I often get asked by one or other of my daughters what I’ve done at work that day. I usually give them one of two answers. I might say “Nothing exciting. A few meetings. Wrote a report. Had to sign stuff.” These are the bad days when I’ve had to plough through the things that have to be done. However, more often than not I’ll say “Wandered around.” This has become a running joke because obviously wandering around isn’t ‘work’. Nobody wanders around for a living.
Now before I create the wrong impression, I don’t actually spend whole days wandering around – just chunks of time. And it isn’t because I haven’t got anything better to do either (if only). It is actually a deliberate leadership approach. Honestly. Wandering around is something I have made part of my way of doing leadership. My girls think I’m making it up, so for the record, here is where it comes from. And it even has a name.
Management By Walking Around (MBWA) is thought to have been coined as a phrase at Hewlett-Packard back in the 1970s. I read about it some time in the 1980s, in a book called ‘In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies’, and the idea stuck with me. Unlike most of the piffle I’ve read about management (and I’ve read a lot), MBWA is beautifully simple and spontaneous. All you have to do is randomly wander around the workplace, bumping in to people and coming across whatever happens to be happening. What is important is that there is no ‘purpose’ to your wandering, no structure and no intended outcome. It is the perfect antidote to scheduling your time, being productive or aiming to achieve anything.
I’ve found MBWA to have many benefits, not least that you get to see the organisation as it is. Any planned visit by a senior leader in schools will lead to a very skewed view, whether it be a lesson observation, learning walk or planned meeting. People might deliberately change their behaviour so that you see what they think you want to see. MBWA allows you to catch people doing whatever it is they normally do. I love this, particularly when staff are right in the middle of moaning about the latest policy change, gossiping or having a laugh. They are often mortified that I’ve walked in, but it’s a great opportunity to find out exactly what is going on. Some of the most useful and constructive feedback I have had is from walking in on people letting rip about their work frustrations. It does everyone good to get it out in the open.
MBWA also means you walk in on the everyday brilliance of working in a school. You catch that moment when the student pulls the freshly baked cake from the oven, or when the whole class cracks up as the teacher accidentally says something stupid. You walk in on students singing Happy Birthday to one of their tutor group, or listening patiently as the least confident reader takes their turn in reading aloud. You catch the tense moments when the teacher has given someone a stern telling off and the class is sitting in stunned silence. These snapshots help build a rich picture of the school culture; the beauty spots and the blemishes.
Wandering around leads to conversations that might never have happened, too. Sometimes these conversations are trivial and you move on quickly, not wanting to interrupt someone’s precious PPA time. Sometimes the words “I’ve been meaning to come and see you” are uttered, and you pull up a chair. Would they have ever made the time to talk? Walking through the headteacher’s door is something I encourage anyone to do, but not everyone does. There are too many reasons not to.
It is in these spontaneous conversations that I’ve learnt most about the people I work with; when I catch them off guard. This is when they admit they are having a tough time, can’t manage their workload or are ready to take on a new challenge. How much more open the exchange when it is on their turf, unplanned and unscripted. Whatever is on their mind becomes whatever comes out of their mouth.
A wise ex-colleague once offered some advice. At the end of your working day, he said, take a little time to walk around the school and bump in to the people who are still at work. Check they are okay. Thank them for their commitment. Maybe suggest they call it a day and go home. Management By Walking Around.
I wonder whether we’ve lost something in our determination to ‘drive up standards’ in schools. As leaders fill up their time by scrutinising students’ work, monitoring teaching, analysing data trends, reviewing performance and strategising, when are they leaving time to be aimless? Perhaps if we see our schools as they really are, rather than through the lens of accountability, we will lead with greater insight and clarity. As the title of the book that inspired me all those years ago suggests, we are all in search of excellence, but are we looking in the right places?