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Leadership Development: Communication

Time to sit down and talk can be a scarce commodity in schools. For Middle Leaders especially, who are required day –to-day to balance the demands of their teams, their students and Senior Leaders, time efficient and effective communication is vital to sustain forward momentum and keep their teams motivated and pulling together.  This post looks at three important areas of leadership where the ‘how’ of what you say can be more important, or as important as the ‘what’.

Making the most of meetings

Most meetings in school happen ‘after-hours’, when the teaching is done for the day and the children have gone home. Keeping your teams from ‘mentally checking out’ at the end of a long day is pretty important if you going to make the most of this time.  A well-chosen packet of biscuits and the free-flow of caffeinated drinks is not a bad start, but some careful pre-planning using the following prompts will ensure your meeting time is maximised and the communication is effective and time-efficient.

  • Is your meeting agenda meaningful and manageable in the time that you have available? Don’t try to cram too much in – give each agenda item a realistic time and stick to it!
  • How much of your meeting involves disseminating information from above? Could this be done more efficiently through another means?
  • Will you start your meeting and finish your meeting within published times? What can you do before the meeting to make sure it starts on time?  Nothing breeds resentment amongst busy professionals more than arriving on time only to wait a further 15 minutes for those who are ‘always late’!
  • How will you ensure everyone goes away with the same message?  End each item with a summary and action items and then end your meeting with a run-down of the action items, including who is responsible for what.
  • Think about how your meeting feels to those who attend.  Is there scope to start of a positive and end the same way? Leaving a meeting with some timely, responsive, unconditional and enthusiastic praise can reaffirm a sense of purpose and boost motivation.


Listen More Than You Speak

Actively listening to your team can be tough when you’re busy, but it important in ensuring that team members feel valued and supported.  A useful model for understanding the power of listening when supporting colleagues is shared by Andy Buck in his best-selling book ‘Leadership Matters’ (John Catt Publications, 2016). Buck’s principle of ‘Ask First’ encourages leaders to gain a full insight into themselves and their contexts through the act of asking the right questions.  He identifies three fairly typical types of conversation that take place between leaders and team members.

  1. The ‘Monkey on the shoulder’

Think of a time when a team member or colleague has come to you with an issue they’re having difficulty with and you have ended up taking on a task for them.  Perhaps you thought it was ‘quicker’ to do it yourself than to sit and listen to your colleague. The problem they arrived with is the monkey and during the course of the conversation it has jumped from their shoulder to become a burden on your own. There are obvious problems with this, not least of all for the beleaguered Middle Leader, who out of desperation now has more to do.  They don’t know any more about the situation and they’re certainly not learning more about themselves or their colleague.  The colleague, on the other hand now knows that communicating their problems may well result in a reduced workload.

  1. ‘Wise Owl’ Conversations

This is one step better than the monkey conversations, but is far from ideal.  Imagine the same colleague has gone to a different leader, but this one is a ‘wise owl’ and will sit with them, sharing their own wisdom and experience (usually with a lot of anecdotes) that might help them through their difficulty. There are benefits to this.  The leader has invested some time, but hasn’t taken on any additional work and the colleague feels supported. The same problem remains however, neither the leader nor the colleague has learnt any more about themselves or the context and now the colleague knows that the leader’s door is always open. This approach could result in a culture of dependency.

  1. Dolphin Conversations

The most time efficient of the three is the ‘dolphin conversation’, even though the metaphor might be a little tenuous! This time, when presented with an issue by a colleague, a leader will ‘ask first.’  By adopting a coaching style approach and actively listening, leaders can establish a better understanding of a situation and get to the root of a problem using a series of well-phrased questions. It may take longer than simply taking on the problem yourself, but ultimately, it will help you in deciding the best way forward, whilst supporting the colleague in working through issues independently in the future. There are a range of different coaching models to help you phrase your questions.  You can enrol in a coaching course to develop your skills in this area.


Your staff come to work for more than to simply pay the bills. In fact, research into behavioural economics and motivational psychology (see the work of Daniel Pink) has shown that financial reward is a poor motivator when complex tasks are required.  Encouragement, praise and celebration, however can go a long way to creating a sense of purpose and a feeling of being valued amongst your team. The extent to which this is true, rests on how you communicate your praise and encouragement.  In their book ‘Gung Ho!’, Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles describe two kinds of positive affirmations that can go a long way to communicating encouragement and praise. 

Passive: give someone responsibility and then get out of their way! This passively affirms that you have faith in them and their ability to carry out the task you have given them.

Active: public praise, reward, the shout-out in the staff meeting or the box of chocs in the tray.

However you choose to communicate your praise and encouragement, it needs to look, sound and feel sincere.  Blanchard and Bowles suggest the following framework to measure the potential  impact of your words / actions:

How far to the right is your praise and encouragement? The further right, the more impact it will have.

For more about our leadership programmes, visit our ‘Leadership Development’ pages on our website.