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

Core Purpose

one thing.jpg

This weekend my oldest son Harry went to University to begin his course in music, specialising in piano. It was a BIG weekend for the family. There were mixed emotions – a great sense of the start of a new adventure for an 18 year old and a moment in time, but of course tinged with sadness for Mum and Dad as son number 1 moves away from home for the first time. I am now sat typing in his empty room, missing him already!

It has made me reflect on what we want for our children and what I want as a Principal for all of our students at Gloucester Academy. University is not the route for every child, but it should be a possible, realistic and affordable decision for those that want it. Part of my job is to ensure that the quality of teaching and the learning environment in GA is so strong that any child who wants to explore what university might be like can do so. I want us to create such an aspirational atmosphere that all of our children and young people will succeed in their journey, whatever that journey may be. More of our young people should go to University and this is one of my ambitions for GA.

When I arrived in July for the last few days of the summer term I did a lot of listening. I listened to many students and parents and staff and governors so that I could reflect on what needed to be our priorities. Over the first four weeks since I started at GA we have introduced a number of new systems which are a response to this ‘listening’. They also grow out of our VALUES and our CORE PURPOSE, which will form a significant part of our thinking and growth this year. We are part of the strongly values-based White Horse Federation with clear principles about the way that we work together and look after each other.


OUR CORE PURPOSE: “We are a dynamic school community, engaged with Gloucester, where a commitment to excellence in teaching, learning and personalised support inspires students to thrive at school and in the world”


  • Every member of our school community – student and staff – matters
  • Everything comes out of relationship so getting our relationships right is important
  • Everyone works to ensure all students and all staff have a real sense of belonging to the school community

Part of being in a family means being listened to. When Matt Discombe from The Gloucester Citizen came into school to meet me last week it was crucial for me that he meet our brilliant students because they are best placed to describe what is changing at GA, not me. Students need to be at the heart of what we do.

Our new House system will ensure that we are all important and feel part of a family. The House system will bring a togetherness, and allow younger children to feel part of academy life much more quickly. The new restore meetings at the end of the day mean that when things go wrong, we have a structured and calm process to help them put things right. This means that we get quickly back into our learning and we learn about how to restore problems in life as they crop up.


  • We learn to believe in ourselves and in one another, in who we are, in what we do; in our work, rest and leisure; in serving the world
  • We grow in awareness of ourselves, others, the school and local community, the UK and the world
  • We see feedback as our friend, learning how to give and receive positive and constructive feedback so that we grow

Believing that I can respond to and learn from feedback is part of the journey to being a mature adult. We are intent on developing this capacity in each of our learners: students and staff. Feedback is the watchword of the English rugby team as they pour over their laptops and analyse their own performances to pinpoint what needs fine-tuning. Feedback is what my son uses to improve his own piano performances, when things need changing. Feedback is good.


  • Nothing worth having comes easily so we accept the need to work hard to progress to achieve our full potential
  • We work with the personalised support on offer at the school
  • We commit to work excellently as an independent learner, in our work with students and with staff
  • We strive to produce our best work at all times in and outside the classroom, in every area of school life, and in engaging with the local community and with the world

This value is about having a growth mindset: “in the growth mindset you don’t feel the need to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when secretly you’re worried that it’s a pair of tens. The hand you are dealt with is just the starting point …although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and apti-tudes, interests or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through the application and experience.” Carol Dweck

Our new behaviour points system: Part of the feedback that I heard from students in July was that they wanted a really clear system of rewards and they wanted behaviour to be better so that there were no disruptions to learning. In our new system of scoring behaviour for learning this achieves both. All students are scored for their learning behaviour at the end of each lesson, from 1 – Outstanding to 4 – Moved to partner class. At the end of each day students reflect on their grades transparently with their tutor.

I have received hugely positive feedback from students and staff that already it has made a significant shift in the ethos in the academy. Nothing is achieved without hard work, and when students STRIVE within a strong, well-understood behaviour system, then the sky is the limit.


  • With a sense of belonging, a belief in ourselves and in what we are doing, with confidence in others, and striving for excellence, we achieve our full potential at school and in life
  • We take responsibility for ourselves, our progress and our achievements, working alone, with other students and staff to achieve all we are capable of
  • We persevere and never give up

It is early days, but we will explore these values with students in our house discussions, they will be celebrated on the new website, and they will help us to remember what is important and fundamental for young people when the winds of educational change blow (as they will).

What do I watch? How can you help? I spend a great deal of time watching learning in lessons. I sit with students in class and look closely at the quality of their books and their folders. I take photos of great books, great learning and well-presented books and I share this mastery with other teachers and students. After all sometimes the best learning is to see what great looks like. I am really interested in each student’s range of book/folder/finished artwork, and I want us as parents, teachers and governors to work with our children and students on this. Let’s praise them and challenge them with what that quality looks like, and ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s help them respond to teachers’ feedback to support their learning journey. In school we will be using tutor time and mentoring time to create a real focus around the mastery of books. Our primary schools are often really strong in this area. We need to be more like them. If we get this right, then this will mean a long-term improvement in results for our students: in other words, our students will ACHIEVE!

A massive welcome to our fabulous new Year 7s who have made a flying start in New Basics: At the end of 7 years of education with us we want our new Yr7 learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. Children who will have a growth mindset and an inherent self-belief that making mistakes is the path to progress. Who will BELONG with us at Gloucester Academy and feel part of the family. Who will BELIEVE in themselves and their capacity for growth, and who will not be easily defeated. Who will STRIVE to become excellent in all they do and who, through all of this, will ACHIEVE. It is an honour and a privilege to have them with us in the fold.