25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #5 Lead, but don’t manage

If there is one thing which is guaranteed to annoy me it’s the lack of attention to detail that some so-called “leaders” display. Actually, it’s more than that. You could rightly argue that leadership is about inspiring people with a vision, and so there shouldn’t be any need for leaders to get bogged down in the minutia of how something's going to work in practice.

OK, I accept that. But

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31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader: Consolidation Day 4

It strikes me that over the last 25 years or so, industry and commerce have concerned themselves with improving management, whilst education has focused on leadership. Not exclusively so in either case, and I’m not saying this is objectively true, but I do have a strong impression that this is very much the reality by and large.

businesswoman I first became aware of the trend when attending an interview for a Head of ICT post some years ago. One hapless candidate asked whether the successful person would have a place on the senior management team. The response – or perhaps it was the tone of the response -- was reminiscent of the kind of class snobbery which sociologists, from time to time, seek to assure us no longer exists:

We don’t have a senior management team at this school. We have a senior leadership team.

Does it matter? Well, if leadership is all about saying what ought to be done and inspiring people to want to do it, management is surely about how it will be done. Leadership without management is nothing less than institutionalised daydreaming, while management without leadership is nothing more than box-ticking. In other words, for an ICT department to thrive, you need both.

That’s why in this series, and especially on Days 24 to 28, I’ve covered nitty-gritty issues which purists would say are more to do with management than leadership. But in my opinion, a good leader will seek to put into place mechanisms to ensure that practical issues are dealt with.

Take the equipment loans procedure, for instance. What’s the point of having fantastic equipment and loads of ideas on how to use it across the curriculum, when actually getting your hands on the stuff is like one of the labours of Hercules? Similarly, colleagues won’t want to chance using education technology if technical support leaves much to be desired.

I read a comment recently to the effect that leaders shouldn’t have to concern themselves with such matters. Perhaps not in a hands-on kind of way, but it is certainly the job of the leader to make sure that someone is dealing with them.

A lot comes down to filling gaps on the ICT team, assuming you have the luxury of having a team and that you get the opportunity to do some recruiting. If you’re the visionary sort of leader who has little patience with details, then you need someone on the team who is quite pernickety about crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. Conversely, if you fret over the minutiae then you ought to get someone on board who has dreams and visions and is always coming up with new ideas. Ninety percent of them will be unworkable, of course, but it’s the remaining ten percent that’s important.

If you’re on your own, as many ICT co-ordinators are, then joining a community will be of paramount importance. The key thing is not to try and go it alone.

There are also plenty of resources that can help. A quick search in Google resulted in my discovering the BNET UK website, which has a section devoted to management.  It’s about business rather than education, but management is management, and with articles like “My biggest mistake as a rookie manager”, “The quick and dirty guide to getting things done” and “The Rookie manager’s guide to office politics”, the site is worth visiting it on a regular basis.

For a succinct run-down on essential leadership skills, with lots of links to articles on each one, see Chris Winfield’s 90 ways to become a better  leader.

Bottom line: although this series is about how to become a better educational technology leader, you ignore management at your peril.

31 Days to Become a Better Ed Tech Leader -- Day 23: What is Your Dream Team?

A task a day for 31 daysWouldn't it be nice to be starting work as an ICT leader in a brand new school? Not just a new building, but a new school. You know the situation: the school is opening in 18 months' time, and the Principal is recruiting managerial staff now, of which you're one. One of your tasks, along with your new colleagues, is to recruit people to be in your team. What a wonderful feeling that must be!

As you've probably inferred, I've never been in that situation myself. No surprise there, but this may surprise you: I've never regretted it. It's not that every team of people I've managed has been perfect, far from it.  But even 'challenging' colleagues can not only make very valuable contributions to the work of the team, but can help you and their other colleagues grow.

In fact, the very term 'dream team' carries connotations of some sort of notion of wishing to work with people who are made in your own image. People are individuals, and it's that individuality, and the interplay between team members, that is all-important.A good team leader encourages that, and does their best to ensure that the team ethos facilitates it.

Also, recruiting a 'dream team' from the start assumes that the team members and therefore the team as a whole will remain exactly the same ad infinitum. Is that actually good? The dream team of today will surely not be the dream team of tomorrow, unless you're either very good at recruiting, or very lucky.

So where does that leave us? I suggest that the dream team is more about 'soft' characteristics, and not things like qualifications or even experience. I recall once being invited to sit on an interview panel for the appointment of a Head of ICT in a secondary school. In the end, it came down to a choice between a young man who had a great deal of expertise and experience, but who had no 'presence', and another fellow who hardly knew anything technical about technology, but had bags of energy and enthusiasm.

The Headteacher said to me: "I don't know which one would be better." My response was: "Well, it seems to be that you have a choice between someone who has no personality but lots of knowledge, and someone who has no knowledge and lots of personality. You can teach someone about computers, but you can't give someone a personality!"What's your dream team? Photo by Hilde Vanstraelen.

In another context, Doug Woods puts his finger right on the button when he says:

21st century education is not about equipment, it’s about approaches.  It’s about putting the learner at the heart of their learning and allowing/enabling them to use the equipment you have in creative and collaborative ways.

So, what would your dream ICT team be? The kind of things I always look for are the following, in no particular order:

My dream team

Willingness to co-operate

If there's one thing we know about technology, it is that it will go wrong. Maybe not today. Perhaps not tomorrow. But it will do so sometime. In that situation you need people who can step in at short notice, be willing to swap rooms with you if they don't need the computer lab, or let you use the laptops because what their class was going to is not as urgent as what yours was going to do, etc etc.

