Business is good - but on whose account?;Management amp; Finance;Update

12th November 1999 at 00:00
When business people act as mentors to heads, don't both sides benefit from the experience? Surely industry is not acting out of pure altruism? Gerald Haigh investigates.

The commonly accepted wisdom is that headteachers have a lot to learn from business. Government and big business certainly seemed to think so, as schools moved early in this decade into budget control and marketing.

Then, when the Leadership Programme for Serving Heads (LPSH) was set up in 1988 by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA)last year, a requirement was included that heads should make a year-long link with a business manager.

Howard Green, no longer with the agency, but still advising the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) on leadership, was the officer responsible. For him, it was not a question of heads sitting at the feet of business people, a belief of which the business community had to be disabused. "Five years ago, it was seen as being about supporting schools," says Mr Green. "There was a widely held view that they (business managers) were going to help with the business side of the job."

Unsurprisingly, heads believe that they are already doing a challenging management job. Running a good school, driving up achievement, holding together a community of perhaps 100 adults and 1,500 adolescent children - it all calls for a significant battery of personal and professional skills. Powerful vidence that they are right emerged from the management consultants, Hay McBer, who helped with plan the leadership programme.

"Hay McBer has a database of the key performance characteristics of over 40,000 senior managers. The best heads were performing at as high level as any other occupational sector," says Mr Green. "Schools are some of the most complex of all organisations, and a high performing school is an exemplar of any sort, because of the multi-faceted nature of the job.

"We quite deliberately chose the title Partners in Leadership. 'Mentoring' has the ring of being helped by someone more expert," he adds. "The data, though, supported the view that heads were going to go in as equal partners."

Equal they may be, but their working environments can be a long way apart. Max Hill, head of Sandy Upper School in Bedfordshire, says that the day to day life of his LPSH business partner, Colin Stringer of Cap Gemini, a consultancy, is "a world away from dealing with Little Jimmy". Mr Hill describes a Cap Gemini office in which people work independently in semi-open plan partitioned spaces, senior managers not immediately distinguishable from others, all free to work and be judged by their results.

"It's much more flattened out," Mr Hill says. "Middle and senior managers have areas of responsibility and they go away and do it. The whole thing operates through technology - there are no secretaries any more."

However, there is a contrast in schools. "It's become more centralised. What we are being told is that we have to be constantly monitoring this and that and the other. I think it's clear that in the last decade or so, in terms of management structures, schools and companies have moved almost diametrically in opposite directions."

Mr Stringer bears out Mr Hill's account of this contrast. "Quite frankly," he says, "I was flabbergasted how varied the things were that he had to do, and by how he handled some of the issues thrown at him."

Are these partnerships a waste of time then? The perceptive answer is that the way these two leaders have already, in a short acquaintance, analysed each other's jobs is a sign that the process can encourage reflection and what one business manager after another described to me as, "out of the box thinking". This is exactly how Mr Green envisages the scheme working: "It provides for each of them a confidential, non-involved sounding board - an opportunity to talk with a person of equivalent seniority about issues of leadership and management. A number of key elements are generic across sectors - change, motivation of staff, team building, securing a focus on high performance."

So, what Messrs Stringer and Hill have done, rather than dwell on the differences, is set out to find points of contact. To help them, they have designed a visual tool which they describe as a "partnership dashboard". On one side of this diagram are listed the five most important areas for successful headship, defined in the National Standards for Headteachers. On the other side, the five areas are translated into generic "business speak".

So, for example, "strategic development of the school" on one side becomes "innovation and contribution to shaping the business" on the other.

Messrs Hall and Stringer intend to score themselves on these and then to look at where there is what Mr Stringer calls: "a downward flow from one side to the other - so if one side scores an eight and the other a two, then that's something we can look at."

Heads certainly value the opportunity to talk with someone from the world outside education, but who is also accustomed to management issues and problems.

Joye Manyon at Camelot Primary in Peckham, south east London - partnered with a senior Shell manager in a scheme that preceded the LPSH - speaks of:

"having somebody there to talk things through and bounce ideas off - somebody listening".

Jane Fulford of Winton Primary in Islington, north London, who worked with a KPMG manager, agrees. "It was the best bit of professional development I've had for years - and it came free. It was incredibly useful to have someone from outside. Heads are very isolated, the only people they have on the same level are other heads - and they have their own problemsI To have someone to offload to and exchange ideas with was very supportive."

So is it a two-way exchange?

Mr Green feels that it has taken some time for business partners to move away from "mentoring" mode and to accept equal partnership. "There is still work to be done on both sides, convincing both heads and business people," he says, "I think we are still in the midst of a mini culture-shift."

This may be why one has to probe the business partners a little to find a straight answer to the question: "What's in it for you?" They do not always find it easy to list the concrete gains. Jude Chin, for example, a partner at KPMG, who worked with Ms Fulford at Winton Primary says: "It probably is going a bit far to say I've learned better ways of doing things from looking in detail at education."

However, he did go on to say: "Any insight into another business is valuable. It's quite a challenge to use the experience you've gained from working in an international business where money is no problem and to see how that experience can help a primary head in a smaller, resource-starved environment."

So is there added value for KPMG then? He believes there is.

Jude Chin's job is concerned with supporting business mergers, acquisitions and flotations. It calls for flexible thinking and the ability to make good decisions quickly. For him, the wider his experience of all kinds of management, the better. "The accumulation and application of knowledge makes me more valuable, and if I'm more valuable then the firm benefits."

