Governance and the art of the possible

I think about governance every day – not surprising, really, given the Boards I chair or am involved with – and my reflections have been heightened recently, as, together with Matthew Savage, I have been putting the final touches to our 5 week flexible online course for international school Board members, #betterboards, which is launching in January. Our mission is to help school Boards to become as effective as they can be, and this starts with their values, their boundaries and their practices – all areas which we look at in this course. Governance is hard, and Board members deserve support! And governance is never finished, or ticked off – as I say to anyone and everyone who will listen, I firmly believe that governance is not an outcome, but a process; governance is how we act as Board members, not what we achieve.

One of the areas we cover in our course is about how much Board members need to know about the organisation on whose Board they sit – ie schools, in the case of international school Boards – and this is something which I reflect on frequently, in coaching sessions with prospective Board members in a range of different industries and professions. The answer is: something, but not everything – one of the mistakes I see again and again in role descriptions for non-executive posts is a heavy emphasis on executive experience, and – often – very little reference to non-executive skills such as assimilating and synthesising information, asking insightful questions, maintaining an appropriate bird’s eye view of the detail, challenging executive action, and so on.

A little learning is a dangerous thing – and not just in education, where Principals, skilled professionals, are unfortunately used to everyone being an expert on the profession simply because they went to school many years ago, and think education is a very good thing … And this learning is particularly dangerous in a governance relationship, because it risks blurring the boundaries between governance and leadership, between non-executive and executive; when this happens, the value of the Board diminishes, and it can no longer offer the same degree of insight and oversight … it becomes, in the worst-case scenario, little more than a glorified Management Committee.    

Great Boards have a clear sense of purpose and of their role, and this is what makes them so impactful. Good governance is an aim for which they need to keep striving, and building reflection time into Board discussions – inside and outside Board meetings. Governance is a journey and an art … ultimately possible, it requires hard work, energy and reflection.

You can see a trailer for our #betterboards course here – do watch and please do share the details with any international schools you know. Great schools have great governing bodies, and a great governing body will keep reflecting, growing and developing … just like the young people in our schools.

Good luck in your quest for good governance!

‘The stark and penetrable reality of diversity and inclusion …’

… is that they are not “nice to haves”.’ So writes Michael Bertolino from EY in a recent Forbes article about leadership in organisations, which you can read here. He lays out convincingly why this is the case, he refers to research which proves it, and he summarises succinctly what companies can do to become more diverse and inclusive. Take time to read it!

Why is it so important for us to embrace this understanding? Well, put simply, diverse perspectives around the table are more likely to provide a 360 degree view of an issue, and are more likely to lead to well-balanced decisions; if we surround ourselves by people like us, our view of the world will of necessity be limited. For these diverse perspectives to flourish, they need to feel valued and actively included, and this is not as straightforward as you might imagine; each one of us has been exposed to numerous biases over our lifetime, which are now firmly embedded as assumptions or unconscious bias. We often cannot help it – no matter how hard we try to educate ourselves, we are still likely to rate some characteristics (including but not limited to age, gender, socio-economic background, job title) as more important or worthy than others.

And yet, we need these varied perspectives if we are going to tackle the issues and challenges which face us; as Bertolino comments,
“Now, more than ever before, companies need an agile and diverse workforce”
This workforce will need to be at their best, able to draw on their diverse perspectives on the world; in other words, as Bertolino says, they will be
guided by inclusive leaders who can draw out their people’s fullest potential, … [and] … nurture workforces that reflect the communities in which their people live.”

Diversity and inclusion: the means to helping people make the most of themselves, for the greater good. This is a short blog this week … because it has a really clear and straightforward message: let us actively embrace diversity and inclusion in our organisations!

Onwards and upwards!

Dr Helen Wright supports and coaches Boards and senior leaders in their drive towards better governance. She is also a former Trustee of Changing the Chemistry, which is committed to more diversity on Boards.

