Teamwork 2/Organising your team

Peloton Magazine

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask”  Tim Ferris

So now we have the right balance in the team how do we get it to function well?

Some teams just hum. Seeing them operate is like watching the peleton in a cycle race. While a crocodile of lycra streams along a sunflower-strewn lane, one red-vested group hug tightly around a bend. As they emerge into the next straight, one of the them slips into the front, and the team narrows into a ribbon of red, nose to tail, sucked along  inches from each other. Extremely fast and terrifyingly close.

We see a similar dynamic in good teams. A team member takes on a lead responsibility and runs with an idea, attracting resistance to themselves.  They push on and pick up the flack, making it easier for others in the team to quietly beaver away in the background, slipstreaming behind the scenes. Then just at the correct moment they step back automatically for another to share the load or take the limelight. The cogs of the organisation mesh brilliantly. Problems get solved almost before they emerge.

Conversely we know teams where a jockeying for position or a breakdown in communication means that nothing good can happen until there is change.

“90% of investors think the quality of the management team is the single most important non-financial factor when evaluating an organisation” McKinsey

Editor Definition in English Dictionary.

Good teams edit:
 A team with vague purpose is next to useless.

“Clarity is not about the answer, the key challenge for the leader is to know the problem” Jo Owen

A sharply-focused purpose will help to identify what the team membership needs to be. People are resistant to change, but they will follow team-leaders who know how to bring about change with real clarity. Each team’s purpose will be different: Improving progress in history by the end of Y11; building English attainment at A Level; rewriting the KS3 curriculum to give children a deeper learning experience; boosting literacy in Y3-4; even turning the school around. And how long have we really got to do it? Being very clear about timescales and managing expectations will help us in the long term?


Once we are clear about what needs to be done, the next step is drilling down into the 2 or 3 key things that need to happen at the expense of all else. Lincoln was the ultimate editor. He would keep his team focused by developing its ability to identify the one or two essential issues facing them at that time. Once these were established, his Team of Rivals’ had to ignore the other problems not central to the team’s purpose. Rarely do teams allocate the right amount of time to the most important areas; people and strategy. And what do we do instead? Everything that rushes at us. Which all leads to monster meeting agendas and superficial tick lists that achieve nothing but exhaustion. As Gary Keller says: “When you go as small as possible you will be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”

Good teams are closely aligned:
The problem in any strong organisation is that there will be leaders who also have great focus and strong opinions about our priorities, but frequently about different things to us! Individual pet subjects or areas of interest can cloud and confuse. Good team leaders build consensus around the key things. This is more than distributing strategy documents, or tying performance targets together. Articulating a vision which is simple, visual and memorable in a way which brings the team on board will help tackle the 2 or 3 problems which really count. And the planning of this – this very practical ‘visioning’, is probably best done away from the minutae of daily life.

But alignment problems will emerge for teams as the year rolls on. One team I know had reduced teacher workload by eliminating report-writing in the summer term, wanting staff to focus on planning and writing a stronger scheme of work in this released time. But under the pressure of primary transition days, there was friction because people want to focus time on their particular responsibility or project. So a meeting is called to bring consensus, and this helps refocus at a crucial moment. Which eases relationships.

Red Arrows

Good teams work their values
The values which counted in selecting the team to take your organisation to success must stand the test of time in how they play out. What will we do when books are not marked? Where do we stand on exclusion? Will we work with the grammar school down the road to provide a better post-16 offer? How will we measure staff performance targets? Not arbitrary bland statements, but real decisions leading to concrete actions based on principles. These will impact how we share out tasks and responsibilities within our teams, and when there is friction or disagreement around these, then there are strong principles to fall back on to structure our decision-making.

We need to hire people who really get the importance of people-skills. When interviewing for middle and senior posts its probably safe to assume that technical skill (build a curriculum, create an assessment system, deep teaching know-how) is an essential, but never underestimate the desirable importance of coaching, persuading and especially role modelling to people. People-skills make the difference. And don’t misunderstand diversity. We want to appoint strong diversity (difference) in our people, but it is key that we hire people who share our intimate set of values (similarity).


Expanding organisations such as MATs have a values challenge. It may be that those beliefs which a Trust forged together in its tight crucible when small, risk becoming so dilute that they are meaningless. Instead of inadvertently creating a motley collection of schools with no golden thread, the best Trusts ensure that students, staff and parents know precisely what they stand for. What the team values, celebrates, strives for.

In good teams you feel the culture:
 The way a group operates is fascinating. We see its positive power working inside World Cup winning teams, successful families and great businesses. We know exactly what it looks and feels like when we’ve got it, but how do we achieve it? A well-rooted and established culture in an organisation feels just right – like it’s been there forever. Group culture has physical presence – if we stand back and watch we see lots of eye contact, close proximity and energetic meetings. Incisive questions, deep listening, warm humour, handshakes, people mixing with all parts of the organisation (versus a climate of stifled hierarchy). In other words great chemistry. It is both very exciting to watch and yet creates a sense of true security. It is infectious. 

hockey 2

Actually it is collective efficacy: Where we receive helpful information about our impact as teachers, where we have a shared language about what will make a difference to children and where we model this regularly to each other then it is likely that ‘collective efficacy’ really exists in our schools. It is more than a buzz. Its a buzz with purpose.

