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Structured leadership conversations

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Do you need resources to help increase the impact of leadership conversations?

Structured leadership conversations can be 1:1 or carried out in a group with someone acting in the facilitation role, e.g. a senior leadership team, governors, phase leaders. I have included some tools that work well for 1:1 sessions, some that work at both a group level and an individual level and some that are best suited to groups. Time spent in leadership discussion is extremely important for all leaders, be that new or experienced, with limited responsibility or extensive responsibility. Having another person help us to think and reflect in a structured way increases wellbeing, productivity and personal growth. The benefits ripple outwards and continue well beyond that day, that month, that year. Invest in each other and give back.

When carrying out structured leadership conversations we want them to lean towards coaching models. Coaching in its purest form takes a considerable amount of time and training to achieve. Whilst many of us will never become excellent coaches, we can all improve the quality of our professional conversations, particularly in relation to leadership conversations. The gift headteachers, senior leaders and middle leaders can give to each other is 'time'. Meeting 1:1 to share thinking, talk through issues, gain alternative perspectives, ask questions and generally have someone else who is interested in the goals you wish to achieve is time well spent. We all need someone to act in the capacity of leadership facilitator. It aids our ability to reflect and to set out new courses of action, helps us to be more pragmatic, encourages action and builds our self-efficacy. Leaders (at all levels) in a school would be more effective and happier in their roles if some time on a regular basis could be set aside to discuss issues that matter to them.

If it works, why don't we spend more time in 1:1 dialogue?

It is easy to say that we don't have time. This is a falsehood. If we invest time in leadership conversations, we are more likely to increase productivity, choose better courses of action, have more impact, achieve school improvement goals. Investing in each other will, in the longer term, actually save time!

We are addicted to the quick fix and accept that goals might not be achieved. Too often school improvement goals are not met because time was not devoted to sitting down with those responsible for an element of the plan and reviewing progress towards the goal on a regular basis. Just think of how many school improvement issues come up year after year on a school improvement plan? Goals that you know will take more than one year to implement are the hardest to achieve. The longer it will take to achieve the goal, the more important regular check points become but the 'here and now' of 'today' overshadow building a 'brighter future'.

We are not sure how best to support our leaders or what to talk about. The structured conversation formats and activities (that you can download from this page) can really help to maximise the impact of our meetings and can give us confidence to help others grow as leaders. When you look back on your career as a leader - which people were the most influential? For me, it was the people who believed I was worth the investment of their time and energy. People who took the time to explain when I needed mentoring, and people help me to reflect and think forward when I needed coaching. They were patient and encouraging. They were enabling.

What can I do to improve my practice?

  • Schedule in quality time with the leaders you wish to support (or set up support pairs - e.g. middle leaders supporting each other). It needs to be in the calendar - otherwise it is likely to be superseded by something else. Treat the meeting time as vitally important - if you don't believe it is important, you'll find a reason not to have the time together.

  • Choose the time and dates carefully. Both parties need to be as calm and relaxed as possible. It won't work if you have just rushed back from somewhere or have half your mind on what you need to do next or if you are repeatedly interrupted! A sign on the door, putting a hold on telephone calls, allocating someone to be on duty, or scheduling time off site can all help in achieving quality time together.

  • Choose your venue carefully. It needs to be a place where your conversation can't be overheard. You need to create an atmosphere that is conducive for honest conversations.

  • Think about the seating arrangements and furniture. Try to sit at a 45 degree angle to each other or next to each other - rather than facing each other.

  • Make sure you have resources that will aid joint thinking, e.g. post it notes, large flipchart paper, A3 paper, marker pens, notebook. Thinking can be an activity, and a record of thinking can be really helpful for later reference. Use of walls and large tables can be helpful for practical thinking activities. If you know the conversation is going to focus on a particular aspect of school life, think about any resources that might be useful to refer to, e.g. copy of school improvement plan, policy documents, recent training materials, pupils' books, audit sheets.

  • Talk about how the sessions will operate and what you both want to achieve. Why do you want to meet? To get the most from the sessions, colleagues need to be open minded, collaborate in the process, value the time together, be willing to share. Trust is important. It may take a few sessions before the person you are working with becomes comfortable enough to open up. Don't promise complete confidentiality but do talk about what typically what will and will not be shared. If someone reveals something that means they need more support than you can provide or a child protection issue, you obviously have a duty to act on this, e.g. raising the concern with another member of staff.

  • Smile. Be welcoming. Be interested. Be passionate. Be professional. Be encouraging. Believe in the other person.

If you are working together remotely, e.g. zoom, make sure you build in longer pauses than might otherwise be the case as delays can cause both parties to talk over each other. Have tools avilable e.g. electronic post it notes, ipad holder so that you can angle your camera to see a page for writing / post it noting rather than the camera always focusing on your face. Use your screen to make notes together. Download the tools and display them on your shared screen to make notes. Make sure you have chosen a time when they can work with you uninterrupted - be aware of pressures at home. Check they are in a space where they can 'talk freely'. Think about what the person will be doing next, particularly if the conversation will be emotional. Take it more slowly than a face-to-face session. Take time to ask how they are and get a sense of their emotional state before starting the session.