Blessed be the tech makers

One of the great delights in my working life is working with other professionals, to achieve more together than we could as individuals. Besides, with the right people it is enormous fun, as was precisely the case last Thursday, when the lovely Matthew Savage and I co-presented a session for school leaders at an education conference. We spoke on the topic of ‘Managing Your School Board’, drawing on the work we have been doing as we prepare assiduously for our 5 week #betterboards online course for Board members of international schools, launching in the New Year. And – even though I say it myself – we managed our session really well! It felt utterly enjoyable to co-present, passing the baton to one another, and back again, from one slide to the next; it was a little like a conversation with an upbeat, positive purpose – which, now I come to think about it, is a fairly accurate summary of the videos we have recorded for the course. I derive huge joy from being able to create understanding through thinking about, articulating and sharing ideas in discussion with others – it was great!

You will already have guessed that it was a virtual event – a conference, that was, no less, hosted in Jakarta – GESS Indonesia. Aside from the slight inconvenience of the time difference necessitating us each in rising to the wintry cold of 5am, Matthew in London, I in Edinburgh, ready to sparkle and perform to the world at 6am, everything about the conference went swimmingly. The emails from the organiser provided us with efficient links to the presentation platform, where our PowerPoint slides, saved in fact as PDFs, were pre-loaded, and where we could be heard and seen loudly and clearly through the microphones and cameras in our computers. A few WhatsApp messages beforehand allowed us to check we were both ready; a Zoom call afterwards gave us the chance to debrief. We were able to achieve what up to a mere few years ago would have been impossible – appearing in person, at a moment’s notice, live, halfway round the world, from different points of origin, and communicating as naturally and easy as if we were sitting in the same room. The technology, quite frankly, was phenomenal.

We all know this, of course; it has become almost a throwaway remark to say that there is more technology in a slim mobile phone than on Apollo 11 when it took humans to the moon for the first time. But how often do we stop and reflect with utter gratitude on the curiosity, imagination, determination and perseverance of all of the people who have made this technology happen. The creators of today’s technology, of course, but also those who have stretched the boundaries of the possible over the centuries – millennia – from the very birth of humanity onwards.  Today’s tech-makers sit on the giant shoulders of countless inventors, thinkers, experimenters and learners; everything we can do today in the world of technology is possible because of the human spirit of adventure and exploration, in whose footsteps the makers of technology today are following – forging ahead, connecting the world, helping (when they turn their skills to good use) solve the problems we have created over years when we have gone astray. Quite simply, you are amazing.

And so, my daily gratitude list today starts with a simple shout-out to you all … thank you, tech-makers! Long may you code and create for the good of the human race …

Really owning your leadership voice!!

I love the image of a woman with a megaphone in Louise Penrice’s introduction to her leadership course for women in education, which she is running through LSC Education, starting in early November. I chuckled when I first saw the picture, because it rings so true for so many female leaders – sometimes they really need to shout (and not always figuratively …) in order to be heard. In my coaching, I encounter many women who at some level have absorbed the message that their voice is somehow less worthy than that of their colleagues’ voices, or who have yet to discover their own, unique, authentic voice. There is work to be done in this regard, most definitely …

Of course, it does actually astonish me that we are still in a position as a society where we have to be talking about women being able to own their voices – especially in a profession which is tasked with promoting, through education, the value of an individual’s strengths – but we can’t hide from the fact of the matter. The need is undeniably there to bring a deeper understanding of the value of a wide range of approaches to school leadership, and we must still all do what we can to bring a greater sense of appreciation to all, starting with the individuals themselves. Investing a couple of hours a month from November until next June in learning and reflection will undoubtedly be transforming for the women who come together as a group in order to grow their voices.

This is why I am so pleased with what Louise is doing; what drives me is being able to make a difference in people’s lives. She can explain it better than I can, so do talk to her directly – I know she won’t mind me putting you in touch (her email is I feel hugely lucky to count her as a friend and colleague. Go, Louise! And go, women leaders in education!