The weakest link or the strongest improver? Strong teams forge protection around the newest recruit who feel this force for good. There is a refocusing of practical help, which supports and coaches and deals with inevitable mistakes. And so the potentially weakest link in the team actually becomes the strongest improver.

Good teams ask deeper questions:
When we are looking at a really tricky issue, often we don’t have the right answer at our fingertips. It becomes even harder when we are not sure if we are even starting with the right question. Good teams think harder about the questions they ask. Recalibrating questions helps attack the root causes of the problem rather than the symptoms. Perhaps the question we are wrestling with is: How do we make sure that more of our pupils get a higher grade in science. Sometimes expressing this simply is important. Or: Why don’t our students know as much science content as the subject down the corridor/school down the road/across the country? Or instead we might ask: How have we made science content easier to learn? What are the content deal-breakers that are at our disposal (Knowledge Organisers, QLAs, textbooks, the panoply of websites, Low Stakes Assessments, Tassomai)? Or even: Does our KS3 system of assessment allow us to build knowledge over time? And so the question: Where is the best practice for building content knowledge ? Could probably be rephrased: Which teachers are particularly skilled at getting each child to know how to write a grade 7/8 answer?

We know that recruiting good science teachers is a Sysyphean task, so we might rethink this as: How do we create such an exciting culture around science learning that this becomes a place which draws in the best of the new recruits? Asking probing, honest questions about our strengths and weaknesses means investing in the gaps. 


Good teams run few meetings well: Probably the best outward expression of a leaders’ style and of the development of the team is the way that meetings are set up and planned; both team meetings and one-to-ones. Is it always listening to the leader, or is it a genuine sharing of knowledge and people’s contributions? So much time in staff and department meetings feels purposeless, which makes everyone feel devalued and damages goodwill. In Kill Bad Meetings Hall and Hall shine a light into wasted time. 50% of meeting content is not relevant to participants and does not need to be discussed collectively, and 20% of participants should even not be there. They argue that in fact 20% of meetings should be shelved. Andy Buck insists on the power of the regular, developmental conversation being “at the heart of what really drives improvement and performance.” His Features of Great 1:1 meetings is one I return to again and again. Engaging our teams in real activities that are actually of benefit to day to day roles but is so important.

Failed Business

In good teams the best ideas Win:
(and not hierarchy for its own sake). The most secure leaders are open to great ideas about how to do things differently. Better maybe. Unafraid to be questioned. Not always right. Prepared to listen. Caroline Webb urges us to actively seek dissent within our teams, quoting Eric Schmidt of Google:
“In meetings I find the people who haven’t spoken, who are often the ones who are afraid to speak out but have a dissenting opinion. I get them to say what they really think, which promotes discussion, and then the right thing happens.”

Good team leaders coach, instead of offer solutions:
It certainly helps if teams have an expectation that they plan thoughtfully for 1:1 meetings. We might typically bring two lists of issues to discuss: 1) these are the things I have done and the reasons behind my decision, and 2) I need to help with these thorny issuesBut if we always come to meetings with our line manager with answers nailed, then both partners lose the opportunity for reflection and growth, and a better constructed, jointly-worked solution. It is this essential dynamic, which is at the heart of great teams:
…I struggled and was anxious about something
…We thought the problem through together
…We came to a stronger solution.
Maybe we encourage people to offer solutions too readily. Instead ask better questions.


Good teams are teachable: 
We want to work with people who are open to new learning and who can then put that learning into practice in the pressure-cooker of work. Clive Woodward says the best teams rely on teachability: they are eager to listen, willing to learn and looking to continually build on what they have already achieved: sponges who absorb new ideas try to adapt and learn. Then it is about applying this learning, ‘thinking clearly under pressure’. We cannot perform under pressure if we haven’t already experienced the situation beforehand. Teams need to anticipate all eventualities. One team introducing the technique of incremental coaching asked themselves, as they planned dates into the calendar, “What will we do if we reach the situation where a colleague is unhappy with their two succinct elements of feedback and want a different coach?” So they incorporated that next step into their planning.

european business review

Good teams use the bench:
There has been a revolution in the perception of reserves or substitutes across a wide range of sports. In rugby they are now known as ‘finishers’, in NBA basketball people talk about the all-important ‘6th man’, the one who makes a significant contribution to the team’s success but isn’t one of the 5 starters on the basketball court. John Maxwell identifies the two groups in our organisations; ‘starters’ (frontline people who directly add value to the organisation) and ‘the bench’ (who indirectly add value). We need to develop those currently on the bench. We all spend time on the bench. It is the future, they make a huge contribution to the health of the organisation and there are more bench players than starters. B
ecause they may be more distant from the chalk-face and with a primarily supportive role, non-teaching staff often miss out on valuable development . But the best leaders identify the strengths of every colleague, celebrate what they do, extract the best of what they offer and develop them to become better. There are so many better ways that we could harness peoples’ different skill-sets, from the ‘expectations-setting’ stage to the ‘nailing-results’ phase. 

