Everybody is Somebody’s Wingman

I’m feeling devastated by the announcement from my Wingman yesterday that she is leaving to take up a role in another school. Of course, as is the accepted way in Education, I knew she had applied and that she had an interview. I’d written her a reference and we’d had a discussion about what this new role might offer, but I never dreamed that she would actually go!

You see, in all my 15 years as a School Business Manager, this last year has been the most challenging. It has been a hard slog of almost constant change throughout the year. Together, my Wingman and I have had to find new ways of working, introduce new policies, cover for colleagues for whom the changes proved too much, as well as maintaining the day-to-day functions and the morale of other staff. I know it can’t have been easy but she has demonstrated such enormous resilience and, to my mind, she is leaving just when we are about to realise the benefits of all our foundation building work.

I know that I can’t expect to keep my Wingman forever; she isn’t the first one of mine to have grown sufficiently in confidence and skill to enable a move into a position of responsibility commensurate with her capability. Of course, I am thrilled for her success. But for a few days I am going to indulge in feeling bereaved, disorientated and unprepared for the future, so that I can move into a place that understands and accepts her choice.

When I told Barry, he helpfully reminded me of a recent statistic that (whatever they may tell you) 75% of employees leave because of the Boss! So as part of my grieving process, maybe I better spend some time reflecting on whether I could have anticipated and averted her desire to leave.

Am I a Team Player? One of the challenges of being an SBM is that you have to be an active member of a few separate teams. I consider that leading the Finance Team is one of my most important roles and my Wingman takes on all the day-to-day Finance function and staff. I like to do the budget and monthly MI, maybe sharing this will enable my Wingman to be more involved with the whole picture.

Do I push too hard? I accept that I am probably demanding to work with, not in a “do as you’re told” kind of way, but I’m conscious that I set quite a challenging pace. I expect my team to tell me when they have reached capacity. I’m happy to share work, I know there are peaks and troughs in our office and I can input a purchase order or count the non-uniform day bucket. But maybe they can see me working at capacity and don’t like to add to my workload, perhaps I should be more aware of this.

Am I too ‘hands-on’? As an ex-auditor my Wingman bought with her our saying ‘Trust is not a control’. Together we have set up some pretty tight controls, segregation of duties and risk management initiatives. She enforces these controls in the office very effectively and it does mean that I must take my role in the process and not try to do everything, perhaps I need to work harder at this.

So, after this weekend of feeling sorry for myself (and hoping she’ll come to her senses and stay!) here is the Wingman personality (in order of priority) I will be looking for,

Resilient – Not everything will go right, accept , resolve and move on.

Good listener – If I’ve got a problem, I like to talk it through. I find that explaining the issue to someone else is often the quickest way to discover a solution.

Policy enforcer – I recognise that I need someone to remind me of policy and protocol while I am in ‘solution-mode’.

Attention to detail – I need someone to help me control the minutiae. I find little, and avoidable, mistakes annoying. We just haven’t got time for them.

So, unless a miracle happens, I will need to demonstrate my own resilience and put an advert together next week. I need someone as soon as possible of course, but I don’t like rushing this process, the SBM Wingman role is too important to the wellbeing of the whole team and I also have to consider the person for whom I am Wingman. So, as I love to quote from Top Gun, you should be aware that, when it comes to choosing a new Wingman, “I will fire when I am goddamn good and ready.”

What do you look for in a Wingman?

Note: My wonderful Finance Assistant, who has been massively supportive, proactive and patient throughout our years together, doesn’t know about this blog. I have, of course, told her how much I value her contribution (and don’t want her to go). Feel free to share this with your Wingman. We need to look after them!

What level are you working at?

It’s back to work this week to make a start on a new academic year and I’m thinking about all I’ve learned about my work through this blog. I have found myself reluctant to blog about SBM functions because one of the main things I’ve learned is that it is nearly impossible to tell at what sort of ‘level’ I’m working as an SBM. For example, I would never have dreamed of applying to be a NASBM fellow prior to joining Twitter and starting my blog because I am cursed with that typically British humble pie, “Oh there are loads of SBMs out there doing a much better job than me.” Similarly, I’ve always felt that there is a difference between an SBM in the secondary and primary sectors. Not better or worse, just different, which makes me feel unqualified to discuss a wide range of topics.  I also wonder, will anyone be the least bit interested in what I think about the 2017 Academy Finance Handbook or have they all read it, disseminated and made adjustments to policy already?

