The most revealing conversations happen around the bar. Back in 2010 I attended my first ISA Annual Conference as its newly-appointed CEO and spent most of the event trying to understand the needs of its members. ISA is one of ISC’s five headteachers’ associations and I had to admit that as a former headteacher and member, I wasn’t always clear what ISA did or how much value I should place in the logo that embellished our letters.
I’ve never been one for collecting badges, unless they serve as important reminders of personal emotional investment. I proudly wear my lapel pins of the two organisations I support as a trustee: We (formerly Free the Children) and the eating disorders charity, Beat. Make a difference to the life chances of children and I’m there. But ISA at that stage was still a mystery and no one at the conference bar could really tell me how it made a difference to children – the only metric that really matters.
It’s about people
Associations are really about people and as Jim Collins reminds us, it’s “first who, then what”. It’s a case of getting the right people on the bus and using an agile approach to strategy, setting a vision but not worrying if the people you employ take you on a backroad where the scenery proves more rewarding. Continuously reminding colleagues of the values that underpin an organisation is any leaders’ core purpose of course. ISA enshrines fellowship and support – a feature of our constitution for over 140 years. So, developing strategic relationships with like-minded people who can support our work (less so organisations) is a crucial part of the strategy. People move on and widen our stakeholder group in doing so.
I’ve always felt that the test of a good values match is how someone looks you in the eye and seems genuinely interested, rather than peering over your shoulder to check if anyone more important has entered the room. And as all school leaders eventually discover, you just need to be yourself, as putting on an act in the face of others’ expectations is debilitating and unsustainable. After all, education is an emotive enterprise and passion is sometimes far too noticeable by its absence.
But while we all occasionally bemoan our educational context (just mention business rates, VAT, pensions and inspection, even minibuses, to any school leader and stand back while the fuse shortens), there’s only room for overriding optimism in education. Crucial to that is building a team keen to innovate, that doesn’t work in silos, with people who don’t worry if things don’t quite turn out as expected, and who always put members first through a service-led approach – at all levels.
As Dennis Bakke said: “Leaders who want to increase joy and success in the workplace must learn to take most of their personal satisfaction from the achievements of the people they lead, not from the power they exercise.” And just as school leaders get their best ideas when away from their desks (walking the dog, reading a work of fiction, out running, looking at a clear night sky), maximising opportunities to learn from others must be deliberately created, even in enterprises where the relevance doesn’t seem immediately obvious.
ISA now has 506 members and that represents growth of over 90% in ten years. Its members’ collective capital is unmatched and ISA’s 31 trustees (we became a charity four years ago) are hugely successful school leaders and, without exception, are generous in wanting to give something back – rejecting short-term competition and recognising that collaboration between schools is essential if the sector is to thrive. All ISA schools have access to a vast and still growing range of sporting, arts and low-cost training events that are continuously praised. All schools receive a free expert compliance audit in the year before their next inspection, and ISA’s new online community pushes out the latest essential information and has taken the sharing of best practice to a new level for the sector.
Our annual ISA Awards ceremony gives schools the recognition they deserve for their fabulous work. Our President, Lord Lexden, does so much for the education sector and for equalities through his work in parliament. Given the immediate pressures of leading a school, ISA members get 24/7 support when they most need. And as an association that places fellowship at the very heart of all we do, it’s still the conversations around the bar that are often the most rewarding, but those conversations are very different from ten years ago.
Independent Schools Association: isaschools.org.uk