Great starters are not enough to secure victory any more. For our team to perform well over the stresses and strains of the year, we need strength in depth. Call it succession planning, talent-spotting or just plain good sense we build the team for the long term. A good team with no bench will collapse. 

H4H Stretcher Hi Res no bg feet

Sometimes people drop out of a team to try to accomplish goals on their own, but they find that they miss the synergy of being part of a cohesive team. As John Wooden UCLA coach says: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team”Teams, when they put each other first, win.

How to Lead – Jo Owen | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Originals – Adam Grant | How to Have a Good Day – Caroline Webb | Winners – Alistair Campbell | The Best Place to Work – Ron Friedman | High Performers – Alistair Smith | Legacy – James Kerr | Kill Bad Meetings – Kevan Hall & Alan Hall

Teamwork 1/Building teams, building trust


“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” Lyndon Johnson

One is too small a number to secure much of significance. We all work in teams, contribute to teamwork and sometimes lead them. Now is the moment in the year when we look closely at the people we will be working with in September.

The success or failure of a team often appears to rest on circumstance, chance or personality. But listening to the England manager over the last two weeks, he talks less about the fleeting nature of luck in sport and more about building the team for the long term. Gareth Southgate seems to have released an energy and a belief in his team. English World Cup fever isn’t resting, as in previous years, on a few well-merchandised names. In interviews Southgate hasn’t obsessed over results and won’t be drawn over individuals, but he talks thoughtfully about the culture built up within the wider team in the training camp. He focuses on the training process not media hyperbole. He knows his team and trusts their skill level, and values their humanity. He is smiling, relaxed and approachable. And he looks good in a waistcoat. Something here to learn I think. For more about what GS’s leadership read andrewmorrish’s brilliant blog here.

pile on

Comparisons of work-teams to teams in sport don’t really work for me. Sports teams train together, exercise together, eat together, have daily briefings together and ultimately perform together. In schools any of that team ethic is diluted by about a thousand kids and a disparate range of subject interests. The daily grind of teaching, supervising and caring means time with our staff team is precious. Team meetings are secondary to the primary purpose of the day. World Cup footballers can drill a freekick or a deadball situation over and over so it is semi-automatic before it’s perfect for match play. During practice, players perform in front of peers while coaches scrutinise and teammates cajole. It raises everyone’s level helps control some of the external variables. These sessions create not just a shared understanding but practice the specific skill so that this is precisely what will happen when they perform. But for us mortals our meetings are not set up for us to practise the skill we deliver. In schools we don’t rehearse target-questions, watch each others’ starters or weigh-up feedback. What is called teaching practice stops after PGCE. In teaching we don’t have a practising culture.

Instead often our CPD implicitly assumes that we all get it. Then the day begins and we say the same things to children as they enter our classrooms, we repeat the same patterns of instruction. We fall prey to the inevitable cycle of habit. The same mistakes and the same strengths; we flounder or fly.

And it’s often lonely. We yearn for the banter and the heightened challenge of actually being part of a real team that connects, that learns together, plays together, maybe eats together, certainly sharpens each other. That is fun to be a part of! At its worst teaching is not a team game. Sometimes it feels like solitary confinement for adults. Does it need to be like that? What can we do to help us feel like we are more than the sum of our parts? How do we develop a strong team culture, so we become better practitioners within a great ethos and want to stay in a profession that we love?

Here’s some common questions about teams:
How do I build the right team and build trust?
How do I keep the team focused on the right things?
I’ve got good people in my team, working hard, how do
 I improve our performance?

Which I’ll attempt to cover over the following 3 blogs:
1/Building the team
2/Organising the team with purpose 
3/Learning from world class teams



Small teams work fastest:
Because we are looking for enthusiastic and capable people and because there are always new targets to hit and new responsibilities to fill, there is a temptation to over-grow the team. Research suggests that a team’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to size. A small team is stronger: the fewer people we appoint the more we attend to quality, the better focus we can devote to improving their day-to-day effectiveness, all of which leads to better, more rapid decision-making. If we aren’t careful, in larger teams sub-groups can develop and positioning can get in the way. Extended teams have become popular – these offer aspiring leaders an opportunity to show what they can do and a bigger team can enable succession planning. But too often this runs away with itself and with the budget.


The Bus – who before what: 
Building teams is a labour of love, but cliché or no cliché, getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong ones off the bus is the starting point. Looking at Jim Collin’s much quoted mantra two bits which are often missed are: “Get the right people in the right seats”, and “Put who before what”. Choosing the membership of our team is the most significant lever in how our team will perform. It is why Heads say that hiring good people is the most important thing they do, and growing great team culture is fundamental to long term reputation. We neglect this truth and sometimes cloud it with details: job descriptions, team structures, pay grades. Ultimately it is about the people. According to a recent McKinsey survey more than a third of US worker said top teams did not have the right people.

