When Kathryn Horan took on her first leadership role in 2014, she found herself facing an unexpected challenge. The newly appointed early-years leader wasn’t overwhelmed with workload or struggling with senior management – instead, her long-standing teammates were the problem.
“I went from being part of a team to leading that team,” she explains. “I found that people I had previously considered to be friends were shutting me out, talking about me when I wasn’t around and generally being very difficult to manage.”
Horan tried to rebuild a friendly rapport with the team but, after several attempts and little progress, she accepted that the relationships had simply changed – and that meant adjusting her expectations.
A turn for the worse
While getting a promotion is overwhelmingly positive, there can sometimes be fallout in the form of relationships with colleagues taking a turn for the worse. What should you do if this happens to you as a new middle leader?
For Horan, a college fellow for the Primary Science Teacher Trust and a national expert Stem teacher at Greenhill Primary School in Leeds, a change in mindset was needed. “Once I’d come to terms with the fact that these people were never going to be my friends again in the same way, managing them became a lot simpler,” she says.
“I stopped worrying about what they thought of me as a person and it became easier to delegate and have high expectations of them.”
But even when your new role is at a different school, there can still be big interpersonal issues to resolve, as Rosy Hill discovered when she became head of English at Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire.
“When I got the job, I found out that one of the guys in the team had applied a couple of years before and not got it, so he was quite disenfranchised,” she recalls.
“He couldn’t bear me at first because I represented the thing that he’d gone for and hadn’t got.”
Hill decided to tackle the issue head on. After several long discussions with this team member, she discovered that there were underlying issues in his personal life making him doubt himself. “It was an interesting emotional journey for both of us,” she says.
Making time for these one-on-one conversations is key, agrees Emma Smith, head of history at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. Her first middle leadership role was as a head of department at another school.
“Reassure people that the changes you’re making are beneficial for them and for the students. You can’t go in all guns blazing,” she says. “Have a clear plan of what you want to achieve but work with the members of your department in order to do that.”
Rather than making big changes in your first term, Smith advises focusing on understanding the existing systems and how they work.
Build trust within your team
Letting your team know that you are there to work with them and not against them should also be a priority, according to Hill.
“When I joined, I was the youngest person in the department but also the head of the department,” she recalls.
“The team didn’t know me, so the trust had to be built. They had been under scrutiny for relatively weak results the previous few years, so they were quite defensive, tired and harassed by the time I got there.”
However, Hill quickly realised that the way to get her new team on board was to show them that they were valued. She did this by finding out what their concerns were and by providing specific solutions to the problems.
Once she had proven that she was there to help, leading the department became a whole lot easier.
Horan took a similar approach to winning the respect of her team, though it took what she calls “sheer dogged determination”. “I found that the more I appeared in their classrooms with advice and resources they could use, the more they began to listen to what I had to say,” she explains.
Whether your new team members have been your friends for years or are complete strangers to you, it is clear that a positive response to your promotion cannot be taken as a given.
Rather, you will need to spend time developing relationships with your colleagues and making it clear that they are your top priority.
To achieve this, Hill suggests that your leadership should be driven by a simple maxim (which she describes as “the best advice I was ever given”) – to always put people before paper.
“You have to look after the humans before the data,” she says.
“There’s no point coming in and making a whole load of administrative changes when you don’t know your staff.
“You need to get to know the individuals and look after them; it’s only when people feel supported that they will pull in the same direction.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer