Feb 09

Diversity – a blindingly obvious choice?

Listening to Jayne-Anne Ghadia last week was a refreshing experience. Ms Ghadia – CEO of Virgin Money and author of the 2016 Ghadia report into women and finance, ‘Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services’  – was speaking at an event in Edinburgh aimed at demonstrating to private sector companies why board diversity makes economic sense; this was a message supported by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who also addressed the assembled company – and it was a pleasure to reinforce this myself when I presented at a session later in the morning in my capacity as a Trustee of Changing the Chemistry, alongside our esteemed CEO. The message of the morning was clear – diversity makes fundamental sense, and as Ms Ghadia said, quite straightforwardly, ‘Diversity is about success for men and women. It’s obvious.’

Picture from Diversity on Boards eventThe thing about diversity on boards – or on any decision-making group, committee or body – is that once you have seen how it makes a difference to have a range of voices around the table, there is no going back. In fact, once you have experienced the breadth of often unexpected perspectives that come from people with different backgrounds, skills, life experiences and world views, you will find it hard to accept the group-think that often masquerades as thoughtful decision-making amongst people tasked with such responsibilities. Most of us think that we are broad-minded enough and sufficiently capable of careful reflection to be able to see issues from all angles, but the truth is that we aren’t, and we should stop assuming that we are. Each of us brings our own unique understandings of the world to the groups in which we are involved – each of us brings our own diverse part – but we can only ever be a part of a much bigger picture, and the sooner we embrace this, the better. All the emerging evidence now points to the fact that diverse companies with diverse boards perform more effectively, and if the social argument of the importance of representing your customer base doesn’t win you over (and it should), then maybe the hard financial success facts will.

Achieving diversity on a board requires thought, commitment and action. As in so many areas of our still unequal world, people with much to offer do not realise just what they can bring, often because it has never been expected of them and they can’t see enough role models, and also because innumerable hurdles stand in their way – who really wants to join a board where the culture is subtly patronising, their ideas are dismissed, and they feel uncomfortably alien? A welcoming board which embraces and respects difference is a healthy board, and while we would all like to think that this is what we do, and who we are, the reality is that without conscious and unremitting focus on the value of diversity, actively seeking out and supporting diversity, and a deep, constant challenging of our own unconscious bias, our boards will not be the diverse – and effective – places we want them to be.

So – there is work to be done, but it is eminently do-able, and the longer we wait, the longer it will take to achieve. Join with others and just do it.

www.changingthechemistry.org

Jan 05

My New Year’s resolution: to coach more international school leaders (both aspiring and in situ)

As a closet introvert, I love the opportunity to think and reflect between Christmas and New Year. So few people send emails (or expect replies), and the resulting space and time allows indulgence in delicious contemplation and rumination. Inevitably, part of this looks backwards, in a kind of scorecard of the year: what has gone well, and what has been less fulfilling; inevitably, too, part of this looks forward: what do I want the new year to bring, and how will I help make this happen, for myself and for others? And in the course of my deliberations this year, I realised just how much I have deeply enjoyed the executive coaching I have been doing with a number of international school leaders in various parts of the world – and how much I want to extend this to others.business-growth-and-personal-growth-tree

Executive coaching offers the leader being coached a space – often a challenging and very personal space – in which he or she can evaluate what needs to be done in order to ensure that he/she is the very best leader possible, able to have the greatest and most meaningful impact on, through and with others. The role of an executive coach for school leaders, I believe, is to help the leader they are coaching to identify and then succeed in what they know, (deep inside but may not yet be able to articulate), they need to do in order to align their personal and professional lives in their own very specific educational context. When they can do this, they are able to release their potential, turning them into amazing and super-effective leaders of organisations and people, and able to have the positive impact on the world and its future that they are seeking.

An executive coach is a trusted confidant, providing leaders with the opportunity and freedom to share and explore their leadership and business concerns. An executive coach is akin to a discerning thought partner or an intelligent sounding board, who stands a confidential step away from the leader’s organisation. A good coach will hold a leader to account, and will provide insightful and honest feedback. I have been enormously gratified over this past year especially to have seen the leaders I have coached grow in strength and undergo personal transformations – whether they have been seeking and preparing for new roles, or transitioning into a new job, or working out what it is they want to do in the next phase of their lives. To be able to contribute to personal and professional growth in people who are moulding the next generation of students is a huge privilege, and I now know at first-hand just how much of a difference this can make, and how this will impact positively on the wider communities for whom these leaders have responsibility.