  • If you regularly deal with very emotional issues in 1:1 sessions, you may need help with processing the emotions that are generated in yourself. This does not mean revealing what has been shared, but instead talking about coaching and mentoring processes.

Whilst the conversations we have might not be true coaching, we can employ coaching approaches such as listening, avoiding judgements, not jumping to suggest a solution, believing in the person we are working with, working to explore thinking, helping the person reflect, provide facilitation for action planning.

What resources can I use to help me have a structured leadership conversation 1:1?

Choosing a focus

It is useful to set out what is to be achieved. There are a number of resources that can aid structured 1:1 leadership conversations that fit into the categories above. You can see examples of these below and can download the files by completing the form at the end of this blog. The range of resources provided help the 'coachee' to select a focus for the leadership conversation, e.g. working out a plan of action to achieve a goal, dealing with a conflict. It can be useful to talk through issues with someone unconnected to the situation. Quite a few middle leaders like the 'Thin Harvey Halls Toolkit' as a way of thinking through a project they wish to implement.

Print the forms onto different coloured paper to make it easier for the 'coachee' to select the focus of the session.

Thin Harvey Balls Toolkit - for action planning

5 min video explaining the process

Thinking forward

At the moment, lots of colleagues need to reflect on the changing situation that they find themselves in and the many emotions that link to this. All emotions are valid - no two people feel the same or respond the same to situations. The role of the coach is not to judge the coachee's feelings or try to change them, but rather to help the coachee explore the feelings and pose questions that can help them to move forward and perhaps decide for themselves to make certain changes, e.g. changes in routines that might help them achieve relief from stress. It is useful to set out at the beginning of the first session to set out the protocols for sharing information. Fully confidentiality should never be promised, but the degree of sharing will vary. For example, I run sessions with middle leaders where I state at the start of the session that if they disclose a safe guarding issues or I am concerned that they are a danger to themselves or others, that I will need to alert a third party, such as the headteacher. I would let them know that I was going to do this, so that it did not come as a surprise. Generally, the protocol would be that the general topics discussed would be shared, e.g. we worked on time management or delegation strategies, but not the points of discussion, unless there was prior agreement that, say, action points from each session would be shared with the person's line manager or that perhaps at a mid-point both the coach and coachee agreed to complete an evaluation form. This might be a very different protocol to a leader supporting a colleague where the content of the sessions linked to performance management. The agreement at the beginning should be clear to both parties. It is usually particularly important for what has been discussed not to be shared with colleagues that the person works closely with. Leaders won't feel able to speak freely if they fear the content of the session will be known in the staffroom!

Improving the current situation - increasing empathy and perspective:

In order to see a way forward, colleagues sometimes need help in understanding and reflecting on the current situation. They need to be able to step back and look at the issues from a range of angles. This structured conversation format helps colleagues to start to look at an issue from their own perspective, but then also consider how other people may view the same situation. For example, an EYFS leader may want to explore a staffing conflict within their team - they start with their view point - what are they feeling, what are they seeing, what are they thinking and what are they hearing. These are written into the inner circle. They then consider the situation from the perspective of others, e.g. other EYFS teachers, teaching assistants or even parents. These points are written into the outer corners. The person acting as coach, supports thinking and ask questions.

Some colleagues are 'big picture people' and some are 'fine detail', some feel frustrated if action isn't swift, whilst others want to consider the options before starting on a course of action. Good leaders try to consider a problem from multiple perspectives and find that this can help them to move closer to resolving a problem or achieving a goal. More confident middle leaders can use this format with a group - this is my perspective, but what is yours? I want to know how we differ in views and in what we know and understand about an issue, so that we can reset the course of action or come up with the best solutions.

Open ended conversations

A popular format for coaching conversations is the GROW model. When using this approach, the person leading the discussion must remember not to give their own opinions but help the person to think through the issues. The 'coach' must believe that the 'coachee' can come to a solution themselves. The 'coach' is just a facilitator. Obviously, there are some issues where a coaching approach isn't appropriate and the best way forward is to 'tell' someone the answer, to demonstrate a solution, to advise on a course of action. If this is the case, don't dress it up as coaching. Coaching with an open ended model such as the GROW model works best with experienced and skilled members of staff. At the end of the session, take a photocopy of the completed notes. Refer back to these notes in follow-up sessions. You can download the GROW model resources, alongside the other materials, by completing the form at the end of this blog. I find this particular checklist useful for helping me ask the right questions and helps me to 'listen' rather than talk! We often think that if we just 'tell' someone or share our knowledge base that it will be a short cut to success for that person, but it really depends on what is being tackled. Colleagues will need to think carefully about what type of session the person they are supporting really needs.

