Having been a school counsellor in my teaching life before becoming principal of Wynberg Girls’ High School, people have always been important to me in the way that I lead.  Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’ speaks of having “the right people on the bus” –  which resonated with me.  We all know that making the right appointment is sometimes difficult, particularly when we are bound by certain bureaucratic education department policies but we must balance that with the needs of the school.  We work hard to choose the right people to be on our bus.

I think we often forget the rest of the advice in ‘Good to Great’.  This is something that I had to learn, and it is dynamite to get it right (no – we don’t always succeed as well as we would like!)  You need to have the right person on the right seat in the bus and only then can you decide where to go. Collins says:

The right seat means that an employee is operating within their area of greatest skill and passion within an organization.”

Sometimes, in the school setting, you have teachers who have been there for some time, together with staff you may have appointed, those going through personal difficult times or those who have chronic or long-term illnesses, to name but a few.  Our job as leaders of our schools is to manage all of these complexities and still get the right people on the right seat in the bus.

When I truly comprehended the meaning of the second part of this advice, it required finding out through staff questionnaires and group and individual discussions what the issues were in the school, who felt unhappy doing the job they had been given, what they preferred to do and what could I as their leader do better.  It required listening to the people who were on the bus (and had no intention of getting off!) to find out which seat would make them passionate and enthusiastic educators again.  We tried to give each person something that they really wanted – a particular class to teach, an extra-mural they were passionate about or a leadership role which would allow them to spread their wings.  Mind you, we also made it clear that you could not have all that you wanted, we all had to compromise!

To build a great school, the leader has to provide the opportunities for Staff to find the right seat, but I quickly realized that you also have to help people upskill.  This may be done by general staff development but that does not always hit the mark.  If you are fortunate to have resources for staff to do external courses, ask them to research and present the proposal of what they would like to do to have the skills to jump on the correct seat.  If you do not have many resources, look at the CTLI courses and other free courses, or even try to source money for staff development as the school will benefit in the long run.

An important step was also to create more seats with a leadership component so that the school could provide opportunities for growth through leadership at different levels.  For the first years of these new leadership positions, nobody was appointed permanently.  Everyone who wanted to try, was given the opportunity for a two-year stint in that seat (Year 1 to learn and make mistakes, Year 2 to make an impact).  As a leader, be prepared to lose some of these people as, with their growth, they find a seat on another bus!  You have contributed to good education further than your own school.

Get the right people on the right seat in your bus and then, together, with the visionaries, the leaders at every level, the people ready to support passion, which drives purpose, decide where your school bus will travel.  The journey is sure to be amazing!

Shirley Harding

Former Head: Wynberg Girls’ High School

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