Why a good leader knows when to say no to new ideas

It's easy to get carried away with an opportunity for collaboration – but ask yourself these questions before committing

Rob Ford

International schools: When a school leader should say no to network collaboration

One of the hardest tasks for any school leader is knowing how and when to say “no”.

This is especially the case when an idea for wider collaboration comes packaged with a lot of promises and a potential innovative new USP for the school.

The market in network collaborations on areas from curriculum projects to global leaders’ ambassador networks, promising a wider profile and leadership skills development, has become a very crowded place in the 2020s – and many of the collaborations are excellent.

However, dead-ends and snake-oil sales pitches abounded within this, too. The difficulty for a school leader is knowing which new idea, initiative or collaboration is worth the time and effort, and which needs a wide berth.

Deciding if a network collaboration is right for your school

These are the key questions to ask if a new idea comes along…

1. Will it benefit staff and students?

I have worked for a number of heads who simply wouldn’t allow a new external collaboration to go any further if it couldn’t be linked back to the students and their learning, and the existing direction and work of the school.  

As a young educator, I was often frustrated with this approach, but now I can look back and see the necessity of not overstretching staff, resources and time further when there is no guarantee a project or collaboration will bring benefits back to the school.

I have since led a number of key collaborations that have had real impact, changed the schools and brought extraordinary learning experiences for students and staff in schools.

But these came about because I talked it through with my colleagues, line managers and at leadership strategy meetings to ensure that we explored exactly why we were getting involved and what it could bring back to the school. 

2. Does it help us – or them?

The cold-calling email, online message or social media request can often be very flattering – especially when you are a younger school leader wanting to make your mark. 

But before going into any collaboration, look into the organisation and its track record. 

There are many very genuine and worthwhile individuals, projects and collaborations that a school should consider getting involved with, but it is worth taking your time to pause, think, research and discover if what is being offered is as interesting, innovative or impressive as it sounds. 

As a leader, we also don’t want school time and resources spent on one individual that potentially solely benefits them as an individual professionally but at the cost of their effectiveness in their actual role in school. 

3. Are there hidden costs?

There have been a number of global collaborations that I have been approached with that could have taken their strategy from a pyramid-selling scheme of the 1970s. 

The “hidden” costs of fees for some projects often appear long after any agreement is made and there are lots of examples of simple project collaborations becoming very onerous with the requirement to develop resources and presentations that burn into evenings and weekends.  

Don’t overlook this or be afraid to ask some direct questions to those wanting to partner with you. If they’re genuine, they won’t be mind being transparent.

4. Does it support your long-term goals?

I have supported a number of network collaborations in my current school that have transformed learning and positively impacted staff and students – such as those with Etwinning, COBIS, the British Council and the T4 One World network.

I am currently working on another with the Varkey Foundation/Unicef group of global school leaders. This is good professional development for me, as a school leader, and the project benefits the school – it is aligned to the vision and values of the school.

These have all worked because they aligned with the strategic, long-term planning of collaborations for our areas of development like Stem, sustainability and global citizenship, and for leadership development, staff CPD and organisational networks for international schools. 

By having these clear aims, it gets easier to understand if something will fit into the school's ongoing priorities – or if a noble idea or worthwhile initiative needs to a firm "no".

A skill to learn

Even with these clear questions to ask before making a decision, saying no is not easy.

All schools want to be outward-facing and use networks and collaborations to develop their students as engaged citizens and grow the school’s standing – whether through a partnership down the road with a charity or a global connection across time zones.

Yet for leaders tasked with myriad responsibilities, sometimes turning down ideas and initiatives, however well-meaning, is part of the job.

It can be tough but is good for our growth to learn how to say no.

Rob Ford is director of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova

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