SBL Surgery – support and advice for school leaders

Our resident agony aunt, Laura Williams of L J Business Consultancy, answers SBMs’ questions about their roles, their lives – and everything in between

“What do I do when I’m out of my depth, but I can’t tell my boss or they’ll think I’m incompetent?”
Right, you’ve made some pretty big statements here so I’m going to unpick them a little bit to help you work out what your next step should be. Grab a pen and a piece of paper and work through this prescribed exercise. Trust me – this is #SBLSurgery!
Step 1:
You’ve told me you’re ‘out of your depth’. Whilst you may be feeling overwhelmed right now, it’s really important that we dig into this and what it specifically means to you.
Write down exactly what it is that is causing you to feel out of your depth. It could be:

  • Workload and time management – you know you are able to do everything, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.
  • Work/life balance – you’ve come up with the answer to ‘hours in the day’ by working evenings and weekends.
  • Relationships with colleagues – you’re not getting the support you need from other staff/senior leaders.
  • Knowledge – maybe you don’t feel as up-to-speed or as experienced as you’d like to be in certain areas.
  • Line management responsibilities – you line manage a lot of people; it’s time consuming and you absolutely hate it.

It may be one or more of the above – it might even be something completely different, and that’s okay. But, the more specific we can be about the issues that you’re facing, the easier it will be for us to put plans in place to address them.
When you’ve identified the specific areas that are making you feel out of your depth, spend some time reflecting on how you got here and when it started to get really bad. Maybe it was a breakdown in communication or of a working relationship. Maybe you’re operating within a structure that has inefficient ways of working, or maybe there has been an increasing conflict of priorities or a difference of opinion.
Step 2:
Now ask yourself: if you could wave a magic wand tomorrow, and make this problem go away, what would your world look like then? What would change? What would be better?
If you’re thinking that the problem you have is completely out of your control and you don’t have the power to resolve it, ask yourself, ‘How can I mitigate the impact? What changes can I make to how I work? Do I need to look to other colleagues to help me resolve this?’
Write down a set of action steps that will take you from where you are now and on the yellow brick road to ‘magic wand world’. These might include:

  • Reviewing your job description.
  • Studying for a qualification.
  • Undertaking bespoke training to develop a specific skill eg. time management, having difficult conversations etc.
  • Finding a mentor.
  • Working with a coach.
  • Arranging a meeting or speaking with a colleague or your line manager.
  • Short-term support measures such as a day working from home, delegation to a colleague for a period of time, etc.

It might even be applying for another job!
There are no right or wrong answers here; the aim is to help you to move away from the emotion of your situation and into a practical mindset.
Step 3:
You conclude by saying that that you can’t tell your boss how you are feeling or they’ll think you are incompetent.
Consider first whether your perception is truly accurate because maybe, just maybe, you’ve lost a little bit of perspective. What makes you think this? How do you know that this is a truth and not just an assumption? Have you given them the chance to support you? Have they ever made you feel negatively about yourself before?
If your relationship with your boss really isn’t great, and they would be the last person you would confide in about how you are feeling, then this is ok to! I’ve felt this way about a lot of my bosses.
However, there are ways you can articulate what you need to your boss without feeling like you’re exposing your vulnerabilities too much. Using your list of concrete actions and the list of things you need to help you get where you need to be, you can approach your boss in a very objective and pragmatic way.
For example, you might say – ‘Project x is behind because of y. To complete it, I need w and z to get it done.’ This could be a day working from home, time with a colleague to receive input, support from a colleague for a period of time to allow you to give your complete focus to the problematic task, additional training, etc.
If you can be specific about the issues, and clear about your need, then the emotion is removed and the conversation remains practical.
Now whilst this approach might be the magic solution that helps you to meet your boss where they are, and give you the control you need over the situation, it also might not be. It could be a band-aid for a relationship that’s truly broken down.
The importance of being valued
Right now, you may not feel valued by your head; your salary may not reflect your skills or your responsibility and you may wonder what on earth the point of speaking up is at all. But, the fact is, you owe it to yourself to be seen, to be heard, to be valued and to be recognised. Don’t give up. If you don’t do anything about this situation then everybody loses. More importantly, you lose. You will deskill yourself by default.
If you can, hand on heart, say that you’ve done all you can where you are now, then you need to be preparing for that next job; that job interview at that school where that headteacher wants to hear what you have to say, wants to take your advice, wants to make sure you’re recognised for what you do and, even more importantly, wants to support you.
You can do what needs to be done; I’ve got every faith in you.
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