‘They*’ say that if you want to get the measure of a person, put them under pressure, and that has been our experience of hosting an Education and Training Foundation funded ELMAG (Excellence in Leadership, Management and Governance) project over the last couple of months. We have learned so much about ourselves that this blog post will continue to be written and rewritten as thoughts deepen; these are impressions only, because reflexion takes time.
We went into this project – to host two ‘So you want to be OUTSTANDING? Let Northern College show you how!‘ taster days for the adult education sector – believing we were outstanding and suspecting we still had plenty of stuff to learn. So it proved. We also wanted to use a model of distributed leadership to get this message out there. Only time and impact work will tell us how far we’ve succeeded.
Timescales were blisteringly tight – more or less six weeks from writing the bid to completing the evaluation and monitoring. (Actually just realising that now makes me feel a bit dizzy). In the meantime, we have learned so much about ourselves as individuals, as a ‘team’ (there’s a reason for the apostrophes), about our processes and systems, our approach to marketing and – crucially – how we really support equalities and diversity. We have transformed our organisation in significant ways and we’d like to think we’d seeded a little of the same in our delegates. Time will tell (the last session was only two days ago) but the early evaluation findings are very hopeful.
“The staff at Northern College are really enthusiastic and obviously love what they do, which was lovely to see and was really inspiring. It felt like a very happy and positive place. They have obviously recognised that good performance is a result of staff engagement and happiness.”
Our opening premise was that we had something to say to a sector which we believe has become mired in instrumental, managerialist ways of working; a fearful sector which, under economic threat and dominated by Government ideologies, has lost some of its spirit. There are brave Anti-Heroes** out there and Dancing Princesses*** of all genders, and there are many others who are unable to be present as themselves, in their own work and learning.
Northern College has been as battered as everyone over the years; being small we can duck and weave a little sharper, although like most organisations we have our own entrenched ways of thinking that can sometimes hold us back. But when Ofsted visited in 2014 our Principal Jill Westerman exhorted us to “Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Northern!” and that was the start of something beautiful; a shift in our identity. This project was about convincing the rest of the sector to be present as themselves and about re-capturing for ourselves some of that TeamNorthern spirit we wrote about here.
So, under pressure like celebrities in the jungle, we learned who freaked and who flaked, who stepped up, who supported, who was never too busy, who was excessively bossy (*blush*); for this project only we ignored hierarchies and job specs, we asked of each other, what are YOU good at; we gave of ourselves. We discovered unexpected skills (who would have thought I’d get so much pleasure from building a database?) and unanticipated weaknesses. We formed new relationships. We accepted that whoever was there was the right people (hard, sometimes). We resurrected the #teamnorthern buzz. We didn’t sleep. Under the searchlight of tight deadlines, we interrogated ourselves.
More than fifty amazing people came to think with us about the most important stuff (we believe) in social purpose education. From the first moment, the atmosphere of buzzy positivity was palpable, with an overwhelming majority of delegates testifying to their pleasure in being invited to be present as themselves, and in not being told what to do back at the ranch. Here’s some of the general things delegates said****:
- The introduction…encouraged me to be myself and set out a tone of a collaborative day which would value the individual and allow and expect my input. Secondly, the resilience as there was a synergy in the room and quite a focused discussion was allowed to develop and I left with a couple of clear thoughts and strategies for myself and my learners.
- It was really refreshing to see (they) ‘told us as it was’ and it wasn’t (them) ‘going on and on’ about how great Northern College is (although it very clearly is!) just a genuine need to share their best practice and experience with everyone on the day.
- Right from the outset. The inspiring introduction ensured that the audience was captivated…I learnt a lot of good practice that I can adapt in my own college.
- Sessions were structured but were allowed space to be relevant to the specific group. Issues were raised and synergy kicked in and everyone worked to brainstorm, share and look for solutions.
- (The introduction) was very engaging and embodied the idea of being fully present as yourself, which was kind of surprising and pleasing as it’s not something that is ever talked about but is central to having an identity at work and feeling comfortable.
- When we were told that the Principal had encouraged risks throughout the inspection as I feel this was a brave move but demonstrates clear trust in the staff team.
What we’ve learned about…Marketing.
At Northern College, we are really good at communicating with our ex-students and networks via our Short Course Booklet, which some people actually look forward to each year (likewise I get excited by the arrival of the festive Radio Times). They are our bread and butter and we thank them. We are also brilliant at giving visitors a really good time and that’s why getting our Marketing and Business Manager on board was such a key moment, because she could not do more for each visitor if we were a top-class hotel – or if it was her own home. With Sarah (and her wonderful control freakery) in the team, no detail of organisation would be missed and there has not been a single day when I’ve not been grateful for that.