Keep your enemies close:
 In the early days of forming your team, the chances are that each member of the team you inherit will not have been your first choice. Yet getting people on board with your ideas, working constructively alongside them and getting the best out of them for the time they are with you is fundamental. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”  is the story of his three rivals for the presidential nomination, William H Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates. Lincoln built his team from his fiercest rivals. Often a newly appointed leader has to work with a colleague they were pitted against in an interview and this can either be full of friction or the beginning of a respectful working relationship. Lincoln’s skill in team-building was the ability to keep these ‘factions’ together. “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Because he understood the difficulties facing America at the time, he refused to compromise on appointing the finest people simply because of negative comments in the past. Lincoln was a brilliant leader principly because he was a great team builder. As Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 2 advises. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.85906610

Working with difficult people: Work is not perfect and we all have to work with difficult people, if not quite Boris Johnson. At our worst they get our backs up and we react to them with our default behaviours that just seem to compound their awfulness and their negative impact on the team. It helps to plan how to manage these people. 
In ‘Originals’, Adam Grant explains that we tend to view our relationships as on a continuum from positive to negative. Our closest friends support us, our enemies actively work against us. He describes the concept of ‘frenemies’ – people who sometimes support you and sometimes undermine you. These ambivalent relationships are actually unhealthier than negative relationships because we are constantly on guard, wondering if that person can be trusted. All of which takes emotional energy. Although we tend to focus on building ties with the people who support us, evidence suggests we should instead spend more time developing those who started out against us. They have to work against their original feelings, to overcome their instinct about us, saying ‘I must have been wrong about that person’. These former enemies will be our best advocates when it comes to persuading others. Grant writes about how the suffragetter Lucy Stone won over some of her greatest rivals in this way:

“When Stone walked around hanging up posters announcing abolition speeches, young men followed her and ripped them down. Stone asked them if they loved their mothers. Absolutely. She explained that in the South, men of their own age were sold as slaves, and they would never see their families again. She invited them to attend the evening’s lecture as her ‘special agents’. Such street recruits proved useful allies, able to defuse other troublemakers.”

Drains and radiators:
 Understanding the energy levels of the people within our team is crucial in predicting how they will work with others and how productive they will be. Some will be energy-sappers and some energy-givers and this will make a huge difference to the team’s happiness and effectiveness. Former Team Sky’s coach Sir Dave Brailsford describes those who he wants and doesn’t want on his team. “I want a culture that is hungry and ambitious, doesn’t see barriers, constantly creating, but organised and disciplined, otherwise change can spiral out of control.” He uses Donald Tosti’s ‘Energy Investment Model’: With energy along the x axis and attitude along the y axis:


Apart from the bottom left quadrant who need to move on, the two middle quadrants can be coached to become team players. Clive Woodward had some concerns about the character and quality of some of his team building up to the World Cup Finals. So he took them to SAS HQ in Hereford. The brigadier supervising the process, gave Woodward a list of players who would never make the marines, not because of skill but because of general attitude. It matched Woodward’s list and they were moved out.

Borrowing outsider wisdom: 
We all use external eyes to help inform and challenge our thinking, but its not always easy to challenge our assumptions. We have blind spots and we don’t even know what they are. Teams have to make difficult decisions and over time the best teams get more of these right than wrong. Caroline Webb says we should think of someone we respect but who does things differently to us, and ask this devil’s advocate “What do you see differently? What are we missing? What assumptions in our thinking would you challenge and what advice would you give?” There is a good chance this will highlight our ‘institutional blindspots’, and help us to think about the information we need to seek out to make a better decision? Outsiders could be best placed to point these out.

Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ describes one idea to gather ‘insider wisdom’. This is the ‘FedEx Day’, from Australian company Atlassian. These are one-day bursts of autonomy which gives people the chance to work on anything they want which will improve the organisation, provided they show what they’ve created to their colleagues 24 hours later. Hence FedEx Days because participants have to deliver something overnight.


Bring diversity and search out introverts: We hope that with greater diversity and a deeper understanding of what makes successful leaders, the era of the macho, extrovert, charismatic leader is over. Susan Cain challenges us; Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait…introverts in an extrovert culture are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Because we are all in the business of understanding the learning process deeply, then it stands to reason that our strongest teams (at all levels) will be those who have the deepest conversations about teaching and curriculum. In my experience, thoughtful introverts trump extroverts here.

Choose those who make the team look good: A good friend of mine is a youth minister and inspirational team builder, leading teams who support huge numbers of young people. He works with parents who are volunteering, so motivation and time are at a premium. There is a infectious positivity and energy about him, but most noticeably an implicit humility about what he has achieved. When things go right he points to others in the different teams he has built up and their myriad achievements, when there are problems he shoulders them himself. Roy Hodgson, (manager of 16 football teams in 8 countries) describes two types of player: “The players who bring what they have to the team and make the team good, and players who use the team to make themselves look good.  We try to be everything, instead of stepping back and allowing less experienced people lead. Not everyone has to be in the stage-lights. How do we celebrate the invisible dynamos as well as those on the front line?