Executive coaching works. It is now de rigeur for executives in private companies to have regular coaching, as their boards recognise that to coach them is to invest in them. Where the education system in general falls down, however – even in the generally enlightened world of international schools – is in the lack of expectation that coaching support will be naturally offered to school leaders. Appointing, sustaining and developing a school leader is one of the biggest investments that a school board can make, and it is obvious – blindingly so, one might argue – that it is absolutely worth nurturing and growing this investment with high quality external support.

I believe passionately that great schools depend on great leadership – and that a great leader is someone who is in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing for the right reasons. I know I have helped numerous school leaders to realise their personal and professional potential, and I want to help more. So … if you are interested, and want to talk more, drop me a line. I very much look forward to connecting and helping.

 

Dr Helen Wright is a highly experienced and insightful former school leader turned international executive coach and consultant. She can be contacted on helen@drhelenwright.com 

 

Nov 24

Ice, International Schools and Madame Doubtfire: a snapshot of a day, and a lesson in appreciation 

I derive great pleasure from the deep insights that come from making unexpected connections and links. Whilst I very much value (and enjoy creating) structure, organisation and routine, I robustly value the creative perspectives that emerge from changes and variations to daily patterns, because they add dimensions and layers of innovative understanding and appreciation to our world view, and they deepen – often breathtakingly – our human experience.

I have just returned home to Edinburgh after a day in Bath, judging the entries for the 2017 British International Schools Awards – a  really tough (but exciting) call, given the high quality and variety of the schools and the projects represented. The meeting alone, with its glimpses into brilliant teaching and learning around the world, would have given enough material for positive reflection; it nestled, however, within a day’s worth of experiences – each perhaps relatively unexceptional, but all of which reminded me of the deep value of observing, engaging, reflecting, and then sharing with our fellow human beings.

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There was ice on the cars and the streets of Edinburgh as we left – minus 6, according to the thermometer – and as I was conversing with my taxi driver about this, we came round to talking about where he had grown up in Edinburgh, and his memories of a particular shop run by a certain Madame Doubtfire. Memories of the late Robin Williams leapt to mind; this Madame Doubtfire ran a secondhand shop in Stockbridge, selling clothes, and was clearly a renowned character. Long dead, she came back to life for me in the narrative of the (now grown up) little boy who remembered her in the 1960’s and who was transporting me to the airport at 6am (his third fare of the day). For a few minutes I had the privilege of seeing a sliver of the world through another’s eyes, and of enriching my own understanding of the local area and heritage as a consequence. In the context of a day travelling to discuss what schools are doing globally to help develop young people, it was a potent reminder of the depth and potential of each and every human being, and the value of our journeys across countries and through history – countries and history which we shape by what we do and who we become.

Every day brings unexpected connections, if only we keep our eyes and ears open, and are ready to see, hear, experience, think and feel. Each of us, in our daily lives, encounters different people, different perspectives and different ideas. Not only do each of these encounters shape us, but we are shaped further by the unique combinations of these encounters. We inhabit an astonishingly complex – and, if we make it so, potentially amazingly and powerfully positive – ecosystem of people, thoughts, feelings, understandings, histories and geographies. It is without question our moral responsibility to try to make the most of this, contributing in our turn and helping others – especially our children – understand how to make the most of it too.

Begin each day with openness and appreciation, and it will take you to breadths and depths of gratitude for the world and society in which we live. And don’t forget to teach children to do the same.

 

Nov 07

“Yes, you can …”: how a single person can make a difference to the lives of thousands

Do not be misled by the title of this blog; tempting though it is to write about the American presidential election, this short reflection is instead about an independent school in Thailand, which I have known about for many years but which I visited for the first time just this morning. Bangkok Patana School was founded in 1957 by Rosamund Stuetzel – an Old Girl of St Mary’s Calne, UK – who made her home in Thailand after meeting her future husband on her travels in the region, and who decided that she did not want to send her third child back to the UK, in the footsteps of her siblings, to access a quality education. Rather – so Rosamund decided – she would create a quality education here in Thailand, and so, quite simply, she set her mind to it and made it happen.

14718690_963796973766212_1370916753319443782_nThe original school opened in the bungalow in the back garden of her house in Ploenchit Road, Bangkok, and the roll consisted of a mere 28 children. Today, the school is located on a vast and interesting campus on Soi Lasalle, Bangna, in the south-east corner of Bangkok, and educates over 2,200 students from 65 different nationalities in the British curriculum. In 60 years, the school has grown beyond recognition into a premier British international school, but its heart remains true – time spent observing students quickly reveals a warmth and supportiveness which speaks to the original family-focused intentions of the founder, all those years ago.

