Whatever position you hold, these first few weeks set the tone for the rest of the year. Creating positive relationships, a supportive environment and a sense of belonging are all key.
There is one cornerstone competency that highly successful people managers use, often recognised as good practise in business and in my view, crucial for leaders and line-managers - Management By Walking Around (MBWA), sometimes called Wandering Around. While the good news is that it is easy to learn, it needs commitment to practise and in some cases a change to behaviour.
Senior leaders’ high workload often prevents them from being ‘visible’ - they may rarely be seen outside their office, apart from assemblies and staff meetings. Where this is true, it means they are missing out on a vital part of their role in building staff engagement. In today’s schools with distributed leadership, MBWA provides a time efficient and proactive method of developing school culture and boosting staff wellbeing.
I often hear leaders say – ‘I have an open door policy - staff can drop in and see me whenever necessary.’ Yet there can be significant challenges to this: staff have to find a convenient time; if their visit interrupts work, leaders are unlikely to be fully focussed on the conversation; frequent interruptions add significantly to the time tasks take, meaning less time to connect with staff.
Rather than an open door policy, advertise when you are available, plan when you will be visible and adopt MBWA.
What is MBWA?
It is exactly what it says - taking time each day to walkabout and interact with team members with one specific objective – to catch them ‘doing things right’. It is a deliberate strategy, an opportunity to connect with your staff and ask how they’re doing, understand their work situation, and find out about their ideas and interests.
To be productive, a range of behaviours and skills are needed, including high self-awareness, the ability to observe effectively, ask questions, be an active listener, show empathy, praise and recognise people.
Conversations must be authentic. Sometimes leaders initially feel awkward and unsure of the words to use or the likely reaction of staff - which is why training and practice is so important.
Even if you can only find 10 minutes in a day, and manage to catch one member of your team doing something right, over a week it adds up. Being visible around school and engaging with people, including in the staff room at key times will make a real difference – particularly when multiplied by other leaders taking the same approach.
How do leaders MBWA?
For many leaders it requires changes in behaviour that have been embedded for some time. Make a start and build the skills needed through practise, rather than waiting until you have all the skills in place.
- Many schools have the usual thank you ‘shout outs’ to staff. Over time these often become part of the furniture and miss the impact of regular ‘in the moment’ praise.
- Start with the senior team, setting a goal for everyone to catch at least one member of staff doing something right each day.
- Be specific and authentic in your conversations and feedback. What did you see? What did you like about it and why? Just a ‘Well done’ or ‘Good job’ doesn’t deliver the engagement needed.
- Regularly share how you are doing at leadership team meetings - not as lists of staff members praised, this simply makes it a chore and adds stress – but rather as a psychologically safe place where everyone can openly reflect on how they are doing – both the successes and where they are finding it difficult.
- Model the behaviour and it will become contagious - middle leaders will copy and the behaviour will cascade across the school.
- Recognise walkabouts as an integral part of everyday for leaders and line-managers, by including it as part of the management appraisal objectives.
Preparing to wander
- Think about key topics and develop open ended conversation starters you can use.
- Keep it simple, ask questions and be curious, but make sure you are not interrogating or being intrusive. Ask how they are, about work and what plans they have outside school.
- Listen and respond to what they say – it shows you are interested and builds rapport.
- Remember to be present while walking through the school, not distracted by the next tasks on your list.
- Plan your route and the people you intend to speak with, this way you can make sure you engage with everyone. You can use a spreadsheet so you know who you’ve checked in with over a week, month, half-term or term.
- We often spend time with those we work near or those we feel comfortable talking with - you may need to consciously change this.
Often when we conduct surveys in schools, the question that attracts lower scores from staff is - ‘My line manager encourages me at work’ – it particularly stands out against scores in other sectors. If so, it is a powerful indicator of an opportunity to help staff feel valued, which is set to become increasingly important as recruitment and retention challenges become more difficult.
The impact of leaders finding time to walkabout, engage with all staff and effectively praise and recognise them, cannot be understated. The results we see from the schools we support, demonstrate it is the quickest, simplest and most impactful way to improve staff engagement, wellbeing and performance.
For further information, support and advice about measuring and improving staff wellbeing through highly effective people management, please contact welbee.international.