Enthusiasm

I want to work with colleagues who can get the kids fired up. Hey, I want to work with colleagues who get me fired up -- which is pretty tough because I'm fired up to begin with. I don't want to work with people who have seen it, done it, got the tee shirt and are treading water until they retire.

Self-confidence

I'm not prepared to accept cop-out excuses like "Well, the kids are all digital natives and so know a lot more than I do" for dumbed-down work that keeps the kids' behaviour under control by the simple expedient of sending them to sleep. I don't care that there are gaps in your technical knowledge — there are gaps in everyone's technical knowledge. But I do expect you to know about teachning and learning.

Particular strengths

I think a large part of what makes a team a 'dream team' is the individual strengths of its members. It's impossible to specify these in advance, but to give you an idea of what I mean, here are the strengths exhibited by the members of a team I worked with once:

A: Had excellent discipline, even though she was only in her second year of teaching. I think it was because her main role was a PE teacher, in which listening to the teacher's instructions is of paramount importance for the children's safety.

B: Was absolutely brilliant with students with learning difficulties. She had infinite patience, and could make the most complex concept comprehendible. I asked her to be in charge of ensuring that all our resources were suitable for students with special educational needs.

C: Was a science teacher and doing an MA, so she brought an academic rigour to every aspect of her work. If a student gave an answer like "Because it's more efficient", she would respond by saying "What do you mean by that?" Her students soon learnt to think before speaking, and to be prepared to back up every statement or opinion with evidence. A woman after my own heart.

D: Had the ability to break down activities into even more stages, so that if someone was away when you covered the topic, or couldn't 'get' it, you could use all these extra resources that he had created. He, too, had outstanding reserves of patience and energy.

Well, you can see where I'm coming from with all this, but a few questions arise. Firstly, am I saying that technical expertise is unimportant? Secondly, most of us inherit a team rather than create one from nothing, so doesn't my list really constitute a dream in the sense of having nothing whatsoever to do with reality? And finally, and related to the foregoing question, how do you make sure that people are co-operative or whatever, if they're not?

Is technical expertise unimportant?

No, but if you're going to insist on having something like a degree in ICT before you will even look at someone, you will close yourself off from a great deal of expertise that's around. Also, people can go on courses, and will learn by doing anyway. If they need extra technical support of classroom assistance for a while, then that can be arranged.

How do you 'convert' an existing team into a dream team?

In my experience, people will co-operate, have more self-confidence and be more enthusiastic if you delegate responsibility for one or more units of work to them, and have interesting activities and opportunities for professional development, such as good in-service training, going to exhibitions, attending conferences, and having their lessons observed.

I'll be saying more about delegating a unit of work after the end of this series, but the important thing about delegating the responsibility (as opposed to merely the task) is that the teacher can choose whatever topic they light to hang the concepts on. If they happen to love windsurfing, and can use it as a means of teaching modelling, why not?

Also, this approach actually reduces teachers' workload, as I'll be demonstrating. As for the other things mentioned here, they are all about respecting the person as a professional, and treating them as such.

It's also encumbent on the team leader to notice people's strengths and weaknesses, and to use them and address them respectively.

Bottom line: there's no such thing as a template for a dream team, so you have to think it through for yourself. So your 15 minute task for today is to make a note of the following:

  1. What are the features of your dream ICT team?
  2. Which ones are already in evidence?
  3. How might you address the deficiencies?

Oh, and by the way, you're not allowed to recruit new staff or lose existing staff. 

Decision-Making in a Complex Environment

If you manage a large team, including people with more specialised technical expertise than yourself, how do you ensure that your decisions are good ones?

Is decision-making an art or a science?

I think this is an important question. If you think it's an art, then it is only a short step away from saying "some people have 'it', and others don't." And if you think like that, then it is very hard, perhaps even impossible, to improve your decision-making.

So, I come down firmly in the camp that says it's a science. In other words, it can be approached methodically, and the process can be improved.

What do we mean by a "good decision"?

Some decisions are good in the short term, but not necessarily so in the longer term. Every parent understands this: when your two-year old is throwing a tantrum in the supermarket because she wants some sweets, do you give in for the sake of peace and quiet, or ride it out? The first option is undoubtedly better from a peaceful existence point of view, and to avoid embarrassment, but it's very much a short-term solution. In the long run, the child learns that tantrums work, and so your easy way out will cause more of the same in the future.

So, a good decision is one which:

  • Furthers the aims of the team in terms of its strategic plan.
  • Does not sacrifice the long-term for the short-term.
  • Is cost-effective.
  • Included the team, or at least leaves the team feeling that it has been listened to.

Less is more

So, how do you arrive at good decisions? Your decisions can only be as good as the information you have on which to base them. But "good" does not mean "plenty". In fact, the more information you have, the less likely you are to be able to use it effectively. The best thing to do is to ask one of your team to summarise the issues for you.

My preference has always been for what I call the "A4 Briefing". I don't care how complex a problem is, it should be explainable in no more than a side of A4 (or Letter if you're in the USA). In fact, one of my bosses insisted on no more than half a dozen bullet points.

Ask for options

What I also like is for the person who is summarising the information to outline some options. Nothing too complicated -- that would defeat the object -- but just enough to give me some hooks on which to hang my thought processes.

Take time out

Swans at Audley End

Swans on the lake at Audley End. Watching them can help in your decision-making.

I think we have a tendency to hammer away at a problem, but often the best thing to do after some initial thought is to go away from it completely. An afternoon spent by a river, say, can work wonders, because while you're walking, your subconscious is working.

Now that's what I call efficiency!