Being people centred and family friendly helps college head Ros Micklem to get the best out of her staff and the best for the students, Katrina Tweedie writes
Ros Micklem is apologetic about being slightly late. A friend who has just returned from holiday was on the telephone relaying every detail and Ros, typically, didn't want to be rude and cut her friend short.
This good natured tolerance, not to mention diplomacy, is one of the reasons the principal of Cardonald College in Glasgow beat hundreds of nominees to be declared the best boss in Britain, 2004, by the charity Working Families and Lloyds TSB. Ros is the first Scottish winner of the annual competition and the first from the education sector.
While other further education colleges are awash with disillusioned lecturers and financial woes, Cardonald College is flourishing. It received an excellent report from HM Inspectorate of Education in April, the teacher-student relations are strong, staff turnover and absenteeism is low and Ros's relationship with the trade unions is so healthy that she even goes hill walking with the branch secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.
Ros, 48, is the daughter of a United Reform Church minister. She studied at Oxford, Leicester and London universities and after posts in the Wirral and Enfield, north London, moved to Glasgow when she was offered her first principal's job. It was almost a return to her roots: her mother was born and brought up in Dumfries and Ros spent most of her childhood holidays in Scotland.
"When I got the job, I came over one Saturday to have a look at the college and stopped in the car park before a very grey and intimidating building," she says. "I looked at it and thought 'What have I done? This is really frightening.' But as soon as I started getting to know the people, that just disappeared."
Seven years later, the grey exterior has gone too under pale cladding.
Inside, Cardonald College is a model of people-centred policies promoting a work-life balance. The college has a health day once a year, when the 600 staff are invited to leave their desks and try aromatherapy and relaxation classes or workshops on how to project their voices, think positively or sleep better. Ever approachable, Ros - who admits she is not a fan of holistic therapies - last time joined the technicians, lecturers, administrators and cleaners at a yoga class. It is this relaxed, some would say laissez-faire, management style that has won her fans.
Her wholehearted support for family friendly policies reflects her own struggle for a work-life balance with her partner, Mike, whom she met eight years ago. He was working at the Centre for Research in Primary Science and Technology at Liverpool University at the time, but though he still does a bit of consultancy, his career has taken a backseat for Ros.
"Mike doesn't work full time because we decided it would be a good balance for us if I am doing the demanding job that he has a bit more flexibility," she says.
Tolerance for flexibility is one of her strengths and has helped to put Cardonald College at the forefront of implementing family friendly policies. Of five FE colleges chosen to pilot paid parental, personal and domestic leave, Cardonald is the only one with each recommendation still in force.
"Other colleges seem to have more bother than we do," says John Cassidy, the EIS branch secretary. "We have a good open policy and as soon as there is a problem you can approach management and discuss it.
"We have quite heated debates sometimes but issues are left at the negotiation table on a Friday and we can all still hill walk together on Sunday."
Ros appreciates that while union and management representatives are often opposed, they are all working for the same goals.
She does not get too friendly with her staff. "I see myself as a colleague but I'm not matey. I think some staff would say they don't see enough of me eating in the canteen, mostly because I'm too busy, but I do try to walk around and chat to people as much as I can and I'm pretty open about what's going on in my life.
"I think if I can say my dad died (as he did last year) and it's been pretty awful, then I think that gives a legitimacy to people who are having their own work-life issues.
"But obviously there are times when you need to have some distance.
Sometimes people need to know that they are referring things up to someone."
Cardonald College is best known for high achieving advanced level work in design, media, electronics and engineering, but it is a community college with a strong base in an area which includes Govan and Greater Pollok, two social inclusion partnership areas. It is increasingly multi-cultural, with about 10 per cent of its students from non white ethnic minorities and a number of asylum seekers, and it runs extensive outreach projects, helping the unemployed back into work, for instance. Ros has her work cut out keeping everything running smoothly.
But, despite the long working hours - she won't admit how many - and high stress levels, she appears amazingly laid back. Her three and a half mile cycle to and from work every day and taking buses to external meetings helps to keep her grounded. And when work niggles, such as balancing the books, keep her awake at night, she reads herself to sleep with Ian Rankin detective stories.
Keeping track of staff morale is taken seriously by Ros, whose philosophy is that a happy staff equals happy students. "We had a gut reaction that morale was good but unless you know why, you can't nurture the things that are making it work," she says.
Exit interviews are conducted to establish if there are any problems when staff leave and turnover and absenteeism is checked. Ros even goes as far as checking attendance at social functions. "If someone suddenly stopped going to the Christmas lunch, that might be a sign that something is wrong," she says.
Ros's approach is less a paranoid monitoring of staff and more a comprehensive awareness of their main issues. "I'm interested in staff," she says,"but in my view they are a means to an end. What I'm really interested in is learners.
"If you are in this business, what gets you really excited is learners succeeding and having good experiences. To me, the best way to get that, particularly when you have a wide diversity of learners and some who have had very negative feelings about their education in the past, is to have a very positive culture, which you can't get unless you treat your staff well.
"So we have made a lot of effort to get a common understanding of what we are here to do, to be inclusive and enable people to achieve.
"One of the challenges of managing a college, particularly one where things are working quite well, is how you keep on innovating, getting new ideas, and keep everybody learning," adds Ros.
"I don't think it would be particularly good for the college for me to stay a further 12 years because I think an organisation needs a change, but I have no plans yet to move on. We'll see what happens but for now I'm enjoying myself."
ROS'S MANAGEMENT TIPS
* Be true to yourself. Don't try to conform to anyone's stereotype of what managers ought to be like. Develop a style that is right for you. This implies understanding yourself: make time to reflect on your feelings, motivation and performance.
* Listen. Keep an open mind about what people are trying to tell you and avoid assuming that you know what they think. Be willing to change in response to what you hear.
* Be open and trustworthy. Sometimes you cannot share information but people should know that nothing is kept hidden without good reason and you never intentionally mislead.
* Do what you say you will do and don't make promises you can't keep.
* Respect colleagues as individuals with different personalities and life circumstances; value their diversity.
* Be impartial and avoid any appearance of allegiance to particular groups or individuals, so that no one has grounds for questioning the fairness of your decisions.
* Lead by example and live out the values you advocate. Be seen to follow your own guidelines to others.
* Pay attention to process as well as outcomes and to the intangible as well as the measurable consequences of management actions.
* Delegate effectively: respect others' skills and expertise. Have confidence to acknowledge there are things other people can do better than you. Allow people to take risks and, if things go wrong, seek support without feeling that they have failed; and give credit for success.
* Never stop learning. This means not only being open to new ideas, but also willing to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.