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Make the little things count, because they do

Last night I attended a party for a member of staff who is leaving after working with us for four years. We have three busy working days left of our current school session and we are all very tired. If we are being honest, probably heading out for the evening is the last thing most of us want to do at this time of year, but we did. We all felt it was important to say thank you to a valued member of staff and to mark their contribution to the developmeant of the school, as well as a friend and a colleague. As a leader I feel it is vital that we see such events as key in our responsibilities to individual staff and to creating, developing and sustaining a culture and ethos that will allow schools to thrive and develop.

We all spend a lot of time thinking about learning and teaching, planning in order to improve these, and developing the structures, systems and programmes that keep them developing for the benefit for our learners. I have always believed that all this formal activity, crucial though it is, is useless if we don't take the time to develop the right culture and ethos amongst all staff, because it is this which will ultimately decide whether we succeed or fail. All school leader effectiveness stands or falls based on the commitment and actions of the staff they lead. I have argued before the importance of relationships to everything we do. We are in a people business and one which depends on relationships at all levels. If you truly recognise this, then it is beholden on you to look to shape this in every action and interaction that happens within the school. 

A number of people have asked me how we develop a culture which promotes trust, collaboration and a collective desire to get better? Firstly you need to recognise that this takes time. A school culture and ethos grows and develops over time. You start with being clear about individual and collective values that underpin all your actions. Identifying these is pretty easy to be honest, the difficulty lies in making them real in everything you do. I have advised headteachers before that to build trust you first need to say it, 'you can trust me and I want to support you become the best you can be. I want you to have high standards and be creative and innovative. I want you to collaborate, to reflect and become adaptive expert professionals, and my role is to create the conditions for you to do that, to benefit of all our learners and all of you.' You then have to act on this and deliver, repeating continually, and keep delivering till everyone believes you are not just talking the talk, but you truly want everyone to walk the walk.

Those are the big strategic actions and decisions, but it is the little daily, weekly, monthly and yearly actions and interactions that make these come alive and real for staff. So attending leaving-dos and recognising the contribution of staff as they move on, is an obvious such action. But there are hundreds of others all of which have individual and collective impacts, and which make that culture and ethos. Some of these include greeting staff and asking how they are. Simple and seemingly obvious, but I have seen and experienced leaders who get even this wrong. You know the ones, they say the words but their eyes or actions say they are thinking something else, or looking for someone else. You can tell when someone is genuine in a simple interaction like this, and the ones who don't even hear your reply. As a leader, such a basic interaction can tell you how a member of staff is feeling, indicate any issues they may be facing and if they are 'their usual self.' You should consider staff as you do your learners, holistically. It is important for leaders to try and understand everything that is going on in their lives, within reason, so that you are better able to support them when they need it. This also helps you to cut them some slack and adjust your expectations when necessary. As a leader, you need that emotional intelligence to recognise when staff are struggling, for whatever reason, so that you, or others, can support and allow them to still deliver for the learners they work with. So, really listen to what is said, and what is not, in daily interactions and respond appropriately.

Remembering to praise staff when they have done well and to say thank you, takes little time but has a massive impact on esteem, confidence, morale and performance. Don't use praise and thanks in a perfunctory way, but really identify the reason why you are stopping them to acknowledge their performance. 'Thank you for organising the sports day. I know it is complicated and some people might not appreciate how difficult they are to get right. But I could see you worked really hard to keep everyone informed and I appreciated the little tweaks you made to last year's event.' Is a lot better than  'thanks for organising the sports day' and shows you have recognised effort and skills the member of staff has employed to make the event a success. Praise and give thanks in public where appropriate. If you really know your staff well you will know the ones who would prefer this done privately rather than in front of others.

Try to remember birthdays, put them in your diary to help. This doesn't mean send everyone a card, though you can do that if you wish, but just saying 'Happy birthday' when you meet a member of staff can say a lot. It shows you see each member of staff as an individual and a person. You don't just see them as employees, or worse a number. You are genuinely interested and concerned for them. You need to show that you will share their successes and highlights, you will support them when they are down and understand when they fail and make mistakes, as we all do. In short, it shows you're human.

Lots of other interactions will take place over time that shape and construct the culture and ethos. Some are formal and planned for but many powerful others are ad hoc, unplanned and serendipitous. You share births, deaths, illness, disputes, celebrations, home moves, new looks, injuries, strengths and fallabilities, and they will probably share many of yours. All of these interactions shape the type of school you lead and how staff, pupils, parents and others experience and feel about the school. They will decide the levels of commitment from all staff and therefore the pace of development and your ability to implement and manage change. You ignore their importance at your peril. That is not to say you won't have times when you need to have those difficult conversations with members of staff, but if you create the right kind of culture, those conversations do become easier. 

You need to focus on all those little interactions, but in a way that is sincere and genuine. Sometimes we are so focused and concerned with the big picture and the large strategic decisions we are constantly making that it can be easy to see those little actions as unimportant. My view is, you are more likely to be successful with your big plans if you spend time enough of your time making sure the small interactions are sincere and meaningful.


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