Reclaiming the concept of networking

Although I have written in the past about the subject of networking, and how we can choose to interpret it really positively and empoweringly (what a lovely adverb!), I want to address this again, because I continue to be struck by how many of the leaders I have coached over the years still struggle with the word ‘networking’. I have noticed that many, many leaders associate networking with actively making artificial or false relationships with the intention of discarding or abusing the other party at the first opportunity, in a race for superiority and the next step on a ladder of perceived ‘success’ – and, unsurprisingly, these leaders do not like this. Equally, I have also come across a fair few leaders who perceive networking in this manner, and do like it – which strikes me as similarly problematic. And yet over the past 2 weeks, as I have spent time in Doha and latterly in Shanghai (from where I am posting this blog), a considerable amount of my activity (ie meeting school leaders, educators, founders and pioneers) could well be classed as networking, and I don’t recognise at all this negative description of what I have been doing.

When I think of networks, I think of the wonderful networks that are constantly vibrating inside our brains, as our neural pathways grow, stretch, strengthen, polish themselves up and prepare to achieve new and wonderful things. I think, too, of the intertwined ecosystem of the rainforest, which pulsates with energy, and where each element supports the growth of others, in different phases and stages, each of which has its moment and time to rise towards the sun. I think of the digital communications, media and transport systems that connect us across the entire globe – and beyond, in fact. And when I translate these images into networks of people, I see and feel connection, warmth, joy and an immense potential to learn from and with others, in relationships which are not only mutually beneficial, but which also create energy and insights that will benefit others in ways not yet fully anticipated, yet for which the seeds have now been sown.

And although, personally, I sit very much on the cusp of introvert and extrovert, I recognise that networks and their potential make me feel alive, bonded to the rest of the human race, and flooded with an immense sense of the possible. When we meet and chat with other human beings, and share our stories and challenges, then we create an entity that sits between and around us – a relationship that in turn introduces and links us to others. In a world where mistrust and a lack of understanding between people presents us with possibly the greatest danger of all, this kind of connection really, really matters.

So … go out, and extend your network today …

Equality of access to public examinations: how can we shift the exam grade bell-curve?

The last few weeks in August in the UK – and, indeed, in British international schools across the world – are a hive of activity (and emotion). These are the weeks when the results of A Levels and then GCSEs are published, and with them, university destinations for students are confirmed, and teachers reflect on their past year, and then take that learning with them to the next year’s cohort of students. Students, meantime, wrestle with decisions born from the grades they have received – some pathways open up, others dry up. How they react and respond to this time can make or hinder them in their future.

Given the pressures and emotions of this period, I do think that this is also a time of year when it is also important to reflect on what the phrase ‘equality of access to education’ can and should mean. In their Sustainable Development Goals, the UN emphasise that ‘Providing quality education for all is fundamental to creating a peaceful and prosperous world. Education gives people the knowledge and skills they need to stay healthy, get jobs and foster tolerance.’ … and I cannot imagine that anyone reading this would disagree. It does of course assume that we can collectively reach an understanding of what passes for ‘quality education’ … that is a whole other stream of thought, however. Assuming that we can already have a broad and working (if imperfect) understanding of what ‘quality education’ can embrace, we can also recognise, very quickly, that the reality of how to achieve equality of access to this quality education is not straightforward – and much of it actually depends on quality of access to preparation for public examinations.

In most current education systems, public examinations – which are still the best impartial, unbiased, nationally (and internationally) validated means we have of establishing what a student knows and can do (within the limitations of the subject specifications, of course) – are the most common gateway for a young person to their future. There is some amazing work being done by organisations like Think Learning Studio on challenging this through a focus on portfolios; for the moment, however, most students have to face examinations which are actually competitions for top grades rather than pure reflections of achievement. This means that not only do candidates have to score highly in their exams, but they have to score more highly than significant numbers of other candidates in order to be awarded a good grade. Examination awarding bodies over the years have evolved complex statistical models which – while seeking to maintain grading based essentially on standards and levels of achievement – nonetheless expect and anticipate that certain percentages of students will do less well than others, and this is reflected in the number of grades awarded in different bands.