Building trust:
Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ classic team-development model visualises how teams move through the gears beyond the norms stage to real performance. Expectations are clear at the outset and before long there is a blending of the formal structures (eg. appraisal meetings) and the informal structures (one-to-ones) which creates a fluency where the organisation makes rapid progress towards its shared goal. However, in this model trust comes only at the end of the process. Leadership expert Andy Buck compares this with Patrick Lencioni’s model where trust comes much earlier on in the stages and he believes that this is crucial to team members properly being able to engage in honest debate and fulfilling decision-making. He suggests a compromise, so the sequence looks more like this:

  3. TRUST
  5. BUY-IN

Why micromanagement doesn’t work:  When we are treated simply as cogs in a production machine and are not trusted to make decisions as a team we rebel. We’ve all seen these teams: Top-down, tick-lists of actions, tightly controlled agendas and little distribution of real responsibility or opportunities for leadership. McGregor’s ‘Human Side of Enterprise’ is a classic description of human motivation at work. He describes X-type and Y-type managers. X-types are essentially cynical and don’t trust employees. Bosses boss and the workers work. They coerce through formal authority, compliance, hierarchy and close monitoring. Y-types operate through trust, empowerment and respect. Thankfully the world has moved from Victorian-mill X-type to twenty-first century Y-type but we need to watch for managers who still operate in X-mode.

The temptation to micromanage downwards is usually because we are the next head on the chopping block and so we pass on urgency – the unachievable deadline or the unintelligible goal – to our team, which piles short term pressure to deliver, stifling the long term development of the team and curbing autonomy. Don’t obsess: allow.

Conversely, we know when the team is functioning, all the cogs working and where trust is central. This sense of identity and culture is as tangible for staff as it is with students. Changing the culture around our teams is paramount and it is led from the top:

“Headteachers in challenging schools have to create goodwill with our staff because we ask so much of our teachers. You gauge the staff morale like a doctor checking for the pulse of a patient.” Dame Sally Coates.

So creating a culture of trust is central to the next stage because this is all about the process of getting the job done in the right way. Building the team is the starting point. Once we have a team we know will function well, it is time to get moving.


How to Lead – Jo Owen | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Originals – Adam Grant | How to have a good day – Caroline Webb | Winners – Alistair Campbell | The Best Place to Work – Ron Friedman | High Performers – Alistair Smith | Legacy – James Kerr | Kill Bad Meetings – Kevan Hall & Alan Hall

What T20 Finals Day taught me…about going back to school


Getting the right team?
It’s not always about the big names. Yesterday’s winners Notts Outlaws could have picked their test player Stuart Broad, but they didn’t. Instead they chose the right team for the right format, and the consistent players who had got them to the final. Actually on finals day, the biggest names of each of the 4 semi-finalists (big hitters Alex Hales and Shahid ‘boom boom’ Afridi especially) failed. Strong internal day-to-day consistency from everyone is always better than flashy ‘outstanding’ individual showcases.


Knowing the situation you are in
: Samit Patel and Brendan Tayor won the final match with a 132 run partnership, just when it looked like the team was crumbling. They did it by batting slowly, carefully, not at first with lots of big, popular T20 hitting, but assessing the situation and slowly, deliberately building an innings. The crowd were impatient, knowing that the run rate might be too slow. But, faced with a potential collapse, these two made the right decision, built slowly, then accelerated. Knowing context, planning methodically & choosing the right strategy for the long journey.


Are we really a team?
 More than any other of the 4 teams on the day, the victorious Notts Outlaws had a discernible habit. As we watched from the stands, every wicket they took would precipitate the whole team, from all corners of the field, sprinting together for celebratory high fives and hugs. Contact which spoke clearly of authenticity. The other teams did it to some extent, but it wasn’t the same. More tokenistic, with less intensity. How much do we come together as a team and really build each other up, genuinely spur each other to become better at our practice, authentically celebrate what is going well and revel in our collective strength? Build strong team-building habits 


It’s not about the manager:
For the girl who is struggling in that maths group in Y8, it is the teacher who is more important to her than the Head or the CEO. Moores is a steadying, strong presence but the attention of the media and the crowd is focused on the players, not on him. Know who is really important.


Learn from failure:
Peter Moores, who had two unsuccessful spells as England manager (including one spectacular falling out with Kevin Pieterson) says “To win both white ball trophies in a season is a really rare thing. If you do that then it’s very, very special,” he said. “I think a lot of it comes down to mindset. We’ll go there as a settled team, a settled group of players who have gone through a bit of a journey. We were slow out the blocks and honestly, we weren’t really a proper team. We’d made a lot of changes – we had four or five different players and that took a bit of settling. Credit to (captain) Dan Christian and the players. They were honest and admitted they hadn’t got it right. ” We learn much more from our failures than our high points. 


