It really is all about who you know

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Successful modern leadership means building contacts, says Phil Revell

How connected are you? Good leaders will have some kind of connection to everyone in their school, but how those contacts are used is crucial.

That's the message in a radical view of school leadership outlined in a research study by the Hay Group.

Schools need connected leaders, say researchers, people who achieve results through persuasion and personality, rather than by decree and dictat.

"Many of those who we now expect to lead - the new generation of project managers, taskforce leaders, co-ordinators - do not have obvious formal authority," says Russell Hobby, who led the Hay researchers and is head of education for the group.

"These people don't control budgets; they can't hire and fire; they can't even direct people's time, because those people probably report to someone else. It can be uncomfortable; they have all the accountability of a traditional manager and none of the resources," he said.

A lot of the everyday contacts in a school don't happen in formal meetings.

There are conversations on the corridors or in the staffroom; decisions are made on the hoof. Traditional leadership through line managers with defined authority, what some people call "command and control", isn't as effective in this kind of fluid relationship. Leaders have to persuade people to join their project or curriculum initiative.

"If you want to do something new, something uncomfortable or unproven, people have a choice. They will ask, 'Why should I do this?'," says the Hay report.

The Hay Group are management consultants with a lot of experience of the school system. The HayMcBer model of teacher effectiveness is well known and the Hay classroom diagnostic tool - a guide for people observing lessons - has been used in more than 2,000 schools.

For the connected leadership study the Hay researchers interviewed more than 1,000 teachers, who were then asked to keep a contact diary detailing the professional connections that took place during the working day. A connection could be a conversation, a phone call, a memo, meeting or email.

It could be short or long, vital or trivial, formal or informal.

People who were extremely well-connected were called "hubs" or connected leaders, and it was the influence of these people that the Hay Group researchers found was so important.

"Connected leaders in our sample are influential," says Mr Hobby. "People choose to work with them."

The researchers found hubs who were "transmitters" of information and influence and others who were "receivers". There were "power cliques" whose role could be crucial, and "isolates", tenuously connected into the main flow of information through the school, sometimes through a single individual.

Heads who took part in the research were impressed with the results.

"This was a really useful piece of research; it has real messages for leadership and school improvement," said Christine Graham, headteacher of Falla Park primary in Gateshead.

"It throws up real flows of communication," said David Anstead, head of Mill Hill school in Derbyshire. "I found that my deputy was the most connected member of the leadership team. When he got a job elsewhere, we knew that we were losing someone who played a key communications role."

Mr Hobby argues that schools need to find who the best connected leaders are, then use them to build networks to drive change. Heads can use a well-connected leader to bring people in.

"Heads may forget that there is a social side to change," he says.

Making connections, becoming a hub, isn't something that everyone can do.

Mr Hobby estimates that about 10 per cent of any average population are going to be very good connectors, with a further 15 per cent as good connectors. A large fringe group may be very badly connected. The Hay study revealed that up to 40 per cent of a typical school staff exist on the margins, isolated from the main flow of communication.

"That does matter; heads who want to change their school should be worried about that lack of cohesion if it exists," says Mr Hobby.

There are a number of things the Hay Group does not claim for their study.

The report does not claim that traditional, hierarchical management is obsolete, or that everyone could and should be networking, or that connected leadership is always positive and useful.

"Experienced heads will know that 'power cliques' may not necessarily exercise their influence for the good of the school," says Mr Hobby. He also warns against the assumption that well-connected hubs will usually be drawn from the senior management team.

"Non-teaching staff are absolutely crucial and people with high levels of connectivity can be found at every level," he says.

Both the heads The TES spoke to felt that exploiting their school's connectedness was something that most heads would do after two or three years in post.

Christine Graham argued that new heads needed to establish their authority in a school.

"Your staff expect you to make an impact," she said. But after that initial period of command and control the style of leadership has to change.

"After around 18 months in my school I was trying to create leadership at all levels, distributed leadership. I was quite anxious that the vision didn't become diluted because of the high turnover of staff we were experiencing," she said.

In that second phase of headship, it is crucial to know the movers and shakers in a school.

"The survey changed the make-up of teams at our school," said Mrs Graham. "

It identified staff who were well-connected because their experience was respected."

She found that her key stage co-ordinators were very well- connected and she has now made them both assistant heads.

"And we now have a teaching assistant on our leadership team," she said.

Mr Hobby believes that it should be possible for most schools to carry out a simplified version of the connectedness study, and he thinks they should.

The Hay Group study points out that successful schools share ideas rapidly and effectively across the whole school. They encourage many people to be leaders - to have a point of view and to mobilise others in pursuit of that view.

In order to do that schools need to know who their key communicators are, and how communication can be encouraged.

"Schools need to know how this works - so that people can connect," said Mr Hobby.

'Connected Leadership - a model of influence for those without power' - The Hay

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