This expectation is now baked into our system; put differently, if every student in an examination scored 100%, the first assumption of most internal and external stakeholders, including politicians and the media, would be that the exam itself was too easy, rather than that all the students taking the exam had acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve full marks. A manifestation of this assumption was seen in 2023 with the UK examination boards, when it was determined that grade boundaries should rise, so that fewer students would gain the top grades. This may have brought the percentages achieving top grades back in line with the pre-Covid grades, which is in many respects sensible, to avoid discrediting the exams (‘grade inflation’ equals ‘easier exams’), but it does not address the issue of how we can support young people to reach the grades that will enable them to fight for those higher grades. Nor – dare I say it – does it address the issue of how we strengthen the case for the shifting of the exam grade bell curve in a way which does not presume grade inflation, but rather comes as the result of students actually developing increased knowledge and skills – and (most importantly of all, if I dare say this too) being grounded, confident, service-oriented, well-prepared amazing young people – again, a whole other stream of thought.

For us to shift this exam grade bell-curve, much has to change in our national education provision – and I know from my work around the world that what applies in the UK is true elsewhere. One of the stark realisations I have had in recent years from supporting the CEO and team at Mark My Papers, as Chair of their Advisory Board, is that the quality of preparation for examinations of students by many national or state schools is very precarious. I have written in the past about my admiration for Mark My Papers and the work they do in giving schools – any school, regardless of their demographic – swift, accurate, unbiased feedback on students’ mock exams, and I continue to be impressed (which is why I support them!), not least because it is painfully obvious from so many of the papers that they mark that the students have not been well-prepared for their gateway public examinations. This can occur because students were taught by a non-specialist teacher, or because a change in the subject specifications has gone unnoticed, or because the students have not had enough practice in the very particular technique needed to answer question types, or (and this affects every single school in some way – ignore this, schools, at your peril!) because of unconscious bias in teacher marking (eg “I know this is what they meant to say, so I will give them the mark”).

Much of this can be attributed to lack of investment in education, of course (yet another stream of thought …) – regardless of the reasons, however, the stark reality is that students do not currently have equality of access to education because they do not have equality of access to exam preparation. We all know that exams are not the be-all and end-all of education – far, far from it! … but in our current world, exams are important for so, so many young people, and we owe it to these young people to find ways to guarantee them greater equality of access to this often defining aspect of their education.

I wonder if we could aim to shift the exam grade bell-curve just a bit this coming year, because our students really have learned and performed better … Just a thought.

Sara Pascoe and the importance of using our platforms well

What a great Saturday morning last week! Quite apart from the fact that we had lovely friends staying, and I was able to meet some of their equally lovely friends too (great educators all, it must be said!), it was a real treat to spend an hour with my 16 year old daughter watching and listening to the irrepressible Sara Pascoe in conversation with Michael Pedersen at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And (as you would expect from one of the UK’s top comedians) it was very funny indeed. Our claim to a connection with Sara Pascoe, incidentally, is that as a family we used to watch her, years ago, in her early years as an unknown actress, when she performed for several years as part of the ‘Shakespeare for Breakfast’ troupe at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival … she was obviously talented and funny back then, and (we hoped and assumed) destined to move into a wider sphere of influence.

And indeed she has done so … Sara Pascoe is enjoying a great career on TV and in other media, and this was clear from her conversation today, although ostensibly, we were all there to hear about her debut novel, Weirdo – due out in September, and (to judge by the extracts we heard) an astute (and humorous) account of what it means to live as Sophie from Essex in a financially-challenging, emotionally-challenging world. Sara herself said that she wanted to write a novel about someone who was trying to be normal, and not really succeeding – what, after all, is ‘normal’? – and I am fairly sure that it will contain a lighthearted (but acerbic) commentary on the world.  

