Laura Williams, independent consultant at LJ Business Consultancy, provides a framework to help SBLs interpret and navigate their roles – and the value they bring to them
Many of the school business leaders I coach struggle with one issue above all else: being able to effectively demonstrate how fabulous they are in order to get the recognition that they deserve for the great work that they do.
The causes of this vary widely. To any SBL who doesn’t feel heard, valued or recognised – please know that this does not mean that you are terrible at your job; it also does not mean that there isn’t anything you can do about it.
In my role as coach I work with SBLs to help them interpret and navigate their contextual terrain to effectively identify and remove roadblocks. I’ve created a framework that is one of my go-to tools. How do I know it works? Because, over a decade ago, I used it to both survive and thrive in my very first SBM role – and in every leadership role I’ve undertaken since.
1. Identify who
We’ve established the issue isn’t you…so who is it? Think about your school and context and identify who, specifically, isn’t listening to you, is stopping you from being heard or doesn’t value what you have to say. Is it one person? Is it a group of people? What level of the organisation are they at and how much of an impact do they have on you and on your role?
2. Identify why
Why do you think they behave in this way? Is it lack of knowledge? Do they think they know better? Are they uncomfortable? Do they prefer to be in control? Do they have different priorities (or seemingly so)? Are they hierarchal? Do they not respect your role?
3. Identify what
When it comes to school business leadership, there are five tools that you, as a SBL, have at your disposal and have total control over. To illustrate these, I’m going to share with you some of my experiences as a first-time SBL and then ask you some questions to consider in your current context.
- Your knowledge
I fell into the role of SBM by accident – as so many of us do – and it really was a baptism of fire. When I first started out I didn’t know a lot. I had a good working knowledge of the school through other roles I had done – but I had no job-specific qualifications and limited education-specific knowledge. This meant I had no credibility and no influence. The gaps I had were vast, and my priority was to fill them as quickly as possible.
- How long you have been in post and is that an advantage?
- What qualifications do you have?
- How strong is your knowledge of education?
- How well do you know your school?
- What is your school like to work in?
- How could it improve?
- Think about any knowledge gaps you have and how you can fill them.
- Also, consider how accurate your knowledge base is (is it objective enough?) and your knowledge sources (are they credible?).
- Your role
When I started as SBM, not only did Ilack credibility, but so did the role! My predecessor (and the first SBM in the post at the school) had left under a cloud; therefore, the value that this role could create was still questionable. I had to gain credibility – and fast. I had to be a strong leader to my teams, set clear boundaries with staff and evidence the impact of my work in a way that left no room for debate.
- Are you seen as a leader – or more operational?
- What does your head expect from you?
- Are you seen as ‘essential’ or ‘extra’?
- Do you and your teams operate in a ‘parallel universe’?
- Do you have an appropriate level of autonomy to do your job?
- Your relationships
Due to my starting point – and the history of the role – I found myself, more often than not, working in my own lane and on my own highway. I wasn’t invited onto the SLT and was seen as somewhat of an adjunct. That was okay at first, as I had a very steep learning curve to negotiate – but then I found myself hitting walls when it came to getting things done. My rapidly growing knowledge was my power, but my role was just words on a page. I had to make it come to life. My priority became reshaping and developing my professional relationships.
Think about your relationships with your head and your SLT.
- Does your head support you?
- Do you get enough time together?
- Are you on the SLT?
- Do you act like a member of the SLT?
- How do they support your work?
- How do you support their work?
- Do you go to SLT meetings?
- Do they listen when you talk?
- Do they trust you?
- Your way of working
Creating new ways of working without compromising the relationships I had built was a tough task. I had to cut through some very well-established – and sometimes jealously-protected – bad habits. To achieve this, I had to work really hard on adjusting my leadership style in accordance with context and personality, as well as digging in for the long haul, picking my words wisely and my battles carefully.
Think about how you operate.
- What is your office like?
- Are you out and about in the school too much – or not enough?
- Do you prefer emails or face-to-face conversations?
- How do people get to know what you know?
- How do you get things done?
- How do you deal with difficult situations?
- What makes you speak up?
- How does the way you work impact on how you are perceived?
- Your presentation
When it comes to being a SBM, you don’t just have to ‘talk-the-talk’ you have to ‘walk-the-walk’. My first SBM role was an uphill battle from day one and, at every turn, I was being tripped up either by my own feet or somebody else’s! Even though that got to me, I never showed it and I never wavered. Instead, I kept showing up; I kept moving. Some days, I ran to stand still and some days I actually got somewhere. I got through it by being relentless, consistent and downright determined.
- How would your head and SLT describe you?
- How do you walk down the corridor?
- How do you respond when challenged?
- How do you conduct yourself in meetings?
- In terms of your wellbeing, do you look after yourself well?
- How much do you value yourself?
- Think about this; if you don’t act like a leader, and value yourself, then why should they?
One final thought…
Remember why you do what you do in the first place. Don’t let the judgement of other people take away your passion, dedication and commitment to this job. You can do this – and if they don’t appreciate what you do, or the value that you add, find a school that will!