The why behind this…
For those who don’t know, ‘an hour well spent’ is just that. It’s an hour sitting with a business leader and letting the natural narrative appear. There are no set questions, the script is created in the moment, and we see what comes. Each conversation in this series has its own melody. Why am I doing this – to learn more about leadership from those doing the work now. The stuff you don’t read in the books.
Yes, that’s Janet Foster in the picture with me, CEO of ‘Partners in Learning’ a Doncaster based school improvement organisation. First up it must be noted that Janet did not and does not call herself the CEO. That title just kind of arrived at her door as the organisation she leads grew. In July of this year Janet will leave this role in the trusty hands of another (tbc).
Today (12th July 2021) I spent a little over an hour with Janet, exploring what it is to be a senior strategic leader. During the chat we wondered between personal and professional life, and I saw clearly how entwined these were. I was really keen to speak to a leader from a school context given the year we’ve had. Covid has presented schools with a daily challenge of which Janet and her team have been at the forefront.
“How did I ever get to this point”
You don’t just become a CEO, it’s something that happens over time. Something you either choose or it kinda chooses you. It seems for Janet there was a bit of both. I asked if she ever saw herself as a leader and she responded with “NO”. To offer some context, this wasn’t something she saw overtly within herself but something others drew to her attention. It seemed as though these ‘trusted’ others gave Janet the nudge to move along this path. And believe in the affirmation “I can do so much more” (illustrating the power of supporters).
When I asked what the most powerful turning point was in her thinking, she expressed that it was the unintended consequence of becoming a supply teacher. In her early days working in just one school, she had built an established view on ‘what good looked like’. However, when life reasons led her to doing supply work she suddenly realised there’s more than one way to do a great job.
Working across different schools in different postcodes opened her eyes to the many possibles out there. And this led to her internal voice speaking up “this is what I believe in and this is definitely not what I believe in”. Her clarity of what good could be was forming.
I think the lesson here being, until we have been exposed to multiple contexts can we truly have a view on the multiple possibles out there. Perhaps we should all be a little more deliberate in seeking out different places of work, different perspectives, and different ways of doing things in order that we can benefit from a more rounded view (a broad foundation).
Ladders and the steps on them
In this journey, Janet has had to climb a number of ‘ladders’. Some of the steps on these have been supported by her ‘inner circle’ (they know who they are) which has made life easier at these points. However, some of the steps have been barriers to overcome. Either deliberately placed there or simply not removed when maybe they could have been. I asked what drove her on in these times of challenge… two things popped up
“moral purpose….” And “if you say I can’t and I know it’s the right thing to do I will”
What was more revealing in our conversation here was Janet’s reflection on ‘ladders climbed vs ladders created’. She was once asked “who are you creating ladders for”. This seemed to stick with Janet and in her role at ‘Partners in Learning’ this is something she is conscious of doing. Creating steps and supporting people to take them.
In a strategic leadership role, there will be times you disagree with partners and others who have leadership responsibilities. I asked Janet her advice for others encountering this situation – her answer ‘SWOT’.
Yes, when challenged on her direction of travel Janet steps back and undertakes an analysis of the situation. What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Janet was humble enough to express that if during the assessment of the situation she saw that the positive impact wasn’t as she expected she would take this on board and alter her direction. Its about what’s right for the organisation, not about trying to be right.
When I asked how she found the courage to do this it seemed to lay in the network of people Janet had surrounded herself with. They are not an echo-chamber, simply in agreement with her view but a collective of individuals she trusts and respects with different skills and perspectives. I ask who’s in your ‘support team’?
Some parting thoughts as she leaves her role
What one-liner do you gift to your team as a leaving lesson:
“regularly step back and ask why. Evaluate, reflect and identify the impact”.
She did offer a second line:
“don’t get dragged into things outside of your mission”
What advice would you give your younger self:
“give yourself more space and time for you to think”
And her second point:
“not everything is your problem to solve”
What 3 guiding sentiments would you like to share with the new CEO:
- Collaboration – you cannot do this on your own
- Relationships – trust doesn’t just appear, build this
- Moral purpose – be led by your passion and purpose
You can see a theme here, Janet still has more to offer
Our conversation included much more than you read here, such as not sleeping for 3 days because of Ofsted inspections and theatre events (being in them). It’s clear that Janet spins many plates and by her own admission will find the ‘freedom’ of retirement “quite strange”. But once she has given herself the time and space to think (advice offered earlier), she will be back to contribute in some way.
Her final thought – “listen”. Be that to the young people you teach or the staff you employ. Listen to their story, don’t just ‘consult’.
Kurt Ewald Lindley – learning from leaders