If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists
Whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience
Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), 1999
Before becoming a teacher, I was the Deputy Manager of an off-licence in the depths of Surrey. I was trained in many things, including how to tell what grape variety a wine was made of in a blind tasting. This particular skill was never much use in my future career as a teacher and school leader (although a taste for wine put me in good stead), but not everything I learnt was as irrelevant.
The company had a policy of ‘exceeding customer expectations’ when someone was disgruntled. In practice, that meant that if a customer brought back a bottle of wine (if, for example, it was off, or even if they didn’t like the taste) we would, without quibble, give them two bottles of equivalent value in return – and offer a humble apology. By and large, it worked well. Most customers expected to have to argue for a refund, or for you to sniff at the bottle as if to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the wine before reticently handing over the cash. Instead, they left the shop with more than they might reasonably have expected.
The policy made business sense. The off-licence chain was fairly upmarket and much of its income came from repeat custom. A one-off loss on a transaction was quickly made up for when the customer returned to buy cases of expensive wine for a house party.
The customer service ethos I learnt at this early stage of my career carried forward with me into education. When faced with an unhappy parent, the ‘exceed expectations’ principle often comes to mind. However, that is not to say I hand them two bottles of wine and say sorry – although that might be quite effective! However, what I will try to do is not make them feel awkward for complaining, accept their feelings at face value (even though the wine might smell perfectly fine to me), and do my best to send them away satisfied. Of course, achieving a positive outcome can be much more complex when dealing with complaints in a school environment, and to handle such situations effectively I have also had to learn a great deal about schools and parents. However, I can categorically say that I have transferred learning from my retail experience into the world of education quite successfully.
I can probably think of many examples of where my experiences in one domain have set me up to be more effective in another part of my personal or working life. Indeed, if many of us who worked outside of education for a period in a customer-oriented industry got together and exchanged anecdotes, I suspect we could create quite a portfolio of examples about how customer service experience in the private sector has helped us in our dealings with unhappy parents, students or colleagues.
But it is quite a leap from the collation and aggregation of examples to a claim that all school leaders should have training in customer service, or should gain experience in the private sector in a customer-facing role. And it would be a stretch to say that my experiences in an off-licence had given me the ‘customer service skills’ which have transferred across to my current role. I certainly learnt the value of good customer service in that particular context, and the principles have helped me navigate other situations I have found myself in to some degree, but any skill (in the non-trivial sense of the word) I have developed at handling parental complaints has been through direct experience of disgruntled parents complaining in the context of their child’s education.
This example illustrates that it is both true to say that we can learn things from business and apply them in schools and maintain that this is really quite a trivial observation. Of course we can take our experiences (or even those of others we read about) and let it change – perhaps even for the better – how we tackle the challenges of our current role, but that is not to say that the business world has a significant amount to offer, or that this domain has a privileged position over others when it comes to valuable lessons we can learn.
The way we perform our professional roles is an expression of who we are, which in turn is a function of what we have experienced and learnt. If you ask me ‘Can we learn from the business world’, my answer is ‘Of course, but what privileges this learning over any other?’
Another example will, I hope, help to make this point. A few years ago I attended training in outdoor first aid. I have forgotten most of the skills I was taught, but I haven’t forgotten one of the fundamental principles taught to us, which is that before attending to someone else, make sure you are okay. If you are the most healthy, fit and knowledgeable person in attendance at an accident scene in a remote location, if something happens to you then everyone is in even greater trouble. I’ve since seen this principle used to justify why school leaders should pay attention first to their own mental health, before that of others. How this idea plays out on the mountain when dealing with an injury, or in a school when creating a healthy work culture, will be vastly different, but the first aid course made me value this idea in a way I had not before. Do I believe that this is an important principle for school leaders to grasp? Yes. Would I recommend that all school leaders attend a first aid course? No; no more than I would suggest they get customer service training from an off-licence chain.
We are shaped by our experiences, and draw our inspiration and aspirations from diverse sources. If you get your kicks out of reading the memoirs of sporting heroes, are inspired by the tragic story of a civil rights advocate, or draw solace from the resilience shown by survivors of war, good for you. Heck, perhaps your management philosophy is informed by Baz Luhrmann himself. If we are running a sports day in the blazing height of summer, a little Baz advice would be a legitimate and pragmatic voice to listen to – wear sunscreen, kids!
But when it comes to being bloody good at leading schools – when it comes to developing a deep, fluid, flexible, instinctive expertise in this specific domain – you need extensive, relevant and disciplined experience of this actual job. The meat of what you need to know is in this sector, in this phase, even in this particular school.
I, and others, who have a strong sense that domain-specific leadership has been undervalued in education have all sorts of ‘straw man’ arguments thrown at us. Perhaps the most common and daft accusation is that we are claiming that nothing can be learnt from other domains, other industries, or other contexts. It is a straw man argument because no-one I know of who writes on this subject has claimed anything of the sort. To suggest such a thing would be ridiculous, and this gives the argument power as associating domain-specific leadership arguments with this claim is intended to discredit the concept without actually taking on the substance of the idea. It is lazy and misguided at best, suspiciously machiavellian at worst.
At a personal level, we are formed as leaders (as people) by casting our intellectual net wide. The more open our minds are to other ways of looking at the world, the better. We will find useful analogies in the most unexpected places, inspiration in domains quite divorced from our own, and cognitive challenge from people who know nothing about education. Our values, beliefs, perspective, behaviours and preferences are enriched and formed by every experience we have. But this personal becoming does not scale up; it cannot form the basis for a universal leadership philosophy, a structure for leadership development, or a definition of what school leadership is or should be. We individually might have read a book about a business leader and have personally been inspired, informed or enriched by their story and wisdom, bringing this to bear on our own practice, but that is quite separate to claiming that there is a model of leadership within the pages of the book which we should apply generically to school leadership. Our own meaning making must not fool us into thinking that there are universal truths which we have stumbled across.
Perhaps a simpler way to express this is to say that we should look outwards to shape who we are, but look to our domain and context to work out what actually needs to be done. Inspiration comes from without, but the answers lie within. But this view has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.