"They talk about not feeling ready, lacking the confidence of some counterparts."
However, the more we read the research about the hesitancy of particularly women in education to move into leadership positions and their reasons why, we can see the thread of imposter syndrome weaving its way through their thought processes. They talk about not feeling ready, lacking the confidence of some male counterparts, fears about their quality of life with partners and families, not having time to nurture their personal aspirations, the need to feel fully competent in every aspect of a new role before even starting or applying, being happy where they are already successful and not wanting to be seen to fail.
It is very easy to skirt around this and to put it all down to it being ‘just how it is’, but we all know that isn’t really good enough if we are really committed to the professional development of our colleagues and putting the right people in the right posts to benefit our schools.
So, if you are a middle or senior leader who can see a talented, hardworking colleague full of potential hesitating to take that next step, what can you do to fight their self-doubt?
Be a role model. A Maths teacher once told me that his heart sank every time he heard an adult say “I’m no good at Maths, it’s really hard”. Why would anyone aspire to take on a leadership role if we are constantly relaying the message that we’re tired, fed up with [insert expletive] SLT, bored with paperwork, ‘just going off to do battle’ with data, don’t get to eat/sleep/have a life, never see your family? What if we transmitted the energy that drives us through the day, the buzz from solving problems and creating great solutions, how much we enjoy our amazing teams and being part of one, how easy it is to understand the graphs, paperwork and jargon once we’d asked for help from the right people?
Have the conversation. Don’t just keep the career aspirations discussion for performance review meetings once or twice a year. I have worked with people who genuinely believe that these are their only opportunities to share their thoughts about next steps. If you hold a colleague in high esteem, tell them. If you think that they should be looking to progress their career, talk to them about it and ask them what their view is. Then you can have the conversation, to boost their confidence,"Have the conversation, boost their confidence, be complicit in their plans…" be complicit in their plans and give them some advice that isn’t there to become an action towards a target for their performance. Keep the dialogue going, be the ‘guide on the side’, coach, mentor and support. This can all be done in small ways, consistently, over time, without it being a big deal or a drain on anyone’s capacity. I have had lots of great ‘checking in’ conversations standing in coats at doorways, with car keys in hand, balancing bags on the way to my office or the car park…
Give them a chance to shine. Is there an opportunity for a colleague to take on a specific, achievable project or task that will use their strengths, allow them to learn something new and make them lead others? No? Think of one. Look at what is on your list and see if there is something or an aspect of it that they could take on.
Is someone else in school leading a strand that they might appreciate some help with? We’re talking about organising a trip; pulling together a team to review a subject scheme of learning; being responsible for advising on new resources; leading a team or school CPD session; going fact-finding in another department or school and reporting back; doing some student voice work; getting to go to a conference or event organised by a national body; taking care of some visitors to the school and being its advocate; setting up TeachMeets… These have all worked.
Let them go. They may well be one of your best teachers or middle leaders, but if they have more to give, they need to do it. Try not to fuel the guilt of potentially not being in the classroom as much or leaving the school, because even the trivial, jokey comments prey on the mind (“Well, we’ll know who to blame when the results take a dive/nobody knows where anything is/there aren’t any more biscuits at meetings”).
Talk the language of achieving as a professional in the wider system, not just as a member of your specific team or school. Point out posts that come up or that you have seen and think they should apply for, even if it’s to say that’s what they should be thinking about in the next few years. When they come to you asking if that internal promotion or external post is worth going for because, frankly, they are losing sleep over it, or if they announce their decision to apply, take the time to talk it through. Look at the details, offer to read their letter. While you might be horrified and need to talk them out of a bad move, you will also need to tell them if it is the right opportunity then ask them how else you can help.
If you don’t do these things, you will lose them anyway. Who wants to work somewhere where nobody seems to care if you go, stay or make a bad decision? Why give of your best when you feel trapped in a job through loyalty and conscientiousness that isn’t reciprocated?
Now have a think. Who does this all bring to mind? There must be someone. Go on, start the conversation with a great future leader and banish their doubts…
How do you encourage your colleagues? Share your thoughts below.