It was a funny and enjoyable hour – but one moment in particular made me sit up straight, and admire Sara for her honesty and inclusiveness. In answer to a question from the audience about whether mobile phones should be banned from arts venues, she told a story about when, as a stand-up comedian, she had got it very wrong indeed, and the lesson she had learned from it. It was in her early years as a comic, when, with an air of over-confidence, she decided to call out an audience member for scrolling through his phone while she was performing. The more she called him out for his apparent disdain and arrogance, the more he put his head down; to cut a long story short, she realised – eventually – that he was checking his phone because of a family emergency, and that … because he had cerebral palsy … his biggest fear was being asked to speak in public, in case he was misconstrued as being drunk. Calling him out was completely the worst thing that Sara could have done; on Saturday, in front of an audience of several hundred, she acknowledged this openly, with no excuse, and with the learning she gained, ie that we never know exactly what other people are going through … and if something bothers us, we should be grown-up enough just to deal with our irritation ourselves. There are bigger things in life; and kindness and understanding go a long way.

Sara Pascoe had a platform, and she used it really, really well; she spoke out boldly about the importance of inclusiveness and how easy it is to make wrong, damaging assumptions. It was a reminder that our responsibility as human beings goes beyond what just what we do in our own lives – it extends to the impact we can have on others. If you have a platform – and we all do, at some point in our lives – then we absolutely should recognise this, and use it well.

Bravo, Sara! And well done to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for providing the platform!

Challenging our expectations – reflections on ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

I know that I am by far not the only person to have enjoyed reading ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ this summer, given the rave reviews that the book has received – although I offer a particular thank you to the friend who recommended it to me. She is also on the Board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, so a very well-qualified source; I had no hesitation in reading the book after her prompt, and I am absolutely delighted that I did. The book – as I am sure you know by now – is the quirky and joyful debut novel by Bonnie Garmuss about a female chemist who becomes a TV cooking show host in the 1960s; what struck me as I indulged myself in reading it was just how much it challenged social assumptions, and I wanted to reflect here about the lessons we can take from it.

Challenge of assumptions lies at the heart of the story, and we recognise in the description of 1950s America a society from which we have sought to move on, not least in the expectations and treatment of women … although we still have a long way to go. In fact, listening to Bonnie Garmuss herself talk about her novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday, it was clear that one of the main drivers for her in writing the story was indeed to show the importance of continuing to challenge stereotypes, and the uphill struggle that this involves. While she focuses especially on the struggle faced – in living memory – by intelligent women to be recognised as equals by their male peers, her message is one that will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced some kind of bias, because of their appearance, age, background … the list is endless.

Prejudice and bias are incredibly deep-rooted in our psyche, as you will see if you complete some of the tasks in Harvard University’s Project Implicit; we learn about ourselves when we recognise this. Accepting that we possess bias does not make us ‘bad people’; it should, however, encourage us to keep learning about the diverse views of others, and to challenge our own assumptions. Challenging assumptions helps our brains to grow, gives us life and energy, and keeps us alive and open to a world of possibility; ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ reminds us of the satisfaction of daring to strive to change the status quo, in a way that turns out better for all.   

So – if you haven’t read ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ yet, then do. It made me laugh out loud in places, and cry in others; I hope you have a similar experience. And definitely let it remind you that we can, together, make this world a more embracing place for everyone.

A miscellany of thoughts in writing and speech …

It may have been a while since I posted on this blogsite, but this does not mean that I haven’t been busy writing, so I thought I would include a few links here, to point to some of the articles I have produced over the past few months …

First, this was an article I wrote for GESS Education about how to build a really good school leadership team: READ IT HERE

I also wrote an article for The Actuary magazine, on the importance of embracing CPD: READ IT HERE

This is an article I wrote on what had become a hot topic in the press, namely how we should address teachers, and it was good to see that James Handscombe (who I had interviewed earlier in the academic year) appreciated it:

And I have been busy on the video front too … here is an interview I conducted with the super John Gwyn Jones MBE, CEO of FOBISIA (the Federation of British International Schools in Asia), soon after I had attended their inspiring conference in Bangkok, in which we discussed why teachers should choose to work in British international schools in Asia:

In February, I also interviewed Darren Coxon, COO of Britus Education, and we had a fascinating conversation around AI and technological advances in education:

Finally, here is a link to a great webinar that I really enjoyed chairing, about being a School Leader in the Middle East, talking with some fantastic, very eminent school leaders – LINK HERE

The months of July and August provide a wonderful opportunity for reading and thinking, so I have several other thoughts brewing … I look forward to sharing them. In the meantime, I hope that you are enjoying the season!