Catching practice at night:
while we waited for the final to begin, Andrew Flintoff and David Lloyd (Freddie & Bumble to aficionados) goofed around singing Karaoke Elvis and Jonny Cash. Magic. Some players relaxed, watched and laughed along with the crowd, but there was a small, core group of players in the darkest corner of Edgbaston, away from the flashbulb media-scrum, who did catching drills for 30 minutes before the final game, as the sun was setting over West Bromwich. Catching in the dark. Adjusting eyes. Yesterday catches won matches. Remember what our colleagues do and achieve for children in schools in the quiet moments, thoughtfully and away from the spotlight. That’s what counts.

Learn from the best
– 25 years ago the game was dying on its feet. County Cricket had all the vim and vigour of a picnic in Tunbridge Wells. Anticipation for a game looked a little like this:


Rather than this (people queuing for tickets for an Indian IPL game):


So the game learnt from mass-popular formats such as IPL (Indian Premier League) and it became more international, more sexy, attracted the big channels, and and caught the imagination of young people again.


Over the summer reading the excellent Cleverlands by Lucy Creehan, has reminded me that there is a lot to be learnt from the performance of schools in other countries, not just for their quantitative PISA rankings, but also for the qualitative learning we can take. This can guide us in how we re-culture our schools to drive better progress and think more widely about what school should look like to be successful in the future and feel less like an annual slog for teachers and leaders (as well as students). Educating our next generation is a serious business, but it needs to be a profession with huge amounts of heart and fun, so that it attracts the best next generation of young talented inspirers. Let’s enjoy the ride!


Award sensitively!
 And finally the beautiful moment when the only injury of the day was incurred by the oversized trophy being presented rather forcefully, amongst the flowing champagne, into the Notts skipper’s head. Note to self!




Pochettino and Pencil Cases


I have supported Tottenham Hotspur since I was 4 yrs old, and in that time they have wavered from also-rans to jostling with glory in the FA Cup to relegation. Their regular underachievement has helped remind me of my own humanity. As West Brom is to Frank Skinner and Adrian Chiles, so Spurs have been to me in my teaching career. Down the years Yr11 boys would, on a chilly Monday at break time call across a cold wet playground “Unlucky yesterday sir!” and that spirit of compassionate, slightly downbeat camaraderie has often aligned me with them. Sometimes sulking helps.

Possession is one tenth of the law.
But something has utterly changed. Spurs fortunes have transformed this season and they are on the verge of doing something ridiculously successful. They are not immune from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it really looks like they might do it. So what has happened? A lazy conclusion one could draw would be that they have two or three class players at last in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele. But the truth has to be different: the evidence shows that over the years even when they have had great partnerships in the same team; Ardiles & Villa, Hoddle & Crooks, Gilzean & Chivers they have never quite reached expectations. But this year the Spurs coach Pochettino has done something monumental and yet simple which is way beyond bringing in big-name players. Added to this, and incredibly, ten of the last 18 England debutantes have grown through Pochettino’s coaching philosophy, at Spurs and at his previous club Southampton. He is doing something special. Sometimes the most effective transformations come from simple ideas.

If you could distil success in football down to one key variable, it would be possession. A quick look at the correlation between possession stats in the English Premiership shows that 5 of the top 8 teams have the best possession figures. Roughly the same picture emerges across italian Serie A and La Liga in Spain. 

So then presumably possession is the number one ingredient to successful football teams. Retaining possession for around 56% of the match means that the opposition have less time on the ball and obviously, less time to score. The exception in the Premiership of course is Leicester, with their twin pairing of Mahrez and Vardy who rely on speed and attack on the break, rather than through a slow, possession build- up.  The evidence suggests that with Barcelona (the most successful club in years) at the top of the European possession league at 62% then this assertion is true. Pep Guardiola, the former Barca coach must have distilled the essentials of this approach to perfection. But of course there is more to it than that. Barcelona use an ABAC passing structure (eg. Xavi to Messi, back to Xavi then onto Neymar), which separates them from other clubs with similar high profile players (who more often use an ABCD routine). So not random possession but a carefully planned structure, which breaks through defences. The Spanish national team has dominated world football for years, and has changed football into a game that is less about brilliant attacking play and more about patience, avoiding mistakes, and making certain that mathematics ensures you cannot lose. (bear with me if you have a football allergy – there is method in my madness)

Pep Guardiola is the most wanted manager in the world and will soon move to Manchester City, the fifth richest club in the world according to Forbes’ rankings (Barcelona is second to Real Madrid). Clearly great coaches don’t come cheap. Of course this knowledge is not new. A brief look at the Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football, shows that these simple concepts were built on the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football which emerged through the 1970s through Feyenoord and Ajax and which the Dutch master Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona.pep

This also influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, less Wimbledon 1990s long ball; more of a two-touch, non-contact possession game. And so great young coaches like Mauricio Pochettino are borrowing this knowledge, from Cruyff and Guardiola before him, and harnessing it to their advantage. I watched from the Hawthorns stands before Christmas as Moussa Dembele utterly controlled the Spurs – West Brom match  dominating possession in the middle and yet only achieving a draw. Sometimes the means do not always achieve the ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken some of the randomness out of the game. Great coaches develop predictable success.

