Jill Kratochvil had been headteacher at Five Acre Wood special school in Maidstone, Kent, for 10 year years before she decided to examine her leadership skills.
Then an education adviser from her local authority asked if she would like to attend the headteacher training programme. After a four-day residential course, Jill was introduced to a partnering system. She would meet termly with a senior manager from a local firm to discuss issues of mutual interest.
But in contrast to the old model of mentoring, which many heads found patronising, this partnering programme is about exchanging ideas - frank discussion between equals. As the recent Hay McBer research showed, chief executives in the private sector have much to learn from headteachers.
Jill's partner was Tim Ealey, who works as UK human resources director for the paper manufacturer Kimberley Clark.
"We talk about anything and everything," Jill says. "It's a great help to be completely open and not feel that Tim has a hidden agenda other than a genuine interest in sharing his experience."
Tim's first visit to a special school was an eye-opener: "My first impressions of Jill's school were of total amazement, of a feeling of inadequacy, because I was just so impressed with what the teachers were doing there. I'd never seen anything like it before. I've been in my daughter's mainstream school, but never a special school - what the teachers were achieving with disabled pupils amazed me."
He too is keen to point out how their discussions take place on an equal footing: "What the sessions have not been is directional. Or advisory. I feel I'm providing a non-educational outlet for her to talk to, and to give her a non-biased third-party view on a wide range of subjects from education to career development."
Tim was especially interested in staffing issues. Jill's school has an unusual staff-pupil ratio, with 63 pupils to 40 members of staff. As the school had a delegated staff budget and limited support from the local authority, Tim advised keeping a close eye on absences and staff sickness. Jill says: "He was very aware that heads have financial respnsibility for recruitment, staff training, appraisal, and professional development."
Tim approved of Jill's open management style. "Leadership for me is adding value to the group of people you are working with and encouraging and helping them add the greatest value they can," he says.
There are no hierarchies and a flat management structure means people work as a team. Jill adopted this style from day one at the school and has always run by consensus. "I involve everyone in the decision-making process," she says. "We have open communications. It's very much a team approach; the way staff work together has been highly praised by Ofsted."
The pair's most significant common ground is in performance management, where all heads must now involve themselves. Profits and productivity, above all else, tend to drive performance management at Kimberley Clark. Yet Jill and Tim realised that "outputs" for teachers in special needs could not be compared to workers in the commercial field. A softer approach was needed.
"Pupil progress in a special school isn't a question of saying you'll improve national curriculum levels from one year to the next," says Jill. "Tim focused on the need to help staff with their career development."
So are there any disagreements? "We've never had any," says Jill. "We've never worked to a formal agenda, but we've had some lively discussions."
She adds that the partnership has boosted her confidence in the decisions she has made since the partnership got under way.
And what has Tim learnt?
"I've learnt that there's a whole lot of things out there that I had no appreciation of," he says. "The role of the headteacher is not simply about education - it's about running a mini-business.
He adds:"At Kimberley Clark we are revamping the way we interface with the community. Rather than send a cheque willy-nilly, we're offering our expertise to schools.
"Last year, we started working with Business in the Community and partnered five of our senior managers with local headteachers. We're now in the process of getting another three managers involved."