doesn’t matter how well crafted your prose if it just becomes meaningless management speak.
- It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it
Ultimately, all that matters is reality (ahem!) What I mean to say is that none of what is written down – no matter how fancy your deliverables or how well planned out your employee engagement programme or internal branding may be – actually matters unless it is lived, breathed and experienced every day.
This is where we’re at now so…
We know we have a long way to go still. We are now working on making sure that the vision we have is lived every day at the school. Again, inevitably this will be a slow process but one we have already come so far with.
Tip: Focus on what is real; not what you want to be real. Invest your time and energy in improving what is happening day-in, day-out.
- Put the cart before the horse
Our big advantage is that we haven’t come up with a vision (and set of strategic goals, guiding principles and behaviours to support that) out of thin air. This is not, ‘we would like our organisation to be like this so let’s make it happen’. We’ve spent four years creating the ethos and culture at Kensington. Four years of really listening to our children, parents and staff about what makes the school special and what they would really like to see. It has been a slow process but one that has transformed the school. Only now do we feel ready and able to put this into words and create our vision for the school. This is just the next step in the journey for us.
I’m certainly not advocating four years as a magic number, by the way. It will depend on where your organisation is and the type of change you’re looking to instill.
For us, it worked this way around and I believe we’re in a stronger position for it. It’s allowed us to tweak our thinking as we’ve gone and not feel tied to something that we thought was right when we started out but, as we’ve evolved, have realised isn’t.
Tip: Put in the leg work. Taking time to understand and begin to move towards the culture you want before tying yourself to a vision and goals will help in the long-run.
For us the result is a vision that works for our school. It provides us with the framework and direction we need to withstand the buffeting changes that happen continually in education. It guides us in our decision making and, we believe, we be a significant part of creating a school that truly delivers: for our children, our staff, our parents, and our community. Watch this space!