Knowing that we never stay still for long, and that after half term I wanted to see another real hike in expectations at school, I decided to go and see an example of what constitutes success in education.

I went to Magna Academy in Poole four weeks ago. Sometimes disparaging comparisons between education and football management are made, but in this instance I was looking to see what simple truths & techniques the head coach/headteacher had distilled in order to springboard a school from special measures to outstanding within three years. There were many very robust and incisive approaches to tracking data and creating much more ambitious flightpaths for children the moment they arrive in year seven now that key Stage 3 is dead. Teaching was clearly changing lives. But three of the key drivers for this transformation had been:

  • Equipping all students with full pencil cases where the majority of children receive the Pupil Premium
  • Students moving in silence around the academy (while all staff stand on duty), and
  • Teachers controlling the first five minutes of each lesson with silent starters.

Establishing a baseline of behaviour routines has meant for staff that this is a joyous place to teach, has taken much of the behaviour management stress away from teachers (at a time when we are reminded daily that teachers are leaving the profession), and equally importantly has meant that children are thriving in a calm environment of exploratory, high class learning. Children at Magna Academy are now competing with the two grammar schools in Poole for progress and even for overall attainment.
Like Poole, Gloucester is a city where for years the status quo has permitted a small number of underperforming state schools to wane while the grammars and high performing state schools remain in pole position, seemingly in glorious isolation.Two weeks ago, the next step change in expectations happened at Gloucester Academy and it is that perfect combination of the trilogy of right equipment, quiet movement between lessons and perfect, silent starters which have transformed learning in the last two weeks. No excuses about equipment save hundreds of minutes each week. Our regular nudges in our schools demonstrate a desire to want our children to receive and benefit from the kind of ethos, behaviour and quality of teaching that formerly only existed in a few schools. Can this culture change that schools embracing such ‘no excuses’ transformations create social mobility? Of course it can.

It has brought greater consistency without destroying the individuality of each teacher and it has allowed students to thrive in their learning. It creates predictable success because it supports the least experienced teacher in the building. The feedback from children has been immense, and teachers describe how much more enjoyable it is not giving out equipment and being able to focus on the essentials of good quality instruction for well-equipped, well-organised students right from the outset of each lesson.
What are the things that will have the greatest impact for the least input? In sport and in schools learning from great coaches and leaders can sometimes help us distil and simplify what are essentially complex organisations in order to find simple and clear nudges which can yield surprising results. Pochettino has learnt this for Spurs and increasingly I am learning this for GA.

10 steps to turn the ship


In his book “Turning the ship around” L. David Marquet uses his experience as the captain of the nuclear submarine the Santa Fe, to redefine a different kind of leadership style. Being confronted with the worst performing submarine in the US fleet he watched at first hand as those he led blindly followed poor orders rather than using their own thinking to improve. He urges us to move away from the traditional leader-follower model and instead encourage an intent-based leadership style where people feel more valued and are proud to become part of something bigger than themselves.

Here are my 10 reflections on school turnarounds:

Step 1: Learning from great peers – Working in federation enables much more than networking.  I have seen the days before this era when Local Authorities did not effectively improve hard-to-move schools, often failed to equip leaders to enact change and where consultants came and went, some effective, some less so. As a Principal my CEO holds me to account in a way which means things have to change rapidly for my children, but also provides me with the tools and feet-on-the-ground support to make this happen. “This helps accelerate student progress faster than if you do it alone, someone has already thought about the problem you are trying to solve”, says Claire Carter, the WHF Professional Development leader, talking to the second group of cross-phase Middle Leaders in Gloucester completing their 6 week programme this week. We are striving to develop leaders at all levels to build capacity in our schools.

Step 2: Start by pointing the camera back at us – what do standards really look like? Being a new Principal allows you that privilege of turning the camera back at the children and staff. The first thing I did in a previous school was to take a running series of photos of the route into school for children, behind fencing which at the time resembled Guantanamo Bay, compared with the sleepy walk for staff down the drive into the calm, staff-only reception. And why was it like this? Because some of the children could not be trusted to be in reception in front of visitors. Capturing this screaming polarity on camera was powerful and meant that reversing this mindset with staff was so much easier.

Step 3: How good is your teaching team? Have a set of photos of all staff in reception, or your office, and study it regularly. This is the team you are creating, building and fine-tuning and who will change lives. When you stand and look does it fill you with pleasure and purpose? They will bring joy and hope and life-changing difference. Or they won’t. Do you revel with joy about the team surrounding you who will bring sparkle and pleasure, strength and rigour to our childrens’ lessons and lives? Are they a team of life changers who keep you on your toes?  “While school structures and organisations have changed, the two essential components at the heart of real shift is the way that we assess and the fundamental question: How do we increase teacher quality?” Dylan Wiliam– Embedded Formative Assessment). One of the most significant ways to model your leadership of teaching, both to your commitment to the learning process and to the fact that you practice what you preach, is to be in the classes where you need to see a big shift. It supports teachers with the progress of those children working below par by sitting next to them, showing and modelling, and it shows to children that the quality of teaching and learning on a daily basis is what you most care about. Done positively and with discernment, it improves teachers confidence and we all teach better!

