How school leaders can learn from top performers in other industries

high-performance-leadership-man-on-horseben-laker-250Pictured right, Dr Ben Laker, Co-Founder and Director of the Centre for High Performance, will present SSAT’s High Performance Leadership programme, at Apple HQ in London on 17 October 2016. The event will include facilitation from senior executives of six very different globally known organisations, explaining how they have overcome specific challenges and achieved high performance in their sectors using methods that, surprisingly to many school leaders, will be very relevant to their own challenges…

“This programme will support school leaders in ways that other programmes don’t,” Dr Laker explains, “– by bringing in a multitude of learnings from other industries. So much is possible.

“For too long, teachers and school leaders have felt that their job and sector is isolated. The best leaders and organisations learn from different industries. Look at the New Zealand All Blacks, with whom we’ve worked. When preparing for the 2015 rugby World Cup they couldn’t learn from other rugby teams because they were already the best. So they learnt from other sectors including the arts; organisations including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal College of Art.

“If school leaders are becoming increasingly responsible for multi-million pound budgets and for workforces on a par with major enterprises, isn’t it time they too gleaned insights from outside their industry?”

The Centre for High Performance is a research group of senior faculty at Oxford and Kingston universities that conducts research on organisational performance. It works with British Boxing, Eton College, John Lewis, NASA, the New Zealand All Blacks, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others.

In August 2016 The Centre published ‘How to turn around a failing school’, the first ever study of UK schools to appear within Harvard Business Review (HBR). Described by HBR as “research gold” and Schools Week editor Laura McInerney as “the most powerful and engaging I’ve seen in education research”, the study concludes that schools should not improve teaching first. This refers to a very common mistake. Many schools tried to improve teaching while still struggling with badly behaving students, operating across a number of sites or having poor management.

You can’t expect teachers to sort out all the problems themselves — you need to create the right environment first. How can this be achieved? High-performance leadership.

He explains that the High Performance Leadership programme will explore how the world’s most successful organisations “do” strategy, innovation, change and culture. So how can we take the best of what they can teach us and harness it to supercharge our new, school-led system? “Dare to be different” he says – and adopt the techniques used by successful organisations in other sectors.

Dare to be different

“Across 160 schools during a seven-year period, I observed many school leaders afraid to make change. Leaders must recognise that change is the only constant. So embrace it, and develop an appetite for it! If you don’t change, you won’t grow. If you won’t grow, you won’t have any impact.

“The public sector, and schools in general, need to be more agile, quicker, more decisive when approaching change,” he maintains. One example is recruitment, a big issue for schools at the moment. Dr Laker believes many need to be more open to offering higher pay, and more flexible on part-time working – including for school leaders. “I fully support flexible working. It could bring thousands of teachers back into the profession, and in doing so, increase opportunities for women. The profession needs to start thinking differently because we spend huge amounts of money training new teachers, when many qualified teachers are leaving the profession due to its inflexibility.”

Not improving, but changing

“As the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, schools will have to work harder than ever. Yes, they use a lot of techniques, different curriculum arrangements and teaching networks. But these are not radical enough, in my view. That’s what this programme is about: not improving what you’re doing, but changing it.”

A key part of the programme will be contributions from senior executives from six successful organisations in very different sectors, showing how they made their distinctive achievements. For example:

London Fire Brigade: Their session will explore how to make successful decisions under pressure. Delegates will examine techniques used by LFB to manage crises, and learn to implement and execute them within their own school. Delegates will experience a number of challenging scenarios, and consider how good leaders make their colleagues feel safe. In doing so they will develop ‘black box’ thinking and leave the session better prepared to manage volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Philips: Their session will explore innovation and creativity, and support delegates to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Philips is a 125-year-old company that employs over 100,000 people across more than 60 countries. In this session we will be joined by a vice-president who will show how the organisation has survived and thrived through a creative approach, constantly reinventing itself while rival organisations have come and gone. The V-P will use the example of Philips’ new product range, aimed particularly at lawyers and doctors, which can turn a telephone conversation into a word document almost instantaneously.

develop ‘black box’ thinking and leave better prepared to manage volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

What the senior executives from the six contrasting organisations have in common are insights, tools and frameworks that, despite their sharply diverging backgrounds, can all be relevant to schools. “They will be bringing new ideas from places school leaders would not normally look,” says Dr Laker. “If you’re a school leader, these insights will enable you to sharpen your saw in ways you never thought possible.”

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