Schools as places of the ‘now’ … and of the community

What a wonderful pleasure it was last week to speak at the Independent Schools of the Year Award 2020, to announce the finalists, and then to introduce my fellow judges as they revealed the winners! It was a really joyful occasion – all online of course, but with exploding stars and thunderous applause. A really uplifting way to spend a Thursday afternoon … and you can watch it all again here if you are in need of a spot of celebration of what schools can be. Speaking as Chair of the Judging Panel, I can absolutely assure you that every single one of the finalists was worthy of huge praise – it was SO hard to single out just one which pipped the others to the post in each category, but we did, and an enormous congratulations to all the winners!

These awards were conceived as a means to focus on the importance of the experience that children and young people have at school – not their academic outcomes, or their future destinations, although these are incredibly important too … and, unsurprisingly, these expand and rise too when young people are enabled to flourish, grow in self-confidence, are exposed to opportunities and are encouraged, stretched and challenged to become their best selves. This is true of every single school – not just independent schools; the experience had by a young person while growing up is fundamental to their wellbeing now and in the future, and schools play an incredibly significant part in this, often acting as the central hub of a child’s development, and certainly working in partnership with parents and a child’s wider family.  

This development is not, however, solely of the individual person, crucial though this is; it is the development of the person to be part of the collective, the wider community and our society. As Leo Winkley, Headmaster of Shrewsbury School, so articulately put it in his acceptance speech for the overall Independent School of the Year Award, schools have a responsibility to educate young people ‘to care about their communities’, and this is exactly what is driving the astonishing and wide-ranging contribution which they – pupils and staff – are making to their wider community. In this process, children are being given the opportunity to appreciate the community in which they live, learning that they have a role and a responsibility in it, to others as well as to themselves.

Life is not something which happens in the future, and education is not – should not – be only focused on preparing for that future. Life happens – is happening – now, all around us, whether we are child or adult. We owe it to ourselves and to others to make the most of it. ‘Every day is a school day’ says the adage which motivates us to learn and grow every day; perhaps we could also rephrase this for those who learn and work in schools – ‘every school day is a day’ … a day of which we should make the most, mindful of our own needs but also our responsibilities to others, and the joy we bring them when we support them. 

So – enjoy the day, make the most of it for yourself and for others. Onwards and upwards, as ever!

Musings on ‘what we should do’ …

One of my mantras when I used to run schools was ‘everyone a leader’, and I meant this in the widest possible sense – literally, everyone in the organisation could and should be prepared to take responsibility for their spheres of activity, but also be prepared to contribute – readily and openly – to the wider whole. In essence, I believed (and still believe) that in any organisation (or, indeed, in any grouping of human beings), we have not only an individual responsibility, but also a collective responsibility, and not only an individual contribution to make, but a collective one. Together, we are more able to fulfil our mission, we are more creative and inventive, and we are more able to turn ideas into practical, functioning reality in a way that makes a difference.

It is remarkable, however, how often we feel as though we can’t – or indeed aren’t ‘supposed’ to, or ‘allowed’ to take this collective responsibility. Perhaps this is because other emotions get in the way … I remember my children feeling really embarrassed once, when as we were on our way home to the UK from Portugal, waiting in a crowd of people at the departure gate at Faro airport, I noticed that the gate had been changed with no announcement. We could just have slunk off to the new gate ourselves, but since it was patently obvious that everyone else waiting around was also intending to board the same flight as us, and none of them seemed to have noticed, I thought I should point this change out to everyone, and so made a mini-announcement to the gathered hordes. This achieved its goal, and we all headed off to the new gate; and I explained carefully to my children why it was important to take responsibility and step up to the mark when you can see that something needs to be done, and not let embarrassment (or fear) hold you back. I think they have forgiven me … in any case, I know I was right …

This reluctance to step up and take personal responsibility for the collective good, however, is all around us – and understandably so, because it can be really hard. We all have that child inside us – the voice that says ‘surely there is someone better than me to do or say this’. Ironically, of course, children often have the clearest vision in morally challenging situations; as a society we just don’t listen to them enough. Anyway, sometimes this reluctance manifests itself in avoidance of responsibility to the extent that it results in selfish behaviour which then has the potential to harm others (eg crowds of people socialising and therefore passing Covid around when scientists worldwide are telling us this is a bad idea …); sometimes, however, it manifests itself in what we don’t do – when we don’t reach out and ask how someone is, or if we can help them, for example, or when we don’t speak up, or when we don’t volunteer. And because it is arguably harder to spot an absence of action taken, because there are multiple forms which this action could take, depending on the choices we make to say, do, act and so on, then it is equally arguably easier for us just not to do what we really should.

