Why there is real power in middle management

Middle leaders often feel ‘trapped’ with pressure from above and below - but they have real power, says Marsida Horeshka

Marsida Horeshka

Middle management: Why middle leaders wield real power in FE colleges

Every so often, I undertake the task of envisaging my future career journey. Sometimes that can be quite a hands-on project, through a vision board. For many years, the ultimate goal, which is visually presented in my mind as the point where the career path meets the mountains, used to have me as a senior leader in education. I have always wanted to make a difference and only the power of a senior leader would make that possible, I used to think. Today, I do not see becoming a senior leader as my ultimate goal and neither do I think that power is what you need to make a difference.

In a recent webinar organised by the Women’s Leadership Network recently, Lou Mycroft referred to Latin terms when speaking about the notion of power: "There is potentia and potestas," she said, "both are translated as ‘power’ in the English language, but the former is about influence and the latter about status." What I had been thinking about the role of a middle leader could finally be explained quite simply.

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As middle leaders, we often feel "trapped" in the middle, with pressure coming from above as well as from those we line manage. We are often merely messengers of important decisions being made at the top, which we must convey to staff and get the latter to buy into. This is bound to happen when the potestas you hold is not enough to allow you to make the decisions in the first place, but the task becomes even more difficult if you are not involved in decision making at all. However, middle leaders hold a lot of potentia; they are closer to teachers and can transform culture.

How middle leaders can transform college culture

With the support of two wonderful colleagues at work, my line manager and my counterpart, we have been doing just that. We have put teachers and their wellbeing first, by focusing on solutions rather than issues with decisions made at the top. Examples include learning walks that have taken part during lockdown. We have supported them by emphasising their benefits to teachers. For me personally, this has meant sharing a video message where I go through why and how learning walks can be beneficial to teachers and their learners, while also personalising my approach and giving the whole process a supportive flavour.

After learning walks, I offered all teachers to take part in a one-to-one coaching session with me; a session where we plan for the future, rather than focusing on the past and what went wrong. That practically means planning a future lesson together but also discussing how they can achieve what they want to achieve in their professional life. All teachers who have taken part in a coaching session following a learning walk have expressed finding it beneficial and, of course, it has been a pleasure finding out interesting facts that I never knew about them.

Ideas rooms

We have taken this a step further and opened up "ideas rooms" at work. I cannot take credit for the "ideas room" concept; it was invented by Lou Mycroft, based on Thinking Environment principles and components, created by Nancy Kline. They run once a week, online, and everyone is welcome. We follow a specific structure, which means we start with "how are you and how’d you like to progress your ideas in this space?", and, after listening carefully to what all of us have to say, breakout rooms are formed and ideas are thought through, enriched with solutions and even more ideas.

"This is a great way to share ideas", "this has replaced the invaluable conversations we normally have in the staffroom", "this gives me a sense of belonging": this is just some of the feedback. Furthermore, one of the suggestions offered by staff in the ideas rooms has been to make available a drop-in session every Tuesday for half an hour to ask questions. We have now been doing that for weeks and several staff members have had their questions answered.

This is just the beginning of a culture-transforming journey and there is so much more I am planning to do as a middle leader for the benefit of staff and students. I know that many other middle leaders work towards the same goal and are aware that they are a crucial element in organisational culture. Senior leaders may have the status, but middle leaders can be influencers. Investing in ensuring that middle leaders have the skills and knowledge to be the catalysts for change that they have the potential to be is crucial and the Leading from the Middle programme, as well as AP Connect, both funded by the Education and Training Foundation, are a great move in the positive direction.

Marsida Horeshka is a teaching and learning Manager for maths and science at a college in the West Midlands

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