To hear this is to realise that in business today, "broadening your experience" is seen not as a woolly catchphrase, but as an essential part of professional development. The ubiquitous "out of the box" concept is just part of this.

David York, head of reward and employee relations at Bass, the brewers, says of his work with heads: "It got me out of my box and made me think differently. I've been at Bass for 25 years and you get immersed in the process of the organisation. You get better at doing things through widening your experiences." Business management, he points out, has changed out of all recognition during his time. "So if your job faces you with challenges that are changing, it's helpful to see how someone else is dealing with changes," he says.

Mr Stringer says much the same: "You can pay to send a manager on a course, but by actually talking to someone and watching them doing management in a different way you can (here it comes) get completely out of the box."

Christopher Baker, corporate strategy director of retailers Littlewoods, chairman of the Partners in Leadership steering group who has been working with a Birkenhead headteacher for nearly a year, says: "For any business person to talk to someone who has reached the top of another profession is going to be useful - to see how they approach problems and manage time."

Peter Brereton, former director of education at Business in the Community which brokers the LPSH partnerships, puts this case in straight career developmental terms: "In business there are no clear career patterns anymore. People have to build a portfolio of employability skills. One of the key skills of senior managers now is coaching and mentoring. Partnering a headteacher gives them a relatively safe environment to practice those skills."

There is, he says, also an issue to do with the perception of what "mentoring" means to business managers. "In education, the tendency is to think of someone who is failing being mentored by someone who is successful. In business, it is the high fliers who are mentored to speed their development."

What's in it for the head?

The business partners - bearing out Howard Green's assessment - tend to see themselves in the role of the non-judgmental outside observer who picks up on things that the head either has not seen or has taken for granted. They invariably, for example, want the school to blow its own trumpet more than it does.

Tim Morrison, financial services general manager at Shell International on London's South Bank, working with Joye Manyon of Camelot Primary says: "The local authority, the governors - they all have a direct interest in how the school is doing, whereas I have no axe to grind." He became interested in the importance of giving parents confidence and faith in the school, "so they would have personal pride that their children were at Camelot".

Of Joye Manyon he says: "She is self-effacing, reluctant to boast." Together they worked on a programme to promote the school and make it more accessible to parents; helping them to know who the teachers were. "And trying to name as many children as possible individually in communications to parents."

A lot of Mr Morrison's time, however, has been spent in just listening: "I might sometimes say three sentences in a one-hour meeting." Bearing out Peter Brereton's judgment of how business managers perceive the importance of mentoring, Mr Morrison is deeply interested in the subject and has his own executive coach.

By the same token, though, he understands the need to go cautiously: "I'm going to staff meetings to observe how they function, and then see whether I can help the head with organisational development. I don't know where it might lead." Interestingly, his ideas mirror those of heads who have turned round failing schools.

Jude Chin at KPMG shares Tim Morrison's feeling that schools could have more confidence in their achievements. He is astonished, for example, by the way that league table comparisons between schools take no account of "added value". Both he and Mr Morrison are adamant that similar comparisons in the business world are done on the basis of much more sophisticated data so that the judgments are as realistic as possible, and genuine achievement can be celebrated.

"I was immensely impressed with what was going on, yet if you look at the raw data it doesn't give a true impression," says Jude Chin. "This is a London primary school where 26 languages are spoken, and what is quite apparent is the benefit the children gain having perhaps started with zero English, or from not even having been in school before."

You get the feeling that some business partners might be chomping a little at the bit. They are convinced that they could have a real effect but, because they are intelligent people who have risen to the top, they know that they have to go very cautiously.

Mr Chin, for example, has some very definite views: "There's the whole of setting standards for teachers and performance measurement. In the service industry everyone has clear objectives as to what they are to achieve - there's a structure that rewards excellence. A commercial operation wouldn't stand for poor performance. The teaching profession hasn't really explored that, it's always been seen as too difficult. Also I don't think that heads and heads of department are trained to deal with interpersonal conflicts."

The headmanager match is vital. If it is not, then all bets are off. "The need is for people at peer level - someone managing a team of at least a dozen to 20 staff," says Peter Brereton.

Lester Davies of Chadsmead Primary, Lichfield, Staffordshire, who has worked with managers at Bass on an Heads Teachers and Industry leadership programme, supports this: "It is best when the business person is really committed and is of a similar level of managerial leadership - in size of budget, number of people."

There's probably even more to it than that. Christopher Baker of Littlewoods, reinforcing the findings of Hay McBer, points out that heads on LPSH are already very able professionals. Heads, he points out: "Are intelligent, stimulating people. Those on the leadership programme are the ones within that elite who are interested in furthering their career."

A successful head needs to be paired with an able, intelligent and thoughtful business manager if the partnership is to have real benefit. The obvious danger is that in the search for enough partners - 3,500 will be needed in the current school year - there will be compromises. If there are too many unsatisfactory matches, then the whole programme's credibility comes into question.

2JTES school management UPDATE november 12J1999 Jane Fulford of Winton Primary and Jude Chin of KPMG both benefited from working together. As Ms Fulford says: "It was the best bit of professional development I've had for years - and it came free."

november 12J1999 TES school management UPDATEJ3 * 'It's important to have somebody there to talk things through and bounce ideas off - somebody listening' - Joye Manyon photograph: JACKY CHAPMAN Photograph: GEOFF FRANKLIN

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