So, what should we do? Well, there is no simple answer to that – what we do will depend on the myriad aspects of the context to which we are applying that question. But a good starting point is to ask the question, ‘What should I do?’ Really, truly, honestly – what should I do? Sprinkle into your reflection on this question a dollop of optimism, a spoonful of positivity, and a pinch of self-confidence, and I reckon there is a fair chance that a decent answer will pop out.

So – here is a daily challenge for the week – why not give it a go …?

The power of networks

A CEO I was working with last week paused for a moment and said, with slight bewilderment, ‘You seem to know everyone … how?’. My immediate answer was ‘well, I do a lot of things, in a wide range of spheres, across the world – you come to know a lot of people when you do this’; on reflection after the conversation, however, I thought my real answer to his question was actually deeper than this, and worth unpicking further.

I do know a lot of people – this is very true. Moreover, I like at least 99.9% of the people I know, and this strikes me as significant. I always remember as a fledgling teacher being told ‘you won’t like most of your pupils, but you don’t have to, to be a good teacher’, but actually I did like them. There is not a single student I can think of now who I didn’t like, and many of them have reconnected with me since I have moved on from education into my non-executive career. I have met up again with former students while working in Hong Kong, Sydney and London, and enjoyed every minute of these precious moments of connection. Similarly, I like all the people I work with professionally on boards or in other organisations. In a typical week, I have meaningful discussions and interactions with scores of people, and I genuinely like these people. Of course, there are people I really, really like, with whom I choose to spend more time and/or share more personally with – people I am delighted to call wonderful friends – but I have a very broad understanding of the practice of ‘liking people’. When I meet new people, which again I do almost every week, I like them. My list of ‘people I like’ grows by the day.

‘Liking people’ doesn’t actually happen by accident, I reflect. ‘Liking people’ begins, I would venture to suggest, with the underlying premise that people are essentially likeable, and a profound belief in the capacity for good in human beings, aligned – so I realised later in my life – with the philosopher John Dewey’s belief in ultimate, ethical humanity. I choose Dewey as a marker here because he is an educational hero of mine – again, through a retrospective fitting of my understanding of the purpose of education to the explorations of great thinkers who have gone before; in fact, there are a number of wellsprings of inspirations who I could name here; my alignments are eclectically constructed. What they share in common is a pragmatic optimism – which is a discipline rather than a born state. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ needs time and energy if you are to love both parties in the neighbourly partnership. Like all disciplines, however, it becomes easier the more it is practised.

I have read screeds about networking over the years, and much of it contains very sensible advice which boils down to ‘know who you are’ and ‘be proactive’. Do make time, if you want to grow the number of people you know, either to join networking groups or simply team up with people in your field and beyond; when you find your tribe or tribes, it adds a rich, enjoyable and productive dimension to your life. I would add to this advice: ‘give generously of your expertise’, and ‘be fearless in reaching out’; the give and take of relationships demands that at least one person in the partnership starts the communication. So yes, be proactive and extend your network when you are in search of a new job, or a mentor, or some inspirations … but remember to give as well as take. In fact, give before you take. And when you do take, give back manifold.

Above all, before you do any of this at all, look honestly at how you view your fellow human beings. And – dare I say it – start by thinking the best of them, and believing in them.