60 years is a long time in education – trends come and go, societal shifts happen, thinking changes – and it is almost inconceivable that Rosamund Stuetzel could have imagined what her school would look like today. What she did, however, was to turn a vision into reality, and that reality of a school has now directly and powerfully influenced the lives of thousands upon thousands of young people, and, through them, hundreds of thousands more. There are many more excellent schools in Bangkok, and I have more that I shall write on the subject; what drives me to write today is the immediacy of being reminded that one person really can make a difference in the world, for good or for bad. Rosamund Stuetzel is the absolute proof of the former.

And maybe, now that I think about it, this might just be a blog about the American presidential election after all.

 

 

Oct 26

When the volcano rumbles … what history teaches us about our present and future

Sometimes it can feel as though we are living in unprecedentedly insecure times. The turbulent surprise of Brexit, the uncertainty of potential presidential leadership in the US, the threat of home-grown, lone wolf terrorist attacks … it can be enough to make us want to batten down the hatches and retreat. History, however, teaches us that – for different reasons, at different times, in different places – ‘twas ever thus’, and insecurity has always been a significant feature in our human journey. I recently visited Pompeii, famous for its disappearance under metres of ash after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and a study of the town reminds us that even after a terrible disaster, the seeds of our civilisation can still take root again and grow.

As you will know if you have visited Pompeii, there are some remarkable similarities between life in Pompeii and life today – good and bad. Some direct correlations with the modern day exist in, for example, the width of the wagon wheel tracks, which had to be of a standard size to enable the building of stepping stones across the often flooded streets, and which translate exactly into the width of modern railway gauges. The houses exhibit high degrees of culture and sophistication, with beautiful paintings, statues and mosaics. Women could inherit land, divorce and set up in business. As an unsettling prick to our modern conscience, there was an obvious disparity between rich and poor, as well as a whiff of a decay setting in, for if the leaders took time to lounge around their fountains, who was overseeing the running of the Empire? And what deprivation was really occurring in the outposts of the Empire, in order to feed the fat of the Roman cities?

pompeii

It would be foolish to pretend that life in Pompeii represents the epitome of a civilisation, just as it would be foolish to imagine that we, today, have all the answers either. Both are/were a work in progress. In the negatives, we see lessons not yet learned, while the positives act as an encouragement as we reflect on the resilience of the human spirit, and its constant striving to improve and succeed. Frozen in time as it is, Pompeii is a curiously uplifting place that connects us with our history in a way that few other places in the world can do.

And yet we should not forget one of the most powerful lessons to emerge from Pompeii: complacency in any form, about any aspect of our society or our civilisation, is something to beware, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past – the mistakes that led to the burial of Pompeii. The central lesson of the story of Pompeii is that when seismic shudders shake our world, and when the volcano – literal or figurative – starts to rumble, we should pay heed. We live in a far from perfect world, and we have so much more to do if we are to protect, preserve and evolve what is most precious and meaningful in it. A number of volcanoes are rumbling in our times… let us not ignore the warning signs around us that some kind of action, commitment, dedication and attention is required of us. And if we can act together, we can outwit even volcanoes.

Oct 14

FanDuel meets Carol Dweck: growth mindsets in agile lives

If you dabble in gambling and sports, and you haven’t heard of FanDuel yet, you soon will, because they have taken the US fantasy sports world by storm, and are just launching in the UK. Speaking last week at ScotSoft’s Global Forum in Edinburgh, Rob Jones from FanDuel took his audience through the story of the evolution of FanDuel – the struggle to get funding, the moments where they realised they had found a gap that no-one else was filling, and the risks they had to take en route to the success they have found. His message was universally applicable to all companies starting up in their field – and he shared a slide which reminds us all of the importance of how we think about problems.

This is the slide:

fanduel-slide

 

You may not be able to read the words unless you hone in on the text, but this slide very visually describes a pathway to success that is not linear, pre-determined and assured from the outset, but rather a pathway that is beset with hurdles, unexpected different perspectives, plans not falling into line, and a lack of order that mathematicians will recognise from their study of chaos theory. It will resonate strongly not only with other startups who are looking to scale up their activity, but also with anyone who has ever had a dream or ambition about anything, and who discover that the route they are taking is maybe not the route they started out on. If life teaches us anything, it is that it is not easy to predict where we will end up, and we need to learn to deal with this somehow.

Many attributes are valuable when it comes to solving the issues which pop up and threaten to derail what we are doing, and what we planned to do. Resilience, enthusiasm, optimism, clear vision, hard work … all of these matter. Above all, however, it is what we believe about ourselves in this process of solving problems that is most likely to determine our success. Developing a growth mindset, as proven and advocated by the educational researcher, Professor Carol Dweck, is, ultimately, the key to successful activity: if we believe that we can adapt, change our thinking, and grow our intelligence through the actions we take, then we will; if we believe that we can do anything if we set our mind to it, and find the right strategy, then we will.