Opening the wardrobe door

One of the aspects of my coaching of senior leaders that many coachees report that they find particularly helpful is the identification (and subsequent challenge) of their assumptions. We all hold many assumptions – in fact we have to hold these, in order to function, because imagine how life would descend quickly into paralysis if we couldn’t operate at least some of the time on automatic. These assumptions, however, can become barriers to action, when, for example, we assume that we can’t do something which – if we did it – could transform our lives and/or the lives of others. One of my favourite coaching questions is ‘why not?’ … and it is remarkable what can happen when you dig down into that question. I have lost count of the number of leaders who have realised that the only thing holding them back from what they really want to do is a set of conquerable assumptions.

So I particularly enjoyed reading an anecdote in the motivational book on team-working and self-leadership by Ben Hunt-Davies and Harriet Beveridge, ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’ which reinforced this approach, and which I thought was worth sharing. The book itself – which I learned about from a coachee, to whom I am very grateful – is based around the experience of one of the authors, who rowed as part of the victorious British men’s rowing eight in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and it is a readable and well-structured mixture of narrative and learnings, translated into strategies to help the reader reach their personal or professional goals.

In particular anecdote, generously shared by a colleague of one of the authors, this colleague relates how excited he was to be staying the night at a luxury hotel. When he arrived in his room, however, he was disappointed to find that it was very underwhelming, with a single bed and a small television. After a rather uncomfortable night, he wakes up in the morning and decides to open what he thought was the wardrobe door, to find that it opened into a luxury bedroom; he had been sleeping in the children’s annexe of a family suite. The message of this anecdote, of course – and the whole chapter – is that we should not be held back by what we perceive as the limitations around us, and that we should push the boundaries, metaphorically (or in this case physically), pushing at the wardrobe door. If we don’t think we can, we won’t, of course, and so this is where we must start – with a spirit of adventure, questioning and the combination of relentless curiosity and determination that seems to underpin the success of so many human beings throughout the ages.

I know I enjoyed this anecdote especially because of the connection I made in my head to the wardrobe door that leads to Narnia in CS Lewis’s powerful and captivating allegorical tale, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, which was a guiding star in my own childhood (and still is, in fact, in many ways); this simply made the anecdote more delicious, and imbued it with greater depth, reinforcing its message yet more strongly, and prompting me even more to share it, because opening the wardrobe door is not simply in order to pursue personal opportunity. Rather, it has an underpinning moral purpose, because when we make the most of the opportunities open to us, and when we challenge the assumptions that hold us back in this regard, then we are more able to create the positive impact on the world around us that the world needs us to have.

Anyway, the message is clear … the question now is simply this: which wardrobe door you will open today?

Listening to what we say about ourselves

I really enjoyed contributing last week to the BSME January conference for Leaders and Aspiring Leaders in British curriculum schools in the Middle East – what a keen and engaged bunch of professionals! And it was super to see so many of them in the (virtual) room! I came away feeling really quite uplifted at the thought that this kind of commitment and openness to development would be driving learning and understanding for the next generation of young adults.

I was presenting on how to lead a team effectively in practice, building on Deniece Wheeler’s comprehensive presentation about the theory of team building, and I had 3 main messages – first, know yourself and your team; secondly, make sure you appreciate the roles you each have to play in your team, and thirdly, keep growing and practising together. Of these 3 points, it is the first on which I have been musing recently, and I want to explore an aspect of this self-knowledge a little more here.

One of the observations that strikes me repeatedly in my coaching is how much people communicate about themselves without really thinking about it, through the language they use. I hear sometimes people switch from ‘will’ to ‘would’, or from the active voice to the passive voice, both of which might suggest a sense of lack of agency. I hear fluctuations in intonation, and I hear people swiftly skipping over something which, when I bring them back to it, can often turn out to be really significant. Not all communication is verbal, of course – far from it! – but language enables us to identify and transmit nuanced understandings to other human beings, and as such, arguably it behoves us to think carefully about what we are doing when we use it.