So where am I as an SBM? I think the trouble with our job is that we are all doing it slightly differently, with different people, skills, situations and priorities. So I thought I’d write down what I think I do well (and not so well). I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the level you believe you are working at and why. 

5 things I do well. 

1. My MI – I’ve always liked my Management Information. It is a self set up system that draws links from staffing contracts, budget, forecast and actuals and reports it on one easy-to-view report for SLT and Governors. It involves some engagement and input from me (I don’t just press a button to populate it) but I like this because it means I know what is going on. There have been some challenges in converting my system into a MAT but nothing that can’t be resolved. 

2. Staffing MI – This has got to be a separate item because although it links into the MI it is extremely useful by itself. I keep 3 years of detail running so could answer pretty much any question you want to throw at me in relation to ‘impact to budget’. For example; “if a Science Teacher goes down to 0.8 in January and I employ another technician, what is the impact on the budget?” or “If 3 staff retired at the end of next year will we manage to break even the following year?” Again the system requires input from me but not onerously so and I love that it’ll give me the answers to any of the SLT efficiency suggestions. 

3. Building – I love building. I realise that our capacity to build is finite and I have considered the Prince 2 qualification but as this would probably take me out of Education I have, so far, managed to hold my ambition in this area at bay. 

4. Health, Safety and Wellbeing –  This is important to me and I find that this is the thing I most hassle other staff about. Are we compliant? Where is the risk assessment on..? Are we ever going to squeeze a wellbeing event into the calendar?

5. Theory to Practice – I find this comes naturally and it is a big interest of mine but, as a consequence I’m not good at writing it down and going through a formal process so that everyone else can see. 

Which brings me on to; 5 things I accept that I’m not so interested in (OK, not good at.)

1. Cleaning – Arguably one of the most important non-teaching services in a school. I guess as it has always been someone else’s remit I’ve never engaged. I know that this must change this year. 

2. The ‘politics’ – I’m interested in politics and healthy debate. I enjoy being challenged and will happily accept constructive criticism. What I can’t stand is unnecessary game playing and one-upmanship. I sometimes want to say ‘if you think you think you can do my job – please, feel free’.

3. IT – OK, please don’t tell anyone this but I have a background in IT. I worked for 12 years in a company building and selling IT equipment. But I don’t have any experience of using IT in a classroom so I try (and usually succeed) to stay well out of it. 

4. Catering – Having 5 children (4 of them boys), I have some very strong ideas about feeding children. However I have found that my ideas are often not compatible with the contractor so I admit that, unless intervention is really needed, I let them get on with it.

5. Expecting too much – I think because I expect so much of myself, I expect the same of others and I need to accept that their priorities and interests are different. This can often result in my feeling let down in some way until I give myself a good talking to and appreciate my colleagues for what they have done. 

So, that is me. I like to think of myself as a high functioning and strategic SBM but I don’t really know how I compare and in a room full of SBMs I think I will always feel the least qualified and knowledgable and the most disorganised! As long as that doesn’t ever stop me giving an opinion and contributing though, I guess it doesn’t matter. 

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think your strengths and weaknesses are?

We’ve got to Let It Go

I’m always a little in awe of @shropshiresbm blogs and I read a timely retweet of Are you a next generation business leader? with interest and optimism. I was inspired, as was the intention of the theme, to consider myself an ambitious business leader, with the potential to go as far as I wish to. “There is no glass ceiling” is an inspiring ‘call to arms’ to achieve, collaborate, get qualified, lead, fly… but then that nagging disquiet floods in. Because in the back of my mind a small voice reminds me “but you love being a School Business Manager”.

Yes. I do. I love the variety and the broad skill set needed to lead all those different non-teaching functions in a school. But I am fully aware that I have got to Let It Go. I know that my job, in its present form, is disappearing over the horizon. 
I am in no doubt that our profession is about to change significantly. The government’s attempt to mount the first step on the Change Management Ladder by ‘Creating a Sense Of Urgency’ back-fired dramatically when they had to u-turn on the policy of forcing all schools to become an Academy by 2022. As a result, schools with the drive and resources to take up the leadership reins have been left hanging and everyone is confused by the continuing debate. 

Of course, we are told that the policy is still, quietly, going ahead, but without any momentum it is clear that the process is going to be piecemeal, ineffective, damaging and slow. It will also lack the required buy-in from Governors and SLT to make conversion a success for every school. 

