Play a mean second fiddle

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Paul Blum continues his series on coping with life in the leadership team

Headteachers are like pebbles on the beach - they come in all shapes and sizes. The schools they lead are a reflection of their strengths and weaknesses, which their leadership team must learn to blend in with.

The relationship between you and your head will depend on your inter-personal chemistry. In one school you could be pressed into acting like the head's personal assistant; in another you could have autonomy and a chance to use your initiative. With some you will feel like a dogsbody; with others your relationship will result in a brilliant partnership.

You will know whether you have a good partnership with your current head if you can answer "Yes" to most of the following statements:

* You understand how to get the best out of your head, and vice versa. This means that both sides understand each other's strengths and weaknesses.

* You stick up for your head in their absence and when working with third parties, and vice versa.

* You feel comfortable enough to explore issues with the head honestly, rather than telling them what they want to hear.

* You can give the head reliable advice on what the staff are thinking and how they would react to particular initiatives.

* You meet regularly and discuss fully the management issues that concern the school.

* In these meetings, you are totally confident that you can come up with ideas and initiatives yourself and that they will be appreciated.

* Whenever you are unsure about what to do with regard to particular issues, you feel comfortable asking for advice and guidance from your head.

There are always positive ways to manage this relationship. First, and most important, is to make it as constructive as possible, otherwise you cannot have any power or influence in the school as one of its senior managers.

Most heads will try to be reasonable with a new member of the leadership team -they need a productive relationship with you as much as you need it with them. If you're lucky, the head will have been a deputy or assistant head recently enough to recall the difficulties of the job. But if there are problems, it will be a bigger challenge for you to "manage up" the hierarchy to make the relationship work than it is for the head to "manage down".

If the relationship with your head becomes difficult, your effort to improve it will be an excellent learning experience that will prepare you for managing any staffing situation you might face in future.

There are many practical things you can do to nurture this relationship.

Try to meet your important deadlines and work through initiatives that you are responsible for with attention to detail so that these are robust enough to stand up to any criticism that might be put forward.

As in all school situations, be ready to compromise on your original plan without taking personal offence. Over time, however well you work, the head will discover your weaknesses, and the best way to deal with this is not to cover them up or deny that they exist but to take responsibility for them and show a willingness to work on them.

Everybody has tasks they don't like doing or find difficult to do well.

What your head will be looking for from you is a self-awareness on the "wobbly" areas and a willingness to admit to a mistake before trying to do better next time.

Sometimes the relationship will be put under strain over a clash of principles. When this happens, it is best to disagree with the head in private, not in public. In a large secondary school, private means in a one-to-one line-management meeting, not in the context of the senior management team.

Sticking to collegial loyalty is vital for the unity and effectiveness of the overall leadership of the school. The staff need to see the head and the leadership team working in harmony. By and large, I have always tried to save my energy for arguments on "big things" and support heads I have worked for on all the little ones.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in a London school

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