One of the most common gaps I have identified in team communication over the past few years, working with hundreds of leaders, is the gap caused by leaders not articulating clearly enough who they are, and how they lead – a gap exacerbated by team members failing to do the same. It is a gap often filled by – sometimes very unhelpful or misleading – assumptions or projections. To put it in other words, if we are not careful, we can end up muddling through in our relationships with our teams, congratulating ourselves that we really understand everyone, whereas in fact we may have some glaring blind spots which, quite simply, we do not recognise are leading us astray.

How can we improve our acuity of insight and become more acutely self-aware, as well as aware of who those around us really are? Well, the obvious answer is to work with a coach – a trained professional who will not be afraid to notice, challenge and highlight to you what you are saying, as a precursor to helping you own and/or reframe it, depending on what you identify that you need to do with it. At the very least, however, start by becoming more self-aware. Think about phrases that you use all the time, and analyse them – what are you really communicating as you use them? How would they land with those around you? Notice your language more; pause and think before you speak, and reflect afterwards. And spend time delving down into yourself: who are you as a leader? What drives you? What brings you satisfaction?

Life is a journey of self-awareness, in service – I believe, at least – of the greater good. And it is too short to waste any moment of it! So … get reflecting …

Legacy and lessons for leadership

An enormous thank you to my senior coachee who recently presented me with ‘Legacy’, James Kerr’s 2013 book (reissued in 2020) on the culture and practices of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. It was a fascinating read, and well worth indulging yourself in over Christmas if you would like an uplifting yet grounding reminder of the fundamental role that values have to play in leadership and effective teamwork in organisations. Humility, authenticity, sacrifice, putting the team before yourself … all of these have key parts to play in this, and as leaders, it is always good to reinvigorate ourselves with core messages we already know, but on which we ought regularly to focus explicitly.

One particular aside in the book caught my attention, and felt worthy of drawing out for further reflection. Chapter 7 – Expectations – is all about the stories we experience, and the stories we tell ourselves, and, as an avid proponent of leaders creating stories for themselves and those around them, this resonated strongly with me. I was therefore (very pertinently, as you will see) primed to be fascinated by the inclusion of a reference to John Bargh’s 1996 social psychology experiment on how words affect our responses to the world – also known as ‘priming’ (hence the pertinence mentioned above). It is also known as ‘the Florida Effect’, named after the inclusion of the word ‘Florida’ in the list of words referencing the negatives of aging which impacted on how subjects walked down a corridor (ie more slowly than those who had not heard those words).

Primed or not, though, I loved being reminded of the power of words to affect how we conduct ourselves – in every aspect of our lives, and not just in our leadership. Words have deep, rich layers of understanding embedded in them that – when we do not challenge them, and understand from whence they have been derived – can slip unconscious biases into our minds and our actions. One of the exercises I do when I work with coachees on the results of their Thomas International Personal Profile Analysis (PPA) is to challenge them to recognise their emotional reaction to the words that jump out at them, in order to explore first why they might not like them, and then how they might own them. It is always so interesting to unearth what words mean to people, and why, ie to see how the meanings of words have been shaped through their experiences. Upon understanding how their actions are subsequently shaped by these words and their embedded meanings, the next step is then to write an alternative, clearer, sharper narrative. If words affect how we walk down a corridor, then let us choose how to undertake the walk, and pick the words that surround us accordingly.

Words are powerful and dynamic creatures which impact us in all that we do … my message for today is to embrace and rise to the challenge of interpretation that they pose! Let no word go unchallenged today …

Doing, reflecting, and being grateful in Dubai

I haven’t written a blog for several weeks, because my time and inspiration has been directed elsewhere, to a range of demanding but satisfying projects and commitments – including for the Boards of which I am a member, international leader recruitment with LSC Education for a range of schools from Armenia to Switzerland, and coaching of some phenomenal senior leaders across the globe – but a lunch today with a friend and colleague, fellow LSC coach Caz Jude, at the delectable Lime Tree café in Dubai (where I am for a few days, to speak at GESS Dubai and visit some school leaders), reminded me how important it is to be visibly grateful for what we have in our lives, so I am taking the time to write this now, as a way of saying thank you.

