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

At the beginning of each year I think, “It’s time for a change” – and each year, while more gets piled onto my plate at work, nothing changes. I don’t know how to stand up for myself and I’m sure I’ve become known as a doormat. Now that everyone thinks that, and takes advantage of it, how do I break out of that mould and speak my mind?

I feel your pain. I’ve been there. We think if we take more on then people will see us as more valuable, more efficient and part of the team. What we’re really doing is making our time less valuable, ourselves more inefficient and, likely, carrying members of the team who should be pulling more of their own weight!

As SBLs we are programmed to fix and firefight any issues that come our way. However, if staff constantly come to us with something to fix, and we do it, we don’t realise that we are not making things better. Instead, we are inadvertently creating a situation where staff don’t feel that they have to keep to deadline, or to plan appropriately, because we will swoop in and save the day.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, “How have I got here?”

  • Is it taking on jobs that aren’t yours?
  • Is it saying ‘Yes’ to too many people at once?
  • Is it not being able to say ‘No’?
  • Is it because you’re worried what will happen if you say ‘No’?
  • Is it not feeling able to delegate?

Maybe it’s just one, or maybe it’s a combination of all these things. It doesn’t matter. All of these things require one solution. Boundaries.

You need to define them, establish them and maintain them. By setting boundaries, not only will you feel more confident, you will be able to hold others to account in terms of them doing their actual job, meeting their own deadlines and not getting away with dumping on you. Here’s how:

  1. Create structure in as many parts of your role as you can
    1. What you do – what does your job require of you (so you can get clear on what isn’t required).
    2. How you do it – is it all you, is it something that can be delegated, does it need input from other people (so you can organise and arrange meetings and follow-ups accordingly).
    3. When you do it – what your deadlines are (so you can prioritise your tasks and time)
  2. Look at your list and now compare it to your current to-do list. How many things are:
    1. not priority;
    2. not your job;
    3. not doable without support/input from others.
  3. Come up with a plan to deal with everything you’ve listed in Part 2 such as:
    1. Review deadlines and prioritise accordingly against your core role and tasks.
    2. Communicate revised deadlines to relevant people.
    3. Request further input/support from relevant people.
    4. Delegate or pass on anything that isn’t your job to the person whose job it actually is.
  4. Establish a language that clearly communicates your boundaries to others in a variety of situations, such as:
  • “Of course, I’ll look at this in more detail and let you know when I can get this done by.”
  • “I understand that this is a priority for you but if I do this before that and that then it’s going to create a conflict/means that won’t get done. I’m afraid it will have to wait but I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” (Depending on who is asking and what the task is, you might say, “What would you like me to do first?” or, “I’ll check this out with the head and see how s/he would like me to deal with this.”)
  • “I can see why you’ve asked me about this but it’s actually someone else’s I’ll pass it on/You should pass it on.”
  • “From what you’ve said, I’m not clear exactly what’s involved – can you please explain it to me in more detail so I can prioritise accordingly?”
  • “I’m working on something else at the moment but I’ll ask one of my team to look at this and get back to you if I/they need more information.”
  • “I’ve taken this as far as I can with the information that I have. I’m passing this to you/back to you and, when you’ve done your part, we can get together and discuss what the next step should be.”
  • “This task has been on my list for a while but I can’t complete it until someone provides me with this. When I have what I need, I’ll let you know when I can get it done by.”
  • “I have a number of deadlines that I’m working to right now and, if you leave this with me, it just won’t get done in the time you’ve specified. If it can wait, that’s great. If not, it might be quicker to do this yourself/ask someone else.”
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You don’t have to go into work and suddenly announce your new boundaries. You don’t have to start shouting “No” to everyone who crosses your path; you don’t have to become a whole new person overnight! Start with this plan and try out some of the phrases above and see how it feels. By doing this, you are educating others about your boundaries. The more consistent you are, the more those around you will gradually learn and start thinking before they ask you for something, making the whole process a little less scary and a lot more manageable.

Brené Brown, one of my favourite authors, says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” I say, let them be disappointed. Let them see that you are not a doormat, your time should be respected and, with appropriate boundaries in place, you will get the job done!

A stressed out SBL is not good for your school and it’s not good for you. By setting boundaries, not only will your workload improve, so will your wellbeing. Choose you, and don’t apologise to anyone for it!

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