I’ve had a great few weeks. Reinvigorated by a new challenge, a chance to confirm my values, and being able to operate in an environment where I feel at ‘home’, has been welcomed by all those who are close to me. In the current climate of seemingly relentless high stakes accountability, ever increasing pressure to meet the sometimes competing demands of students, parents and staff, and in all this ensure that we are true to our beliefs, it’s no wonder that organisational health is critical.
I have long been a fan of Patrick Lencioni’s work and much that he writes resonates with me. Several years ago I read The Advantage and remember at the time thinking how much of it rang true from my experience. Of late, I have revisited the book and as a leader, I am still convinced that organisational health is by far and away the most important aspect to get right in our schools. We can spend masses of time trying to make marginal gains from tweaking classroom practice, making changes to the curriculum, engaging with parents in ever more inventive ways, and working hard to inspire students to be curious. Yet all of these are ultimately never going to yield the outcomes we want, if we do not have a healthy organisation.
What makes organisations really great?
In a nutshell, Lencioni argues that the single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organisational health. Yet why is it that this aspect is the one which is most often ignored by leaders? Lencioni argues that there are three biases which prevent leaders, in all walks of life, giving it the attention it deserves. And ultimately according to Lencioni, this comes down to the issue that leaders believe it’s beneath them – whether this is because they feel that they are too sophisticated, too busy or too analytical to bother with it. Contrary to many people’s initial response to the term organisational health, it is not touchy-feely and more importantly, it goes beyond just culture.
Why do people ignore organisational health?
I have been guilty of all three of the biases that Lencioni outlines at one point or another in the leadership roles I have undertaken. The three biases are as follows:
The Sophistication Bias
Because organisational health is so simple and accessible (this doesn’t mean it is easy to achieve!), many leaders wonder whether it really will make a difference.
The Adrenaline Bias
A healthy organisation is not a quick fix. And in today’s climate, acknowledging and accepting this is tough. Seemingly hooked on day to day activities, and in some cases fire fighting, it just feels too slow for some leaders to focus on it.
The Quantification Bias
It’s no wonder leaders in schools find this one difficult as the reality is that it is very difficult to quantify the benefits of becoming a healthy organisation. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is impossible to separate out variables and measure their impact because organisational health, by its very nature, is cohesive and permeates all aspects of the organisation.
How do you create a healthy organisation?
So even if, as leaders, we accept it is an absolute must, how do we go about creating it? Like learning, it’s a messy process and it doesn’t happen in an orderly, linear fashion. However Lencioni distils the process into four simple disciplines:
1.Build a cohesive leadership team. Here Lencioni references, his perhaps more well-known book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team but we are once again reminded in The Advantage of the necessity to build a team which behaves cohesively. Without this, an organisation will never be healthy.
2.Create clarity. In order to create organisational health, the leadership team must all be aligned and committed to the same answers to the following six questions:
•Why do we exist?
•How do we behave?
•What do we do?
•How will we succeed?
•What is most important, right now?
•Who must do what?
3.Overcommunicate clarity. Once the leadership team behaves cohesively, and has created clarity around the six key questions, Lencioni outlines the importance of communicating those answers to everyone involved in the organisation clearly, repeatedly and enthusiastically.
4.Reinforce clarity. A healthy organisation has to be worked at and maintained over time. The leadership of a healthy organisation must establish a few, critical but simple systems to reinforce clarity in every process that involves people.
What does it look like in practice?
What does this look like in practice as a senior leader within a large secondary school? It starts with recruitment and appointing the right people who commit and align with the values of the school. I have seen firsthand recently how leaders who create organisational health believe that it’s not the skills and experience that people bring to their school, but their values and beliefs. These leaders believe that skills can be taught, and what’s more, they are confident that they can nurture and develop these in their organisation. What’s of most interest to these leaders in the recruitment of any member of staff, is whether or not their values are aligned with those of the school, and just as importantly the confidence that they will complement the dynamics of the existing team. There has not been one potential applicant to any of the current vacancies at my school that the Principal has not personally spent time with and shown around the school herself. And there has not been one of these applicants who has left the school uninspired or unclear about the values and vision of how the school intends to transform lives and make everything possible. These professionals may decide not to apply but this is because they have found that the school and its ethos doesn’t align with them – and it’s better that they know this at this stage.
Cascade messages which Lencioni discusses in his other work are also a way to help reinforce clarity. Letting everyone know what has been discussed at SLT meetings not only opens the forum for discussion, but it also ensures that every member of the SLT is giving a consistent and clear message in relation to the school’s strategic and operational priorities. Cascade messages work best when all teams undertake this mechanism as it begins a structured but interpersonal process of rolling key messages down through the organisation directly from the leadership team.
I wrote several months ago about the importance of starting with the why and I still believe this is central to healthy organisations. This why must be authentic and it should permeate all aspects of a school’s life – from communication with parents, to the way relationships are built with students, to the systems the school operates and perhaps most importantly in the work and priorities that the staff undertake.
The Advantage is worth reading, and rereading, and for good measure reading again. And it’s worth being honest with ourselves as leaders – how much time and energy do we really give to creating a healthy organisation? If this isn’t our main priority, then I would question how effective all the other things we do are. And perhaps the most important point Lencioni makes is that the critical issue is that leaders must take responsibility for this themselves. It is not a task or job which can be delegated. And it’s a tiring and unrelenting job. And most of all one which is selfless. Yet it is the most worthwhile and important job in any organisation – when an organisation is healthy, everyone else within that organisation finds a way to get things done. No matter how great the systems or initiatives, if we have an unhealthy organisation, nothing will counteract the misalignment and politics that take hold.
So..how healthy is your school?