Start-ups are challenging, but they are also exhilarating. So too, it must be said, is most of life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves. For the vast majority of us, each day will bring something unexpected, and each day certainly contains the potential for something to happen which throws us entirely off our present track. When the storm surge comes, as it will, then we are far more likely to ride the crest of the wave if we are practised in believing that there is nothing to stop us learning to surf. We may not be able to surf yet, but – as Carol Dweck points out in her TED Talk in 2014, the power of ‘yet’ is phenomenal. You think you can’t swim/ski/hoverboard/lose weight/do Maths/speak Mandarin/understand quantum theory/organise your life? You may not be able to do it yet, but you can, with the right strategies. And this is what our children really, really need us to tell them and believe and model for them.

The story of almost every start-up company reminds us that the seemingly impossible is always possible – we just have to find the right approach that works for us, in the environment in which we find ourselves.

A growth mindset – everyone should have one. And everyone can.

 

 

Oct 08

The legacy of a great Headmaster – peace on earth

I have just returned home from the beautiful memorial service held on Saturday at Daneshill School, Hampshire, for Simon Spencer, who so suddenly and tragically died on 31 July 2016. It was packed – standing room only – and testament to Simon’s charismatic presence and the role he has played on the educational stage in UK prep schools for the past few decades. Tears, laughter, moving musical performances by former pupils … it was the model of what a memorial service should be.

We sang our hearts out, and no louder than when we sang the school hymn, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’. This song, written originally by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller in 1955, has become an uplifting monument to the desire to make a difference in the world, and its history is equally fascinating. Sy Miller himself wrote in his own words about how the hymn came about:

“One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ began an amazing journey around the globe. It traveled first, of course, with the young campers back to their homes and schools, churches and clubs. Soon the circle started by the teenagers began to grow. Before long the song was being shared in all fifty states – at school graduations and at PTA meetings, at Christmas and Easter gatherings and as part of the celebration of Brotherhood Week. It was a theme for Veterans’ Day, Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. 4H Clubs and the United Auto Workers began singing it. So did the American Legion, the B’nai B’rith, the Kiwanis Clubs and CORE. It was taped, recorded, copied, printed in songbooks, and passed by word of mouth.”

Well, one of its destinations was Daneshill School, Stratfield Turgis, Hampshire, and in many ways it sums up what Simon Spencer would have wanted from the children who came through his school. All our children are our hope for the future, and this hope begins with our belief that the choices that we make, as individuals, are immensely important. Each of us is different, and each of us is uniquely special; each of us also has the opportunity to make the world a better place. Headteachers do this – and Simon Spencer did this in abundance. The message of the school hymn reminds us that we, too, can do the same:

Let peace begin with me

Let this be the moment now

With every step I take

Let this be my solemn vow;

To take each moment

And live each moment

In peace eternally.

Let there be peace on earth

And let it begin with me.

 

RIP, Simon Spencer 22 January 1951 – 31 July 2016. And thank you.

 

Sep 26

Quaker schools: enduring values in a modern world

Faith schools are back in the news again, with the publication of the UK government’s Education green paper proposing (amongst other things) that faith schools should be able to select students largely on religious grounds rather than with the limitations currently in place. Faith schools come in a number of different forms, however, and my recent visit to Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, one of 8 Quaker schools in England, prompted me to delve into the history of Quakerism in education in the UK and across the world. As I did, I was struck by the importance in Quaker history of the personal – the inner spirituality that we all have, and that Quakers gently emphasise.

As anyone familiar with schools will know, history and the ethos which emerges from this history have a real impact on the daily life of individuals in educational establishments. It is remarkable, in fact, how much this history marks people in schools, perhaps because – almost subconsciously – members of the school community detect around them, every day, evidence of a coherent, deeply embedded philosophy and approach to education. Schools are born out of their contexts and are shaped by them. Much – perhaps even most – of the development of values and character in a school comes not from what might be described as transactional education in the form of teaching to exams and curricula, but from something much deeper and intangible – observations of and interactions with others, for example. Values are learned because they are transferred from others, who have in turn learned from their predecessors. In this respect, history and a shared ethos are integral to the growth of a child.