And, as a result, step 2 is becoming unachievable. Unless school leaders can be convinced that change is necessary, they are never going to join together to ‘Form Strong Coalitions’ in order to weather the storms of change. Why would any school add to their already significant workload to follow what is still a rather vague idea promoted because it ‘might’ improve delivery and cost effectiveness?

Yes. You picked that up correctly. The required formation of Multi Academy Trusts is not the change that is coming. It is just step 2 on an 8 step process. ‘Communicating the Vision’ doesn’t come until step 4.

The glaring fact is that a Single Unit Academy or School cannot continue to operate in splendid isolation because it is clear that the funding model is not sustainable. 

So here is my idea for ‘Creating the required Sense Of Urgency’ that I believe every SBM will understand and hopefully we can use it to help us all get on step 1 of the Change Management Ladder. If you like, this is my ‘call to arms’.

Take hold of your school budget and project it forward to 2025. Use the same staff and add 1% cost of living every year, also add 1% to both pensions every year and 2% NI in 2022 (there is going to have to be a cash injection into the NHS at some point.) Then minus 1% of your income in 2021 and leave the following years at the same level of funding. 

Now do you see why there is an urgency to change the system? It is unaffordable, unsustainable and unrealistic in a modern Britain with its current size and diversity of population. 

So I am also going to be so bold and tell you that I think it is time for all SBMs to take the lead in this. Yes, it is going to mean your job changes out of all recognition. Yes, it means you are going to have to decide in which direction you want to take your leadership role. Yes, it means significant change is coming and we don’t actually know yet what that change is going to be. (Step 4 remember?)

And, if I may, I am going to stand beside @shropshiresbm to tell you that you need to be ready. To tell you that it is up to us SBMs to lead on this. That it is up to you. You absolutely do need to #Bethechange. 

Collaborate to Innovate

 I read an article by the Harvard Business Review recently entitled ‘Innovation is as Much About Finding Partners as Building Products’ (link) which inspired me to go back to my love of applying Industry Strategy to Education.
The article asserts that the desire to innovate is no longer enough in any industry to guarantee success and that the task of creating innovation in today’s world requires such a range of qualifications and skills as to be unaffordable for any business other than the largest organisation with massive resources to draw upon. In Industry, you have to think of all the specialist and regulatory knowledge required in areas including strategy, technology, data analysis, production, marketing, finance, HR, health and safety, as well as understanding the efficiencies of the physical assets, before you can even begin to innovate.

It’s the same in Education in the UK. How can all our schools, working mostly (but not always) in isolation possibly hope to find any time to innovate to a degree that might go towards enabling the service as a whole to take a leap forward?

Harvard and I, we are convinced that collaboration is the answer.

And I’m not talking that well-meaning ‘come-and-share-our-training-provider-for half-a-day’ sort of collaboration. I’m talking about identifying your core skill, finding a partner to work with on improving it further and then sharing it far and wide.

So, what are you really good at?

As an employee of an Outstanding School, Teaching School and newly formed MAT you would think that we have a lot to offer. We have got some amazingly talented teaching staff and exceptional data analysts, we have an extremely effective technical team, and a clear strategy of where we want to head, but I have been dismayed at the barriers that are put up around us by other schools.

Contrary to what you might think, I believe this school, as a unit, is the right size. I don’t want a merger, I don’t want to force you into a MAT (although I believe the benefits we would both gain are considerable), I don’t want to make anyone redundant and I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. I do want to share our skills and work with you to improve the teaching, learning, assessment and business functions of both our schools. After that, I want to make what we’ve learned available to other schools because you can bet that the school down the road has got an idea to improve it even further!

As Harvard points out, for collaboration to work effectively the old and the new have to work together. Your experience has a lot to teach me, of course, but what if bringing your experience to tweak my new idea blows Education out of the ball park for the next generation of students?  I don’t believe I am being over optimistic when I say that the opportunities we currently have for both formal and informal collaboration could lead to a reinvention of Education in the UK, giving us the solutions, productivity and advances in delivery that we would wish for. However, it is going to take a real exchange of ideas and we are going to need to get over this anxious concern about competition and loss of identity. Yes, like anything, it is risky, but so is standing still and I know I’d rather keep moving forward.

Luck is (definitely) not a factor. 

Earlier this year I wrote 3 blogs using one of my favourite movie mantras, ‘Luck is not a factorHope is not a strategyFear is not an option, and after writing them I decided to try to stop using the word ‘luck’ altogether. It has been quite an enlightening experience. 