We learned that…
- our strongest social media networks are not where we thought they were
- the smallest error in our online material can lose us delegates
- we can end up paying a lot of money to marketing companies for work we can do ourselves
- you can do too much tweeting (oops)
- more than one person needs to hold the password (oh yes)
- you can’t do enough to keep people engaged whilst they are waiting for the day to arrive
- people won’t pay if they think someone else is getting it for free
- no matter how quickly you get the message out, people still need time to turn themselves around
But we had no over-arching database, no online payments system, no systematic process for developing and communicating with our networks. And now we have all of this, so thank you ELMAG. It didn’t take money, skills we couldn’t teach ourselves or even – as it happened – extra time. Just the focus of having to do it, instead of putting it to one side to deal with all the ‘urgents’ of a working day (because, actually, we’re not A&E and sometimes we need to get over ourselves). If that was the only outcome, I’d be happy. Well, maybe not…
What we’ve learned about…Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion.
Wow. This deserves a whole blog post to itself and I know that my thinking is going to continue to grow. What I’ll write here is with raw honesty and a little apprehension around how it might be received. It’s difficult to admit to having to do better at “E&D” (hmmm, think Rotherham), especially when you pride yourself on your achievements in that regard. What I’ve most powerfully learned through this experience is that no matter how many times the sector tells itself that inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, that doesn’t make it happen. If every public servant really did take responsibility for inclusion, the country (at least) would be transformed. What happens in practice is that we rely on a certain few people in each organisation to help us get it right, in our case “The Lads“. This works fine when there is some ease around pace, but when you’re at full tilt, there isn’t time to take advice. At speed, it worries me that inclusion is the first casualty.
So we’ve got longer term plans. Thankfully, the Network of Equalities Networks has the very experts we need to check our website for accessibility, for example, or ensure that our leaflets are readable as well as snazzy. Only by regularly checking in with experts such as these will we get to a stage where snazz gets displaced by access. I’m not flabbily saying that we didn’t have time to do this. I’m saying we didn’t think to do it and that’s not OK.
The other thing we didn’t think to do (or we found justifications for not doing) is to retain a British Sign Language interpreter for each of the days. Events are different from courses; people really can sign up with just a few days to go (and, unless you’re very fortunate in your recruitment, you want them to). But by that time there isn’t a BSL Interpreter in the country who can come to your aid, so skilled and in demand these services are. Retain someone and no-one turns up and it costs you, of course. But what’s the price of that compared to the disappointment on the face of a deaf person when the interpreter has to leave at half time? This is what I didn’t realise: no matter what we put in place after that point, none of it can compensate not for not being able to understand, but for not being able to join in. This is a lesson I will never forget.
What I’ve learned about myself.
Apologies, this will be intensely personal because at this stage there’s been no chance to ask anyone else and I need to get it out then go lie down and sleep. In time, this section will become ‘What have we learned about ourselves?‘ (but I haven’t asked anyone else yet).
After a series of bereavements, I sort of know that I’m good under pressure and that, with breaks, I can keep this up for an extended time but that eventually I get beyond myself and need to be sent to bed like a naughty toddler. It’s a neurodivergent thing (I’m rejecting the label ADHD). Factor in the adrenaline of the live events and an inexplicable (to me now) decision to work through half term because it felt important and you’ll imagine where I’m at now. My freshest thinking around any next time is:
- build in rest days before and after each event
- remember its not A&E
- remember what I’m good at (great at the meet and greet, not so good at organising workshop choices)
- …more to come, I’m sure, after a few days of being rocked to sleep by Peppa Pig.
To conclude (initially, at least). No-one actively decided the timeframe should be so tough; it’s a year-end thing. The punishing pace surely took its toll on everyone involved in the project: funders, organisers, evaluators, project providers and those unsung heroes from the Network of Equalities Networks who scrutinised our Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion processes. #teamnorthern stepped up: late nights, early mornings, the far reach of Yammer into one’s life. It was not a pleasure to be worrying about British Sign Language interpreters on my birthday. But it was ten times rewarded by seeing BSL actually happen on the day.
The distributed leadership model worked well, in harness with a ‘task and finish’ approach to meetings, where longer periods of time together were working parties rather than talking shops. It was tempting, sometimes, to dwell on who hadn’t got involved, and why, and what the project was missing out on because of that (in terms of team members and delegates). The Open Space mantra, “whoever’s there are the right people” carried us through. And the joy of both events, in their different ways, showed us it was profoundly true.
If we’d thought harder about going for it, we might have been more fearful. But we were brave and in the intensity of the experience we shone a light into the corners of our organisation. As one of our evaluatees wrote, “Northern College is outstanding, but not perfect, and always looking to do things better.” Yes.That sense of ourselves as ‘tryers’ has come through, as has our flashes of brilliance and also a great deal of the stuff we take for granted in ourselves, or rely on a few to make happen. Appropriately for the time of year, it feels like we’ve had a really good spring-clean. To paraphrase Elbow: “Throw those curtains wide…(a few) days like this a year would see us right…” 🙂
****We deliberately chose a post-experience Survey Monkey for evaluation because we wanted a meaningful, reflexive response based on Stephen Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questions. That said, we politely urged a quick turnaround as the project evaluation was due in two days after the second workshop. Currently 37% of delegates have responded. Of their 116 evaluative responses, which included many helpful constructive comments, only 3.5% could be said to be ‘negative’ of some aspect of the experience.