08 January 2024

The Monday Briefing: She's Not Me

The Monday Briefing: Shes Not Me

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln


Back in 2019, when it became clear that my predecessor, Dr Ian Moores had decided that the time had come for him to retire, and with my subsequent promotion to Principal, I started to contemplate the sort of College that I wanted to lead: what kind of attributes I’d need; the people that I’d need around me; the support I’d like to have in place in order to ensure success.


Having been second in command to Ian for a few years, one gets used to the dynamic in place between leader and deputy. Ian was the fourth Headteacher that I’d worked under, and, having close experience of seeing three others in action, I began to formulate which characteristics and traits I’d try to adopt as part of my leadership style. I was not able, largely due to Covid, to have any kind of handover period. I had to learn quickly, for myself. Something which forged my approach over the first part of my leadership of the College as effectively as it did.


Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. While I don’t subscribe to such a simplistic observation, I can see some merit in it. The people we surround ourselves with are, perhaps, the biggest influence on our behaviours, attitudes and results. Who we are around — what they’ve got us thinking, saying, doing and becoming — sets the course of our life. The people we spend the most time with shape who we are. They determine what conversations dominate our attention. They affect the attitudes and behaviours we are regularly exposed to. Eventually we start to think like they think and behave like they behave. Or so Jim Rohn would have us believe.


I found it useful to consider, when I was starting out as Principal, those whose leadership I had worked under: what were the strategies or approaches could I adopt? What were the mistakes they made which I’d be most keen to avoid? How could I find my own way with that knowledge?


Everything starts, for me, with identity (knowing yourself) and vision (knowing where you want to go)


As I would be leading the College, I needed to be well versed in EIC’s identity too - which I was, having been in place since 2014 - the vision would need to come from me.


A first driver was my knowledge that the Ealing student population had been predominantly male, something which I’ve referenced in a previous blog. In some years it had been as high as 65-35, and this was something which I wanted to change in the long term. Having a College which represented wider society, and a 50-50 split, as closely as possible was critical for me. Female voice, drive and leadership at Ealing, I knew, was integral to realising the vision that I had in mind. This is something I’ve also covered previously here.


One of my first major moves as Principal in waiting was to get the leadership team in place. Following an extensive search, a gruelling interview day, and a positive conversation I was delighted that Laura Bellerby accepted the position as Vice Principal. Almost four years later, it is hard to see how this appointment could have gone much better, given that she matches some of the attributes I see as my strengths: hard work; a humble approach; ambitious personally, and for the College as a whole.


She also complements very well some of the areas of experience that I didn’t possess: leadership of UCAS; responsibility for SEND provision; pastoral drive to go with my academic emphasis on the leadership of the College.


There comes a time in the career of anyone where they feel that they are ready for progression and the next step up. 


The time came for me four years ago, and aspects outside of my control had to move into place before it happened. I’ve spent a great deal of time working closely with Laura since I’ve been Principal - in fact, strangely, with the expansion of the College and the leadership team to incorporate an Assistant Principal and Office Manager, I feel that I’ve actually been able to work more closely with her. This could be down to the fact that our offices are now closer geographically, or that the wider complexity of issues which the College faces requires closer collaboration, but it can only be good for the College. When those who drive an institution forward work in tandem effectively, substantial forward momentum comes.


Laura has spoken to me at length about her ambitions to be a Principal, and I’m fully supportive of this. Much like the case was for me, there are multiple factors which will have to come to pass for this to occur - some outside of Laura’s control and some within it.


This could well be years away. It could happen at the College, or at another school. Such things are entirely unclear.


There are certain things that, however, are clear. For as long as Laura stays, the College will continue to improve. We are very fortunate to have such an effective practitioner in her position. A high performing Vice Principal has every right to have her sights set on becoming a Principal.


From my perspective, I am, as I always have been, keen to support her, though it requires an ability to look beyond the reality that our working relationship will end at some point. Guiding Laura, and equipping her to improve her own capacity can only bring good things for the College, and this must always be the most important consideration. 


And time needs to be taken, along the lines of the quote which opens this article, to sharpen her abilities. I am keen to play as much of a part in that as I can.


Laura was brave enough to undergo a 360 appraisal of her performance before Christmas, a task carried out by Bellevue Education Director and experienced Head David Williams, and she was completely open to feedback throughout the process in the hope that she could identify any potential weaknesses which she could address. Incidentally, the 360 identified a range of excellent qualities in her approach.


For me, it’s about another quote which I fully advocate:

“You are not a leader until you have produced another leader who can produce another leader.”

Dr Stephen Brown


To reiterate a point I made partway through the blog, helping Laura to find her own distinctive thoughts on identity and vision is the first step. Without knowing the current status and the destination point, leadership does not happen. At least not effective leadership.

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