Getting to the heart of the vision

By Megan Peterson on September 5, 2017 in Leadership

Leading the why and the how

Working in two separate schools this week led me to pondering how leaders find a balance between the “why” and the “how”. It is great to have a vision but the real challenge is bringing the vision into fruition.

Earlier in the week I was working with a senior leadership team around their approach to appraisal. These are senior leaders who have been reasonably comfortable with their approach but want to focus on improving what they currently do and build teaching as inquiry into appraisal across the school.

We spent some time discussing the big ideas of appraisal, especially a focus on teachers leading their own appraisal process. Once happy with the why of high-quality appraisal we moved onto the how. Interestingly but perhaps understandably, this is what teachers in the school had sought clarification about. Those who wanted this clarity didn’t express a desire to know the why but were feeling a tad anxious about the appraisal process considering some big changes going on in the school.

At this point, I suggested that we use Simon Sinek’s Golden circles. I love these as a visual, structured brainstorm to ensure that the vision is robust (the why), that key principles guide the process (the how), and that the practices (the what) enable the vision to be enacted.

I love this quote from Sinek’s Ted talk (viewed over 26 million times)

“Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. Whether they’re individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.”

Each member of the SLT worked on their interpretation of the why alone at first and then we communicated to clarify a shared vision. While this was still a draft process, they came up with responses focussing on teachers leading the process, inquiring into their practice, and knowing how they are making a difference for their learners. These points were implicit beforehand in some of the leaders’ minds but this process brought them to the fore.

Both the principal and the DPs commented that this approach was useful to test the why. If there was not shared clarity, we would have needed to unpack this by testing assumptions and hypotheses and trying to bring cohesion.

The Golden Circle

As we moved to the next circles, there was a little confusion between the what and the how (or the how and the what) but we nutted these out together while discussing and sharing. Inadvertently, this also allowed us a way to test the why.

The how refers to the processes that need to take place. In this school, these included things such as:

  • robust inquiry into practice

  • having challenging conversations with colleagues that drive the action forward

  • being informed by data and evidence.

Some of the leaders had some of the how statements in the outer what circle. But, for example, placing ‘being informed by data’ in the what circle was too vague – my challenge to the principal and DPs was, so what would that actually look like? When we looked at the what (the practices) that would enable appraisal to be ‘informed by data’ we came up with specifics such as:

  • using multiple sources of data

  • inviting student and colleague voice which would challenge current beliefs about practice

  • interpreting and analysing a range of data about the impact of teaching.

While this list was no means exhaustive, it did start to bring some greater clarity about what the practices needed to be and why they needed to be there.

So, once the why had been agreed upon and tested (albeit in a small way), it allowed the opportunity to take the draft process to the HODs and continue to develop the how and what.

It strikes me that there are some key principles of assessment for learning which underpin this approach, the principles of clarity and purpose, an overarching sense of transparency of intent and process. Separating the what from the more abstract how and why for us led to cohesion between the action strategies and the purpose for these being implemented (or retained from the previous approaches to appraisal). Through clarifying this approach, the teachers and leaders would be able to see what was expected of them and could start to have conversations based on agreed criteria (the what and how) to see how closely this brings them to their ultimate aim – their why.

In another school, later on in the week, I was involved in a discussion with some teachers. We were talking about the nature of the PLD they were embarking on, how some generic PLD outcomes may be personalised for their school, and what was ‘on top’ for them in their practice. Overwhelmingly it was enacting the vision of the school – how to bring the why to life and see the future direction of the school play out.

Keeping the main thing the main thing is a key mantra in our work in schools. We know that it is so easy to lose sight of the goals which are trying to be enacted as schools are complex organisations. By working with the school to understand how PLD would support their why, we could co-construct the learning. By sharing this locus of control, there wasn’t a sense that the school had to fit narrow confines of PLD or that the theory for improvement that I was bringing to the table was going to be glossed over. Instead, we built the scope of the PLD together and co-constructed the how and the what.

Having the why is only the start. I have the pleasure of going to many schools through my work as an educational consultant. As I wait in school receptions, I peruse the walls of the public space. What is the mission statement, the vision for the school, the motto (in English, Latin, or Māori)? Is it visible? Who is the vision/motto encompassing? Who may feel left out?

Once I have a sense of the vision, I always aim to use this information as an anchor to place the work that I do with schools. I encourage all leaders to come back to their why – and to check whether the publicly shared why (via school motto, vision statement etc.) matches their current direction. Are you focused on two whys, or more? How does your community’s vision for your school match your strategic direction? What processes and practices are currently in place that are leading you away from your why?

Knowing the why is not enough. The harder part of leading is connecting the why and the how. We can be inspired by someone, their ideas, the vision that they have for the direction of an organisation but if there is insufficient support for people to go on that journey with the leaders, is it too pie in the sky? Maybe this tension is the real challenge of leadership – how you might support others to share the why and build the how together.

Further exploration:

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