Instant Pay Off Coaching

This is a great tool for middle leaders to use with another middle leader or for two assistant headteachers to use together. It takes about 15-20 minutes (possibly 30 minutes for senior leaders).

The person providing the support 'the coach' lays out a large piece of flipchart paper landscape on a table and uses a marker pen. They ask the questions and record the thinking of the 'coachee'. It starts with the coach helping the coachee to specify what the problem. Try to get the coachee to precisely identify the issue - as sometimes there is a lack of clarity on the problem itself! This is recorded on the right hand side of the paper (step 1). The coach then jumps to the right hand side of the paper - what would be the ideal outcome. Note that this is the 'ideal' outcome and should not be limited to what the coachee thinks can be achieved, but should focus on 'ideal.

The coach then supports the coachee through the blocks that are preventing the ideal outcome from being achieved.

Blocks that exist in the coachee (lack of skill, knowledge, low motivation, attitude) Blocks that exist in others (no shared planning from colleagues, unwillingness to participate) Blocks in the situation (inadequate resources, PPA, time, legislation, deadlines)

The coach records emerging thoughts. Try to let the coachee do the talking - remember that the coach is the facilitator.

Finally, the coach and coachee brainstorm together possible solutions. Again, this should be the 'blue sky' thinking - brainstorm ALL possible solutions, not just the easy ones. Discuss a way forward.

6 min video clip on how to use the instant payoff coaching format. It can be completed by two peers (one acting as coach and the other as coachee), e.g. two middle leaders in the same school, two deputy headteachers from different schools. It can be completed by a senior and middle leader, e.g. headteacher acting as coach and middle leader as the coachee. Brilliant for encouraging middle leaders to take more responsibility for solving their own problems and empowering leaders to take action.

Learning from success

Talking about what has been successful and understanding why is essential for capitalising on what has worked well. Too often we talk about what hasn't been achieved rather than what has been achieved. If we can identify the success factors, we can apply them to new situations and new problems. Can we unpick the factors that contributed to success?

Time management

A useful discussion tool, particularly for senior leaders, is to consider time management.

The biggest problem for Deputy Headteachers and Headteachers is usually making sure the time is focused on deep, quality work that makes a real difference and adds value to the organisation. There are some great books on 'deep work' that promote time without distractions, e.g. time off site, no interruptions, no telephone, no internet connected, no email, and that setting aside this quality thinking time helps reduce overall workload. Putting an out of office message on the email - or saying when you respond to emails, e.g. I complete email work at 3pm each day, please wait for a reply, so that colleagues are not repeatedly interrupted.

What 5 traps do you fall into?

Action planning

This is a great tool for working 1:1 or in a small group. Print the sheet A3 and laminate. Use with post it notes.

Formats that work well for groups

WWW/So-So/Not working well

This activity is best completed in small groups on flipchart paper or a large roll of lining paper. Each person involved needs a pack of post-it notes. It is best completed standing in a semi-circle. As each person adds to the chart, they say their notation aloud, sharing with the group their thinking.

The first row captures the elements that are strong or going well.

The second row captures elements that are not particularly strong or are progressing slowly or perhaps are not yet consistent.

The final row focuses on those aspects that are not working well.

This activity is useful to reflect on the current situation towards the end of term and the results can feed into action planning for the new academic year. It is useful if groups of staff complete it separately to the senior leadership team. This can reveal where perceptions differ, e.g. one group may put an element as a 'going well' whilst another group might rate the same element as 'so-so'. It can help to raise questions and consider blind spots.

After the activity has been completed, colleagues can consider questions such as:

"If we were to move one post-it note closer to the top of what is working well, which one would make the biggest difference?"

"What has helped the 'working well' items to achieve this - what did we do to make this work well?"

"Which of the not working well items is the biggest issue?"

"How do we move... closer to the top?"

"Are there any of these issues that could be very quickly resolved - quick fixes?"

"Which might be the hardest issue to improve?"

The activity can be used in different ways by different groups, e.g.

  • middle leaders reviewing the curriculum

  • the reading leader focusing on teaching comprehension

  • senior leaders reviewing actions taken to keep everyone safe in response to corona virus

  • Review of the school improvement plan

  • The effectiveness of the senior leadership team

When priorities for development have been agreed, it is useful for groups to think about what would need to happen to achieve the goal. A large piece of flipchart paper and a pack of post-it notes can help with this. Place the top six priorities around a central circle and divide the paper into segments. Place each action on a post-it note. The closer the post-it note is to the centre, the sooner the action should take place. In a different colour, consider the money and resources needed to take the actions. The completed chart can be used as the basis for the school improvement plan.

Discussion formats that focus on 'managing change'

If you are about to undergo major changes, it can be useful to talk and think the process with someone else. A good tool to use is the DVAKAR model.

A 5min video explaining the DVAKAR model of change management.

When the model has been utilised, the discussion points can be used to create a more formal action plan.

To download the resources, fill in the form below.


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