Like someone new today. What a lovely way to start the week …

Safeguarding is for Life, not just for Children … why all company directors should be trained in safeguarding

I slipped up in a recent interview with Robin Fletcher, CEO of the Boarding Schools’ Association, when I was quizzing him about the work of SACPA, the Safeguarding and Child Protection Association, which is part of the BSA Group. I linked ‘safeguarding’ and ‘children’ in a question, and he quite rightly picked me up on this – safeguarding, after all, as he pointed out, is actually for everyone. Students at university, vulnerable adults, residents of care homes, a regular customer in the street … in fact, although we often associate the term ‘safeguarding’ with the (very stringent) laws around child protection, safeguarding is something we should all be doing, in whatever walk of life we find ourselves.

This was reinforced to me at the weekend, as I completed my annual safeguarding training for Abbotsholme School, on whose Advisory Board I sit, and whose new Head I knew from his time at Wellington College China – and who I personally think is fabulous. The topics covered in this training ranged from mental health and wellbeing to online safety, including radicalism and extremism; they covered child protection, of course, but the scope of the areas covered was really extensive. All school governors or directors complete safeguarding training, and it is important to recognise that this is not principally because they have personal access to children, but in part actually because safety of pupils, staff and the wider community is a really important risk factor in the operation of the organisation which needs to be mitigated and managed.

If this is the case in schools, then so it is the case in any organisation which has anything to do with people … which, let’s face it, is all of them, in some way or another. In fact, the more we think about it, the more we realise that every single company has some exposure to risk around safeguarding, and therefore some responsibility to minimise this risk through proper awareness and training. This starts at the top – I do wonder how approaches to customer and staff safety would shift – for the better – if company directors had to work through even just the schools-focused training I completed this weekend.

And I can tell you from experience that it is not possible to acquire a full understanding of safeguarding in a single training session, nor is it possible to develop a safeguarding culture through watching a set of slides. Safeguarding is a habit – a habit that must be deeply ingrained, constantly challenged, and perpetually embedded. The Safeguarding Lead at Abbotsholme, and her equally persistent counterpart at Chase Grammar (the two schools are part of the Achieve Education Group) live, breathe and adapt to potential safeguarding issues every single day – and because they do this, these issues are avoided or quickly resolved, keeping people safe. Safeguarding Leads in school often feel they have a thankless task, because their work is never done, but they possess such a wealth of knowledge about people – about keeping people safe – and such a lot to teach companies in other spheres of activity.

If we all take safeguarding seriously, then I can only imagine that the world will be a better and safer place. Safeguarding need not just be for schools.

Dr Helen Wright is a Board Chair, Education Advisor and Executive Leadership Coach who works with senior leaders and organisations across the world to challenge them and generate velocity around change.

On turning 50 …

1.50am on Saturday 22 August was a momentous occasion for me, as I crossed the threshold from the age of 49 to that of 50. I had been looking forward with great eagerness, anticipation and enthusiasm for weeks to that precise moment, as I awaited the descent of omniscience and wisdom, in a Damascene-like moment of enlightenment. That didn’t quite happen, but I expect that this is merely due to the global pandemic; it will all have been delayed in the post. Even the Tooth Fairy has had trouble delivering of late.

I have always found moving from one decade to the next a milestone of optimism. I loved turning 30, just about to take up my first school Deputy Head’s post, and very shortly (although I didn’t actually know it at that moment …) my first role as a school Principal. When I turned 40 – with 3 young children and leading a wonderfully successful school – we threw a glorious tea party for the entire school community and had cupcakes galore. My forties have been a decade of phenomenal career shift and global outreach, and I marvel at my good fortune (underpinned, I will point out, by resilience and hard work …) at being able to do what I do now, as a Board Chair, Education Advisor and Executive Coach, in an amazingly varied portfolio which continues to evolve.

Along the way, of course, I have learned that wisdom grows when we water its living roots, and look after ourselves and others. I have learned that knowledge – omniscient or otherwise – is a construct which we must keep interrogating. I have learned the joy of living with an authentic purpose and a sense of responsibility to the world, and I have learned the power of walking in other people’s shoes. I haven’t yet learned that I can’t change the world overnight, or even by next Tuesday, even though a wise coach once told me to remember that I wasn’t God. That was a little deflating to hear, but perhaps she was right. Maybe I will learn that next decade.