Step 4: Forge brilliant relationships in and out of the school – these are the meat and drink of a great leader – that blend of excellent professional engagement, developing serious rigour with governors, warm but strong parental contact and a rapport with students which blends great expectations with that palpable privilege of working together. These relationships are our metier. Without these essentials the best-laid improvement plans will fall flat; will be the science without the art. That said, there is an inevitable tension in trying to develop strong positive outward-facing professional relationships while being relentlessly concerned with urgently needing to drive standards in your own school, and making sure that you are a trusted, steadying presence for staff and students.

Step 5: Create routines of delivery which will work and listen – Michael Barber describes brilliantly how it is the dull, repetitive, mundane routines which drive improvement at government and at school level. From the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s second term, where the purpose was to deliver on the promises Blair made but failed to deliver in the first term, Barber manages to make dull attractive. Once the new systems have been introduced, then the next phase of embedding the system and driving change is fundamental. Don’t keep changing: just make it work for teachers and students!

Step 6: Gauge the tipping point – There are certain key moments of the turnaround there are threshold points. Perhaps the new behaviour system we introduce causes a necessary squeeze which children like at first because of improvement but then there reaches a point when the minority infringing the new rules becomes a critical mass. The staff and students begin to disbelieve the system. The teaching is rapidly improving but because the legacy of practice and routine has not been good, learners are fragile, have unstable routines and lack the resilience for the necessary in-class challenge before they resent the changes and give up. At the same time school leaders and Ofsted demand more challenge.  Getting past this tipping point means a clear strategy. Sometimes it means understanding on both sides, sometimes it means stickability. Always it means retaining strong principles that underpin what we are trying to do and creating the conditions for teachers to be successful.

Step 7Disarming humility – every day you will see people who do things better, spot ideas quicker, work smarter, teach with more impact, connect with children more sharply. Our job is of course to celebrate these paragons of our profession, even as we wonder whether we have lost our own powers! We will look at challenges that we missed, difficult conversations we could have had six months ago and which haven’t gone away. Times when we should have stuck to our principles to hold standards, and times when what was required was a touch of humanity and care to reconsider workload or to bring out the best in our team. The leaders that I have found the most attractive and ultimately the most effective in the long term are those who are transparent in their own humanity while retaining the essential drive and moral purpose to deliver better standards for children.

 Step 8: Precision about what, when – “I’ve inspected a few schools recently and they are doing the wrong things really well” described a friend of mine last week. Surgery is sometimes needed. More often it is real precision. A precise teaching document, or precision around behaviour policy and culture so that we all know where we stand. What are you rewarded for as a student? Is there real precision around marking. Are we really sharp about what we value? Our front of school will tell every visitor all they need to know about our values. This means the way in which we structure reception, whether you allow children in, how your reception team are supported, trained and celebrated. Be precise about what is needed in the different phases of improvement – a great deal has been written about this for any organisation. Phase 1 may get you out of Special Measures or into the Good territory, but you may need to consider changing people and systems at the very time that you are celebrating your first stage of the journey. The courage to do this will be part of the story when you look back.

Step 9: Focus on effort – it is in the control of children to change this – and not much else. I have yet to find a school which doesn’t try to celebrate effort with integrity, but many struggle to articulate how they describe effort. We may use Claxton’s ‘learning habits’, the work of Dweck to develop learning habits or Art Costa’s ‘ habits of mind’. Whichever we choose we know that, throughout the use of strong CPD and incremental shifts in practice in the classroom, we grow and develop learners with the right personal attributes and learning dispositions. At the end of 15 years of education in our schools we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. If we put this alongside the ideas of Matthew Syed (Bounce) we could create a revolution in our school in what we value. Talk about who are the ‘best practisers’ whatever the starting point, and cancel G&T work? 

Step 10: ExcellencePart of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us is our role in creating schools which value the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge, dig deeper and develop time-taking excellence. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff which is still exciting, not something to shy away from and not something that google has a monopoly on. When flow is happening and where beautiful work is being produced and where children are intensely proud of their work then there is a sense of awe, the enjoyment of autonomy and pride in the final assignment, the finished article, the fourth draft of the poem, the completed DT model, the perfectly-topped pizza, the dance performance honed for the parents coming in. There is a sense of “I couldn’t possibly do better than this”. This is what we need to create. Not much leadership time is spent sitting with children to praise and challenge them around what quality looks like, to ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s prioritise leadership & teaching strategies towards what will craft towards excellence as a product. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables matter, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Excellence and mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by us all.