We use the word ‘luck’ frequently in our modern vocabulary. My dictionary gives the definition as – An unusual and unpredictable phenomenon which causes a favourable outcome – but we use it so often now that it has almost lost its meaning. 

“I’m so lucky I met you” says Barry (with fingers crossed behind his back). “No, actually, we both went out one night with our friends, we were single and in the same place, at the same time and I liked the way you smiled at me” I chose you. No luck involved. 

“Lucky I didn’t fall off that ladder” says the Senior Caretaker (in his West Country burr). Well no. You carried out a risk assessment. The ladder has had its annual check, you’ve been ladder trained and your assistant was holding it at the bottom. So when one of your hands missed a rung, you had 2 other points of contact and therefore did not fall. No luck involved. 

“Good luck in your exam” Barry says to DJ. “I’ve revised, don’t need luck” he replies (at 13 he is man of few words).

As a consequence, and on what I think is a further plus side, if we are going to cut ‘luck’ out then we must also, inevitably, cut out ‘bad luck’. 

So, for example, It’s not ‘bad luck’ that you slipped on the ice. A section has been salted and marked and you chose not to walk in it.

It’s not bad luck that your car won’t start, you haven’t put any petrol in it recently. (Oops!)

So, what I’m trying to say is, as every SBM knows, the other mantra also holds true. ‘Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail.’ I have no doubt that, in our work leading the support functions in a School or Trust, preparation is key. Our role is all about Risk Assessment, Training, Maintenance, and Care…Luck is not a factor. 

Try not using the word ‘luck’ yourself, see if it makes you think differently… and prepare more! 

Build it and they will come. 

Outdoor Shakespeare and I go a long way back. Not all the way to 1599 and the opening of the Globe Theatre you understand, but far enough back to be able to claim to be somewhat ‘experienced’. My mis-spent youth involved long warm summer evenings in Elizabethan costume enjoying the beautifully designed ‘rooms’ at Hidcote Manor Gardens, waiting to go on for my small part in plays such as Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing. “They swore you were well-nigh dead for me” is one of my favourite romantic lines in any genre.

So when our new classroom and dining hall block was being designed and there was a weird banked area at the far end, it made complete sense to include a patio area for dry-day lunchtime over-spill as well as, with four large steps rising up the bank in a semi-circle, the potential for outdoor drama production. 

Christened during design as the ‘amphitheatre’ (although I’m told incorrectly named as it is only half a circle) it was clearly going to be an incredibly versatile space with excellent acoustics, proximity to electrical power, catering and toilets, and well sheltered. 

So imagine how thrilled I was when the Drama teacher agreed to produce a Shakespearean play this summer on the fabulous new ‘stage’. I was determined that this was going to run so smoothly that there would be a production every year and our amphitheatre would become known far and wide as an excellent venue for all kinds of theatrical and musical productions.

As we SBMs often do, I gave as much support as I possibly could. I sewed curtains to cover the massive 7.5m window, I organised refreshments, bought fairy lights and offered bags of encouragement and reassurance.

But there was one thing even I couldn’t organise, and that was the weather. On the first night after 6 weeks of blue skies, the necessity for fans in classrooms and some serious expenditure on air-conditioning, it decided to rain. 

And not just the odd shower, but some pretty significant, find-the-smallest-vulnerability-in-the-roof type rain.

This always reminds me of a joke I loved as a child;

Red Arrows Display Team –This Saturday (If wet in Village Hall)

The production was moved into the Music Hall. There were no picnics on the School Field, no arriving early to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening sunshine, no wonderful smell in the air of insect repellent and chocolate buttons. We made the best of it, kept smiling, and crossed our fingers for the second (and last) night.

As is typical of British weather, the second night was glorious. There were picnic-ers. My curtains looked fabulous, the fairy lights sparkled, the cast were amazing, all lines were remembered, the audience could hear everything that was being said, the sun set over the building and the wine and ice cream flowed during the interval. It was a smash. 

There were a few small hiccups, of course. The milk ran out on the last cup of tea customer of the evening (and just typical that it had to be The Boss!) and on clearing away after the interval, I set off the intruder alarm going back to my office and had to hot-foot it over the site to switch it off before it completely ruined the play! 

But, even with all the ups and downs, I am still hopeful for, and looking forward to, an outdoor production next year. Because on the second night it ran like a dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in fact.