Like naive lambs to the slaughter

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Paul Blum warns that the new manager on the block needs to beware of being too wide-eyed and innocent

New year, new management job? For the first six weeks, your mantra must be: look, listen and learn.

These first conversations with staff are about hearing their ideas and having the existing systems explained to you. It is sensible to remain very non-committal at this point and go with the flow.

Being new will mean that you have a freshness and innocence of the ways in which business gets done and how people interact. You will not understand the repetitive jealousies, rivalries, nor the constructive relationships of the school.

In this situation your innocent enthusiasms can make little tweaks to existing systems, which staff cannot resist because they know you have not got immersed in the local politics and cannot, as yet, have an axe to grind against anybody.

One case in point was when I was line manager to a head of year. In our first meeting she went through a catalogue of problems about school uniform, not just for her year group but across the whole school.

Because I was blissfully unaware that her obsession with uniform was part of her wider critique of the inadequacies of the senior management team, I persuaded her to take a whole-school lead on uniform enforcement.

She was taken by surprise at the prospect of getting a lead role, and I was able to negotiate an extra management point for her. Almost by accident, I had stumbled on a solution to a problem that had been festering for years.

There was no better person in this institution to enforce the uniform but nobody had thought of offering her an opportunity to do this, because they had been put off by the way she had used uniform problems to criticise senior management.

Your newness and naivety can lead you to ask the unthinkable question and broker the unlikely solution. These may have been under people's noses all along, but concealed by a history of antagonism.

However, some staff and pupils can use your initial newness and lack of background knowledge to "try it on". The obvious pupil action is to use the fact that you do not know who they are to defy you in a crowd-control situation in a corridor or lunch queue, maybe even to run away from the scene of the crime.

Most staff around you will step in and help out, but others may entertain themselves by watching your first public struggles to assert your authority.

Some staff will exploit your newness to school systems in other ways. When I was the school timetabler in my second senior post, I inherited a timetable that had been written the previous summer by somebody who had left the school.

That did not stop the head of science coming to see me to get a re-room.

His request seemed perfectly logical as he wanted to swap a non-specialist room for a science lab - except that he failed to tell me that the lab had been given over to a technology class because in Year 8 technology, there were fewer teachers and therefore much bigger classes than in science.

Then there were the staff who asked me probing questions about what they should do about the implementation of this or that school policy. Obviously I did not know the answer as yet, so when I stalled on an answer on the basis of my limited knowledge, they were to quick to comment: "But you're the deputy head."

In the first weeks I regularly failed to answer questions, but often promised to get back to a person later. I made a really big effort to stick to this commitment.

Equally, in all my senior management jobs with a new head, I tried to deliver a result quickly and effectively on something that I had been asked to do, to give early signals that I was a safe pair of hands.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in a north London secondary

Key points

* Do not commit yourself to anything with staff until you have a full understanding of its implications.

* Get back to people when you have promised to. Start to establish a reputation for "my word is my bond".

* Try and meet a few early deadlines from your head to show you are a person who can be relied on to deliver.

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