Mind Your Language
Updated: Apr 1
How can schools create a common lexicon so that different departments (with, perhaps, different cultures) communicate with each other effectively? Featured originally in the autumn 2019 issue of Independent Insight, Socius Senior Coach Jane Pendry reports...
Our nation's key institutions once reflected the structure and culture of our independent schools. After all, traditionally the key role of those schools was to prepare pupils for careers in law, medicine, the military, the church, academia and the civil service.
Today, the working world is complex, diverse, fast-moving, and unpredictable. Your school will be evolving and adapting to meet changing expectations of parents and prospective parents, while simultaneously preparing pupils for increasingly complex, divers and unpredictable futures.
In particular, pressures on fees, political uncertainties, increasingly high parent expectations and rapid social and technological advances mean that schools need to use limited resources more efficiently, Marketing and development functions need to be contributing to the business goals of the school: maximising pupil numbers and generating income from other sources.
reduce staff turnover and ensure output contributes to the business goals of the school: maximising pupil numbers and income from other sources. That requires strong business management skills and good governance.
There is a growing importance of professional Admissions, Marketing, Alumni & Community Engagement and Development functions in securing the long-term future of independent schools. In general, these are not areas of expertise for Heads, Bursars or Operation Directors. So, how do you manage teams who have skills and experience you don’t have, and even seem to speak a different language? And how do you ensure that they are actively contributing to the bottom line?
You might employ a consultant to help structure your external relations functions. However, if you have a thick, dusty consultants’ report at the bottom of a drawer, you know that doesn’t always have the hoped for impact. It may be time to think about alternatives.
Do traditional structures inhibit positive cultural change? The lack of diversity on the governing body represents a key risk to independent schools. The ‘Taken on Trust’ published by the Charity Commission (supported by Cass Business School) found that “The average age of a trustee in England and Wales is between 55 and 64, two-thirds are men and 92% are white.” The analysis indicated that this led to potential risks such as: “Lack of innovative and new thinking (61%), being out of touch with the charity’s beneficiaries (61%) and a difficulty in reaching new supporters (59%)". A lack of diversity, however, may be less of an issue if your marketing and development teams are providing useful, data-driven intelligence to drive effective and informed decision-making.
Traditional top-down management structures that worked so well for many years are being challenged. More and more often we are seeing conflicting management styles and different cultural expectations between generations. Command and control doesn’t sit well with young, trained, ambitious staff who work collaboratively and creatively. Effective delegation of teaching staff based on the Head’s deep understanding and experience may not prove effective with teams used to making decisions based on data, strategic analysis or research.
If you have a high turnover of staff in marketing, admissions or development these factors may be playing a significant part.
How can you create a culture that gets results? The short answer is to focus on solutions, not problems. Traditionally, Governors and management teams focus on problems, analysing them in great detail and making decisions based on that analysis. But in many cases this breeds a culture of finger-pointing, frustration and demotivated staff.
In a world where market demographics, generational expectations and technological advancements are in a state of flux, this style of management is becoming less effective. But what;s the alternative?
Solution Focused approaches, developed since the 1970s in industries as diverse as automotive logistics and the military, have proved helpful in creating a shared management language and culture founded on incremental improvements leading to transformational change.
"Solution-focused language will be the process of creating and embedding a culture of incremental change."
These methods pull teams together to create an experiential picture of the vision and mission of the school: What will the school look like once the goal is achieved? What works well already? What will the future look like? What will people be doing? How will things be better or different? And what will our parents, pupils and prospective parents notice? A living, breathing, experiential illustration of the mission and vision.
Implementing This Thinking
While implementing solution-focused processes effectively often requires a skilled coach or facilitator, there is nothing to stop senior leaders introducing the principle.
Solution-focused thinking is a mindset. It means respecting and empowering your staff, and facilitating them to think, plan and deliver against objectives. If your team is still delivering tactical plans and budgets based on precedent, they need to move towards strategic objectives and bottom-up budgeting. Listening to your admissions, marketing and development teams, and empowering your teams to set operational objectives drawn from your mission and vision, will help to minimise, even eliminate output that does not impact on the school’s financial goals.
Using Solution-Focused Questions
Consider how these solution-focused questions could very quickly change the tone and nature of your team meetings:
What are you trying to achieve? What’s the best approach?
How might you make a greater impact on the school's financial goals, using the same resources you already have?
What is working well; and what could you change to make things work better?
How will you know when you are making an impact and when you have solved the problem?
Circular questioning encourages teams to express viewpoints and perceptions by stepping into each other's shoes. These sorts of questions can be hugely helpful in resolving conflicts and moving staff members from a defensive position to thinking towards resolutions and solutions:
How do you think xx person might solve the problem?
What would the Head, the Bursar, the team leader, the alumni, the parents notice if had solved the problem?
How might that influence prospective parents’ motivations?
Importantly, solution-focused thinking avoids the word ‘Why?’ which is interrogative, and typically elicits a defensive response. A core tenet of this thinking is to avoid apportioning blame and limiting the analysis of problems. That doesn't mean problems are not dealt with. Instead, looking at what needs to be achieved and exploring solutions with the resources you have leads to alternative solutions that resolve the problem more naturally.
The "What else?" questions, framed in different ways, is another useful question for eliciting deeper thinking. When a team member begins to come up with solutions, you might ask: "What else would be different? What else would be better? What else would parents notice?" These questions draw out many different solutions, changes the mindset of your teams, and facilitates team members to analyse the pros and cons of the solutions they suggest. Problems are usually addressed en route, and internal conflicts resolved, as the team find new ways to tackle old problems.
It's About Incremental Change
A few questions won't change a culture. But it’s a start. Using solution-focused language, you will have begun the process of creating and embedding a culture of incremental change. Once embedded, each team member will see that they have an active role in creating solutions with a common purpose. You will witness a shift in your team's morale and motivation, productive output and measurable impact. Above all you will notice great relief that your team leaders don't keep bringing problems to your door to solve: they bring solutions.