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Managing People is Like Herding Cats: Discuss!

By Sarah Levy, OWN Trust School Improvement Consultant and Headteacher at Old Fletton Primary School

You may have heard this phrase used before when someone is frustrated and trying to get people to do what they want them to do. At Trust level, the phrase is actually a misnomer and not what we are about at all. We aim to lead like-minded people, not restrict and manage them, and there is a very big difference between the two. 

As I sit writing this blog in the Trust office at Woodston, I am facing a display board that clearly states the Trust’s vision and values. However, what is of real importance is not only that the values are communicated, known, and shared, but that they are fully understood and enacted in all the work we do. When all stakeholders do this; it is known as alignment or ‘walk the talk’, which is when we actually do what we say we are going to do. The greater the understanding and clarity of the vision and values, the greater the sense of belonging and unity behind a shared purpose.

‘Herding Cats’ is also the polite way of stating the challenge of getting dynamic, visionary leaders at all levels to align to a Trust’s systems and processes in a way that does not inhibit the exceptional skills that led to them being employed in their roles in the first place. There is a fine line between supporting and inhibiting excellent leadership, as all cats… ahem… I mean leaders require different things. You wouldn’t entice a lion with a toy mouse dangling on a string, just as you wouldn’t entice a Siamese cat by placing it in a herd of buffalo!

In my role as headteacher for 15 years at Old Fletton Primary School, I have never lost my passion for education, and although it certainly has not always been easy, I do not regret my career choice. I believe that as educators we have the power to shape lives. As a result, I am fully aligned with the Trust’s vision - “to have transformed aspirations, changed attitudes and raised achievements for our community through our passionate belief in the power of education.” This was an important consideration for me when accepting the role of School Improvement Consultant for the OWN Trust. I am sure it was important to the CEO, Stuart Mansell,  as well, as he needed to ensure I was able to support and quality assure the quality of education in the three schools in a way that would enhance the possibilities of shared Trust success, without the risk of causing confusion or distraction. 

As head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos understands the importance of this too, and is extremely clear on his leadership expectations: “Tough on vision, flexible on details.” He understands that a company’s strength lies in uniting people behind a shared sense of purpose and vision. How they achieve this vision can be done creatively and flexibly when needed. OWN Trust takes the same approach in that leaders have to unite behind the vision and the values, and all pull in the same direction but can have some autonomy in how this is achieved. In education, leaders often talk about “earned autonomy” as though it is a badge of honour that is earned through excellent exam results or a successful OFSTED inspection that gives you a right to do your own thing. This could not be further from the truth!

So-called ‘earned autonomy’ is given to schools that demonstrate a strong alignment to the Trust vision, because it shows they understand the core principles and can work hard to achieve them. A greater amount of autonomy can be afforded to them and used to best effect because we know the school and its staff are working toward the same goals as the Trust.

Working closely together, aligned by our shared values, can and does improve outcomes for all…and is a far more effective way to manage people than ‘herding cats’!

Photo by Jari Hytönen on Unsplash