Early in my headship I developed a vested interest in evaluating every aspect of my leadership of the school I run. This is not because I am one of those people who sets themselves impossibly high standards only to exceed them. Instead, I was driven by fear.
On 29th March 2015 after only two years as head of sixth form and two terms as assistant head I was appointed as the principal of one of the best known, oversubscribed schools in the Middle East whose academic reputation precedes it, Dubai College.
“Getting my first headship at a top-performing school felt more like a poisoned chalice.”
This should have been a moment of great joy and satisfaction in my professional life, but it felt more like a poisoned chalice. At the end of paragraph two of my letter of appointment sent to my chair of governors by the local regulator came a sting in the tail: Mr Lambert is approved on a probationary basis.
Before the end of the following academic year, I was to be re-interviewed by the local regulator “in order to evaluate the progression of the approval, from probationary to permanent status”. To achieve this, it was recommended that I develop professionally.
“I began to consider in earnest how I could demonstrate that I was being an effective principal.”
Twelve months is a both a very long and a very short time to develop professionally and the very phrase is about as nebulous as they come. So I began to consider in earnest how I could demonstrate that I was being an effective principal who should be granted permanent status.
It was a pleasing coincidence that 2015, the year of my own quest to demonstrate impactful leadership, was the year in which John Hattie wrote his article High Impact Leadership. As most people will know by now, John Hattie has revealed that “almost everything we do improves learning”; however, while the average effect size of all interventions is 0.42, some interventions can be double that.
In his article, Hattie identifies the top 5 high impact leadership acts as:
- Believing in evaluating one’s impact as a leader (Effect Size = 0.91)
- Getting colleagues focused on evaluating their impact (Effect Size = 0.91)
- Focusing on high impact teaching and learning (Effect Size = 0.84)
- Being explicit with teachers and students about what success looks like (Effect Size = 0.77)
- Setting appropriate levels of challenge and never retreating to ‘just do your best’ (Effect Size = 0.57)
Unbeknownst to me, by attempting to evaluate my effectiveness in a bid to extend my tenure beyond one probationary year, I had embarked upon what Hattie identified as the number one high impact leadership act: believing in evaluating one’s impact as a leader.
While my own self-evaluation was admittedly borne out of self-preservation, the unintended consequences have been remarkably positive.
Asking parents, staff and students about their perceptions of my leadership, tracking and monitoring whole school trends to see if particular initiatives have shifted the dial and engaging in meaningful self-reflection have been transformative to my professional practice.
“I waxed lyrical about the liberating effects of stripping myself bare.”
After sending out a basic survey of my first year in headship, by my second year I was ready to commission a full 360 appraisal to be conducted by the then chairman of COBIS, Trevor Rowell. I was so validated by the outcomes, so grateful for the opportunity to learn about what was working for students, staff and parents (and what was not) and so supported to explore the areas in which I needed to develop that I waxed lyrical about the liberating effects of stripping myself bare. The upshot was that I subsequently persuaded my entire senior leadership to get in on the act.
Whether they truly volunteered or felt “voluntold” is hard to say but after two rounds of 360 appraisal each over a six-year period, we convinced our senior middle leaders to undergo their own supportive and developmental 360 appraisal last year. This year also marks the first year that we are offering heads of department and heads of year the same opportunity.
However, as my deputy head: learning and teaching observes, the conditions that we create for feedback to “land well” are equally important. If we don’t get this part right, feedback can easily be interpreted as criticism. The best way to promote a culture of effective feedback is to make seeking feedback as common as giving it.
“360 appraisal is the mark of a self-confident and self-improving organisation.”
When we ask for feedback, we reduce the chances that our emotions hijack the situation, and we position ourselves to be more open to ideas. We also increase the chances that those around us ask for feedback in the future. And we put ourselves in the driving seat of the process.
While 360 appraisal is certainly not the only way to engage in self-evaluation, it certainly shines a spotlight in some of those hard-to-reach places. It is also the mark of a self-confident and self-improving organisation, one in which areas for development are invited and validation is deservedly formalised. And, of course, it is also the number one high impact leadership act.