How to walk the fine line of line management

Teachers need a line manager who will hold them to account – but they also want someone who they can collaborate with, writes principal Jo Facer. Effective line management, she says, is all about striking a balance between support and autonomy
11th September 2020, 12:01am
How To Walk The Fine Line Of Line Management


How to walk the fine line of line management

Stepping into my weekly meeting with my line manager, I prepared myself for the usual rapid-fire assessment of my shortcomings. In every meeting, she ran through a list of all the things I should have done. She had an incredible way of making me wince with just a short look and a flick of her pen.

This might sound like management from hell, but she was actually one of the best line managers I ever had. I needed someone to make me keep all my plates spinning and she was brilliant at that.

Yet my other favourite line manager was nothing like her. He didn’t run through a list of my failings every week. Instead, he’d give me a cereal bar and tell me everything that was wrong with the world of education. I might have been less productive with him, but our meetings were the highlight of my week. It didn’t really feel like management at all: more like being part of a team who allocated each other work to do.

I think the ideal line management approach incorporates elements of both of these styles: people want to be held to account, and they want someone to collaborate with.

The thing about line management is that you’re only as good at it as the people who have line-managed you. I’ve been so lucky to have had a string of amazing leaders who’ve shown me how it is done. I just copy them.

Hopefully, you’ve had some great people you can copy, too. And if not, here are some of the most important things that my line managers have taught me.

1. Make a plan

You wouldn’t turn up to a lesson and wing it, or a meeting and just “see where it goes”. So don’t turn up to line management without putting some serious thought into what you’re going to cover and how. Make a plan, even if your plan is a Post-it note.

I took to having a notebook page for each of the people I line-managed at my last school, adding anything non-urgent to that list as it came up. (My previous flaw, as a line manager, had been to fire off emails for every random thought that came to me - it’s something I’m still working on.)

Then, before the meeting, I would number the points in terms of importance. That way, if we didn’t have time to cover everything we would at least have covered the main pieces. I’d also put a code next to anything that was a “quick tick”, as I knew we could just barrel through those items.

2. Take a record

If your headteacher requires you to keep minutes of your line-management meetings, type as you go; otherwise you’re going to spend your life behind. At the same time, don’t bury yourself in your screen. The trick is to really engage with the chat and then just write “discussion on blah”.

Don’t begrudge your headteacher for wanting minutes - it’s how they keep a close handle on everything, allowing them to run the school well. And taking a record can be helpful to you, too. It makes it easy to work out if people have done what they said they were going to do - you just tick things off from a column labelled “actions” at the start of the next meeting.

Early in my career, I remember being flustered in an interview when I was asked how I held people to account. I had assumed that it was something rather big, scary and complex. It isn’t. You’ve got a list of stuff they said they would do, and you ask them if they’ve done it. If they haven’t, you do something about it. Simple.

3. Chat is sacred

Above all, though, line management is about the person - not the things and not the job. Don’t treat it purely as an opportunity to action-check or give someone a load of work. It’s also about staff having a connection with middle or senior leadership. It’s the time when they’re closest to the heart of the school, so make it about heart. Never skip the pre-chat - always make time to ask how they are. That preamble at the start? That’s crucial. That’s how I know you’re worried about your mum, or your child is sick, or that you’re thinking about moving away and we might lose you.

If you manage a lot of people and you are forgetful, take a note of their personal circumstances (which you, of course, store somewhere very private).

4. Prioritise what they think is important

I can’t count the number of times I sat in a meeting barely engaging with what my manager was saying, but instead looking anxiously at the clock ticking down because I really needed to get their approval on something urgently, and I knew this was my only chance to get it before another two weeks would go by.

Ask your people what they would like to cover, and get them to go first. This way, you value what is most important to them.

And if they have a lesson, don’t run your line management down to the minute. Let them go five or 10 minutes early to set up.

5. Talk about professional development

CPD doesn’t just mean, “What courses do you want to go on?” CPD is about how you and the member of staff see their career developing.

Talk a few times a year about their goals and ambitions, and genuinely listen. One of the most promising young men I line-managed told me frankly that he was about to get married, and his short-term goals were around having a family, rather than taking the next step up in his career.

We can assume that those we manage who are full of promise just want to go up a rung, but that is absolutely not always the case.

6. Ask for feedback

As a line manager, you have to ask for feedback - even though it often hurts. That is how you get better. You have to ask for feedback multiple times and in multiple ways, and you still won’t really get there until the relationship is solid. That’s OK - keep asking.

And when people do give you feedback, do something about it. If you think they are wrong, definitely don’t say that. Tell them that you appreciate their feedback and you will do some thinking. Then come back to them at a later point and tell them something you have done to change.

Line management is so crucial at all levels, but no one teaches you how to do it. The key is to get the balance right between support and autonomy. When people feel they have control over their jobs and can drive their career in the right direction for them, they are much more content in the workplace and so much less likely to leave.

Jo Facer is principal of Ark Soane Academy in West London

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 issue

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