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When I was at Ackworth, I asked a senior student what was really special about the school, and she replied with conviction that ‘no-one is a stranger here’. She really meant it, and I could observe exactly what she was communicating – there was an ease of relationships, a care for others, and a shared, friendly, sense of aspiration which was uplifting. Undoubtedly the Quaker values of the school – lived and experienced in the moments of silence in which there can be found respect for the world and all beings – lay behind this.

It is always a privilege to visit great schools, and in a world which really needs more respect, tolerance, care for people and friendship, it was a particular pleasure to find these enduring Quaker qualities alive and thriving.

Sep 12

The Power of One: teachers driving social mobility

Last week I participated in a highly stimulating event run by Changing the Chemistry in Edinburgh on what investors expect from boards. Reflecting on the banking crisis from an insider’s perspective, the speaker commented that from a regulatory standpoint, he had always believed in the Power of One, ie the importance of a single voice having the perspicacity to draw out the truth, name it, and speak up, and by so doing, open the eyes of everyone. In a classic example of how our understanding of the world can be enriched when we bring together different spheres of thought, I found myself ruminating not only about how true this is of boards in general, but also about how true this is in schools, and with teachers and school leaders in particular.

Social mobility is very much in the UK news at the moment, with the publication on Monday of an Education Green Paper by the government which prepares the way for a generation of new academic grammar schools, amongst other related policies. Grammar schools were widely heralded in the 1950s as engines of social mobility, but with time and distance, it may well be that we have lost sight of what (or rather who) actually enabled that social mobility – in secondary modern schools as well as grammar schools –  namely the teachers themselves. No-one other than a parent has more day-to-day contact with children than teachers, and the power of a teacher’s word is never to be underestimated. Teachers can make a vast difference to children’s lives through their expectations and their ability to encourage (literally, give courage to) children to attempt subjects and activities that they might not otherwise have considered, but which lead them on to paths which deeply influence their lives.

I spent some of this past weekend at the marvellously forward-thinking Ackworth School in Yorkshire, and as I stood up and spoke to an audience of senior school leaders from the area, I reflected on how one of my school teachers in the 1980s had directly contributed to my presence there to talk about social and global mobility, by selecting (a somewhat reluctant) me for the school public speaking team, and working with me to overcome my reservations about standing up in public. Other people over the years, of course, have helped me to be able to speak fluently in public – usually by just expecting me to get on with it – but I particularly remember this teacher because I recall not especially wanting to put myself forward for the team, and yet he persisted, I participated, and as a result I gained enormous confidence (and success – we came 3rd in Scotland in a contest aired on BBC radio). Teachers have the power to shape children’s futures, and because they care passionately about the children in their care, they will often go more than the extra mile just to make sure that children rise to their potential – a potential which, unsurprisingly, children themselves cannot always see.

In amongst all our current political commentary on social mobility and education, which consists overwhelmingly of discussions about systems and structures, we need to remember that it sometimes takes just one person to make a difference to a child, and in so doing to set them on a path which enlarges their horizons and directly affects their ability to choose what they will do with their lives. This is social mobility in action – and the real drivers are teachers. We should laud them and release them to work their magic.

Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility, published by John Catt Educational (2016)

Aug 30

Coding: a fundamental element in the drive towards social mobility

The Guardian has an uplifting story in its pages today – the story of how 67 girls in an Indian slum are taking coding lessons, and how this has already raised their aspirations and improved their future opportunities. Three apps have already been developed, directly tackling issues of women’s safety (by using a geolocated distress call), overflowing rubbish (by making it easy to upload and send pictures of accumulated rubbish to the local municipal authority) and time for study (with a app which sends an alert when the girl reaches her place in the queue at the communal water tap, meaning that she does not have to stand in line).

CodingThe project is the brainchild of a local non-profit organisation, the Slum Innovation Project, which runs a number of educational programmes for the children in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, and – judging by the interviews with the girls concerned – it has been hugely successful in raising their levels of confidence and literacy, as well as opening up their minds to the possibilities that the digital world can bring them.

For there is little doubt – in a world that is digitally connected, personal digital literacy can open doors in a way that has not been available to previous generations. Moreover, the deeper the digital awareness – ie the greater ability to create and manipulate the code that underpins all digital activity – the wider the opportunities for young people to be able to operate in a global market. If ever there were one element that could make a difference to young people’s life chances by enhancing their freedom to choose what they do with their lives, it is the eminently learnable ability to code, and as technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, its power to transform opportunity grows in equal measure.

There are many reasons to learn to code, not least the rigour of thought and the logic it develops and strengthens in young (and old) minds; its capacity, however, to be a tool in the arsenal of social mobility, however, ranks pretty much at the top of the list. And at least 67 girls in India – the tip of the iceberg – can speak to that.

 

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