Whingers do better than the spinners

Paul Blum

In the first of a new series, Paul Blum describes the senior manager's role

Managing the middle managers is like holding the snooker cue extension, while another player takes the shot at the ball.

The relationships you build with heads of department are not as daily and direct as you will have been used to, when you were a middle manager with a team of teachers yourself.

Now, you are often listening to what heads of department say they are doing with their own teams of staff. Line management meetings with them become the opportunity to chart their progress in interactions with others.

You work by orchestrating their work, for the most part letting them get on with something but occasionally prompting them to do it differently or steering them more insistently in a different direction.

The job requires a sophisticated blend of skills, the most vital being varying levels of supervision. You need to know when to hold on to leadership of an issue as the senior manager, by structuring the steps of an intervention, and when to let go completely and hand over all the initiative and judgement to your colleague, simply keeping a watching eye on what they are doing.

So much of my day as a deputy head is spent following an account of what other middle managers are doing directly with their teams. The narrative you listen to, and occasionally attempt to shape, can be distorted in a number of unhelpful ways.

When you start to build relationships with the staff, you begin to learn the pitfalls of following their personal narratives.

I have had to become an interpreter of stories, proficient at conducting different types of "reality checks", based on my knowledge of their individual personalities.

Some middle managers need a "positive spin reality check". They always tell it like it is all happening perfectly. I used to meet a head of year who made me feel very content. Any question I asked him about the work he was doing, he appeared to have got it covered and more.

He never brought me problems unless he had also the suggestion of a possible solution. He was a dream to work with and yet the substance of his work was superficial, behind that glowing facade.

I grew to appreciate that I had to check up on what he said he had done. I also came to learn that I had to take more of the driver's seat on work he was handling, even though he seemed so comfortable about being proactive about any task.

For every "it's all going well and I'm top of it" merchant there is the negative spinner. They moan and complain about everything they are asked to do, yet often go away and work through it all effectively and efficiently.

They are happy to tell you that what you request of them is a waste of time and then go away and execute it better than you could yourself.

They ignore my advice or instruction pointedly when in a line management meeting with me, only to take it a few days or weeks later. In many ways, they are a more reliable breed of manager to work with than the positive spinners.

But other teachers whom you line manage just cannot do what you want. The flesh is willing but the skills of going about organising the school aspect of their life are simply not there.

The floaters fail all forms of reality check on their work. For example, a colleague I line managed was utterly supportive and willing to please. But he just could not organise himself beyond the present moment.

Whatever encouragement or help I gave him, he could only stick to that purpose for one or two days before the need to return and finish off the job properly just floated away from his mind.

Trying to change him was impossible - one simply had to go with his flow and work in the here and now, tapping into his good will and wish to co-operate.

Know them by listening

* The kind of relationships you make as a senior manager are different from when you were an ordinary teacher or head of subject. You spend a lot of your time listening to your managers describe the work they are doing within their teams, and giving them your advice and support.

* As you listen to their accounts, you have to reality check them. Some are over positive and others are unduly negative. Get to know the personalities and you will learn how to adjust for their strengths and weaknesses.

* Build a good relationship based on collaboration rather than attempts to command other individuals to do your bidding.

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