First, I am grateful and want to say thank you to all the people in my life. There are literally thousands of you, and so I hesitate to name anyone, for fear of offending through omission. I only hope that you read this, and know that I am grateful for you. You include of course my family, my coachees, my colleagues and former colleagues, my interviewees, my former pupils, my neighbours … and please interpret this list of categories broadly, because if we have met and engaged, then we have a relationship, and I am grateful for this. The list even includes the lovely staff at the Staybridge Suites in Dubai, where I am staying again, because they have been so helpful and kind. And a cheery smile goes a LONG way in making the world a better place. Thank you to all of you for the richness you bring to my life, and the energy and encouragement you give me to keep striving to do more for others.

Secondly, I am grateful for the world in which we live. Yesterday, I visited the Museum of the Future, and one of the sections of it looks down on the world from space, and imagines how we could help the world through innovative energy solutions; we have a very precious and beautiful planet, and this means that we need to look after it as best we can. Every little action can make a difference. Most importantly, we should not take it for granted. COP 27 should be on all our minds, but we should also aim to respect the environment around us at all times.

And thirdly, I am grateful that as human beings we have been created with an indomitable spirit. It never ceases to amaze (and gladden) me that human beings have the most enormous capacity to find solutions to seemingly impossible challenges, particularly when they work together with kindness, love, and a better future. If we are to release this in ourselves and others, then we have to work on ourselves first, of course, and learn to make the most of the gifts and talents we have … and we have to be kind to ourselves when sometimes the constraints of life get in the way of our goals … but when we do, we can achieve SO much for the greater good.

I am incredibly grateful for all of the above, and more. Thank you to you all! And onwards and upwards!

“Service and Dignity” – The Queen’s abiding legacy

I learned of The Queen’s death in a Board meeting on Thursday 8 September, as the news flashed up on my phone, and I confess to having spent the best part of the past few days in a mournful mode, as the impact has hit of the loss which we have collectively experienced. Her Majesty The Queen was a phenomenal woman, who had (as has been brought home to us all) an astonishing impact on the world, through her commitment to tirelessly carrying out her duties. Her death, although feared and yet anticipated for so long, was nonetheless a shock to us all through its suddenness, and I know from speaking to countless friends and colleagues across the world that I am not alone. Sadness now permeates our interactions; grief lurks under the surface.

Flowers at Holyrood Palace on Saturday 10 September 2022

Of course, there is a re-commitment to the future too – King Charles III has stepped into the role of monarch, and has taken on the mantle of his extraordinary mother. How lucky we are, in so many respects, to be alive at the moment in history, at the birth of a new era, even though we know that this comes at the deep cost of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever people think or feel about the concept of a monarchy, there can be no denying that our constitutional monarchy has the ability to speak to people, and bring people together in ways that are deeply powerful and deeply sustaining.

It was the words of the (new) Prince of Wales on Saturday 10 September that struck a powerful chord, however, and prompted me to write this blog. In paying tribute to his beloved grandmother, he thanked her for providing an example to his generation – and, arguably, all generations. This example, for him, was one of “service and dignity” … and these words reflected so exactly what his grandmother embodied that we should dwell on them, and not let them slip away unnoticed. Serving others, caring about others, seeking to make a difference through action to the lives of others – and, sustained by her faith, doing so in a truly dignified manner, rising determinedly and relentlessly above the inevitable slings, arrows and tragedies of life … this was, in essence, what The Queen did. She was an incredible role model in her service, and in her dignity.

“Grief is the price we pay for love”: so said our late Queen, and we loved her for it; let us grieve for now, and re-commit to loving more, in every aspect of our lives, and with all of those around us. And let us do so with a renewed commitment to serving others, and to conducting ourselves with dignity. What a tribute to The Queen and her legacy this would be.