I turn 50 with a powerful belief in the children and young people of today, who are the future of the planet. I have a deeper commitment than ever before to the importance of learning and education in every corner of our lives, and I have more courage than ever to speak this truth. Being authentic, challenging, kind and impactful all matter hugely to me. Generating velocity for change in organisations, and empowering leaders, are outcomes of my work which bring me enormous satisfaction. ‘Onwards and upwards’ has long been my mantra; now I live this daily with ever greater joy.

Above all, I have an intense sense of gratitude for everything I have learned and experienced to date. So thank you, world, for giving me all these opportunities. Thank you to my parents, who have nurtured me, and who I know are deeply proud of me. Thank you to my husband for his stalwart support and belief in me over all these decades. Thank you to my children for the love they have brought me. And thank you to all my amazing friends, colleagues, wider family and my diverse group of acquaintances for your tolerance, good humour, friendship and encouragement.

So – now, on with the next 50 years …

School Boards … keep a clear head

If school leaders and Boards are honest, there is a little corner of their minds which wants to say ‘please, just make all of this go away …’. The stresses on school enrolment, the spiralling costs – in time as well as in money – of measures to protect against Covid-19, the uncertainties of the year ahead and what learning will actually look like … each of these alone would be enough to send many a normal human being scurrying for the hills; moreover, after the debacle of the IB results this year, and the uproar around SQA results in Scotland, school boards in England are waiting with horribly bated breath for the A Levels and GCSE results to emerge.

Add to this the astonishingly impossible task of meeting local and national government requirements, which boils down to – ‘you must socially distance, but not if you can’t, and if you can’t, on your head be it’. The pressure on schools is approaching the limits of tolerability: Covid-19 hasn’t gone away – and no, we don’t absolutely know what the exam diet will look like next summer. In fact, we don’t know much about anything as far as the year ahead is concerned – although schools do know that they have students who need to be taught, and a community that needs to be nurtured, and they have proven themselves remarkably resilient and adaptable in doing so over the past few months. School leaders and teachers are the absolute unsung heroes of the crisis, keeping learning going and spirits high, often at their own expense. School Boards may have had the anxiety of keeping the school afloat, and they may have had to make some very difficult decisions, but the credit for keeping school communities alive goes firmly to the staff.

This said, school Boards should beware of allowing the pendulum in their governance to swing too far towards simply agreeing with school leaders. A worst case scenario for this new academic year for schools is not so much a further spike in the virus, but rather the implosion of leadership and governance, where, for example, Governors start issuing decrees, and leaders are so busy managing, and so driven to distraction that they don’t have the time to take part in measured strategic discussion informed by their expertise. The relationship between leadership and governance is akin to a beautifully tuned stringed instrument; when the right amount of tension is applied, and when all the parts align, then the sound which emerges resonates strongly and clearly. Slacken the tension at either end, or neglect its rigorous upkeep, and the whole project fails. Governance and leadership need to work in tandem, as partners, for a school to thrive, and it is incumbent upon Boards to lead the way.

So, as the new school year approaches, my advice to school Boards is to keep a clear head. Remember that you are there to provide oversight and insight, and to do so in a reasonable manner, neither unhurried nor (usually) demanding of immediate response. You are there to hold the vision of the school – the strong oak tree in the middle of the storm, so do not flap your leaves in despair at lower grades, or the first sign of parental dissatisfaction next term, but take time to consider carefully. Support your leaders, but do not give them carte blanche to make decisions for which you are responsible. By all means lessen the load of expectation around papers for Board meetings (a good thing, in any case), but do not stint in your incisive interpretation and analysis. Ask as many questions as before – more, probably – while supporting as much as before … again, more, probably.   

School Boards exist for a reason. They are not there to lead the school; they are there to ensure the leadership of the school functions appropriately, and to provide a wider perspective born of diversity and distance. The skill of a great school Board is to challenge without upsetting, to be clear and decisive without being narrowminded, and to act with wisdom in all things.

Remember that clear head …