Jack Welch became one of the best-known business leaders in the world when, in the 20 years between 1981 and 2001 he turned round the fortunes of General Electric in America, adding four hundred billion dollars to its share value. Here former head Gerald Haigh looks at how his principles can be applied to leadership in schools

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric,  considerably added to his ‘guru’ status through the books he wrote on leadership and management. The ideas in these books are generally simple and sometimes quite obvious – and in fact those who worked for Welch confirm that he operated by putting basic ideas into operation consistently and well. In one of his books – Jack: Straight from the Gut – he lists these simple and clear principles. I think they sit well with the task of headship, so here they are. Supporting each one is a story from my experience that links it to school leadership. There is only one way – the straight way. It sets the tone of the organization. I worked with a head once who had a reputation for saying different things to people, depending who they were – in effect trying to keep them on-side by telling them what they wanted to hear. As people realized what was happening, they became increasingly distrustful. Morale plummeted and everyone’s performance suffered. Be open to the best of what everyone, everywhere, has to offer; transfer learning across your organization. It’s so easy to put people into pigeonholes – to assume that ideas from Chris will be good ones, but ideas from Mel will be flawed or useless. Chris becomes a favored confidante. Mel is treated with barely concealed impatience. It’s the simple, straight duty of leaders not to be drawn into this attitude. Get the right people in the right jobs – it is more important than developing a strategy. I’ve always been greatly impressed by an approach used some years ago by Bob Salisbury (later professor Sir Bob) when he was head of Garibaldi School in Nottinghamshire. He believed strongly in trying to get his people into the jobs that they wanted to do and in which they could thrive. He’d interview them and do his best to accommodate their wishes and ambitions. He called it the ‘bobbing corks’ approach – you imagine people not as fixed pegs in holes but as corks bobbing in a stream, free to move around, but all going in the same direction.

An informal atmosphere is a competitive advantage.

For the first 10 years of my teaching career, I called headteachers ‘Sir’ and other senior figures ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. One day, the head of middle school sent a colleague to see me with the message, ‘Mr Smith would like you to call him John please.’ It’s interesting, isn’t it, that he couldn’t ask me himself. ‘For heaven’s sake, Gerry, call me John will you.’ That kind of formality had its advantages and in some ways I miss it. But maybe it got in the way of the flow of ideas.

Make sure everybody counts and everybody knows they count.

What that means in school is not giving more time and attention to some people, or some categories of people, than to others. I once visited a school where I happened to know one of the dinner ladies. When I’d finished my business with the head, I asked if I could briefly go and see my friend. The head didn’t know her name and had to make a phone call to find out who she was and where she worked. Maybe that’s understandable in a big school, but I was disappointed. Legitimate self-confidence is a winner – the true test of self-confidence is the courage to be open. You’re driving to school. You’re preoccupied (Wow! Look out for that lady with the pushchair!) because you’re increasingly convinced that the new curriculum project you’ve pushed in KS3 isn’t turning out right. Maybe you were too quick to pick up on something you saw in another school, without analyzing how it would fit into yours. Today, then, it’s time to say, ‘Look, cards on the table. Have I done the right thing here?’

Business has to be fun – celebrations energize an organization.

I talked to a head who took over a brand new academy in the north-east, formed, as they sometimes are, from the amalgamation of some less than successful schools. ‘One of the children said to me,’ she said. ‘Miss, could we do a show?’ And I knew that was just the right thing to do.’ Talk to other heads who’ve taken over schools in difficulty and they’ll tell you that the first stage show is a defining moment in pulling everyone together.

Never underestimate the other guy.

Jack was working in a fiercely competitive environment. I think his sentiment here is a bit strong for us. Or maybe not. I leave it to you.

Understand where real value is added and put your best people there.

What matters in a school is teaching and learning. One school I’ve been talking to recently has a ‘Teaching and learning group’. It’s made up the best teachers (measured by pupil performance and graded lesson observation) from any level or subject. They provide support and advice for teachers who either refer themselves for help or are directed to them by senior management.

Know when to meddle and when to let go – this is pure instinct.

One of the problems about running a school is that everyone from NQT up to senior leadership is a teacher. That means when the head is passing a room, or observing a meeting, or overhearing a conversation, he or she is almost bound to be able to think of something to add to what’s going on. The temptation to butt in and say, ‘No, no. Let me tell you how it should be done…’ is almost irresistible. As Jack says, knowing when to interfere and when not is a difficult call. But is it, as he says, pure instinct? I’m not sure. I think you can learn to be better at leaving well alone. Experience, and frank advice from a deputy, are pretty effective.

As a leader, your main priority is to get the job done, whatever the job is.

Teaching and learning, the well being of the children, and of the adults in your care. Those are the things that matter aren’t they? Time spent on other things might be unavoidable, but really we need to be very careful not to start enjoying the distractions too much. One of the big dilemmas facing successful heads now (and to some extent successful teachers) is that they’ll be called upon to give time and energy to neighboring schools that aren’t so successful. So now we have different patterns of headship, with consultant heads, executive heads and so on. There’s much to be said for this trend in that it spreads talent around and provides new opportunities for heads and deputies and to some extent helps with the headship recruitment problem. There are, though, some careful judgements to be made by anyone who’s involved. I talked to a head once who’d, so to speak, pulled up a school by the bootstraps and was now being asked to spend two days a week elsewhere. You don’t need me to outline the questions that were going through her mind. Let me just add this thought. The head of a secondary school in a town near to me always walked the two miles to school and back, with an ex-army pack on his back. He did it every day – at least I never saw him drive. One day I said to him: ‘I’m surprised you don’t find you need your car during the day, for meetings and so on.’ He said, simply, ‘I don’t go to meetings. My job is here in the school.’ Now that may be extreme, but in a sense it’s a straightforward endorsement of Jack’s rubric – ‘Your main priority is to get the job done.’ Leaders make things happen by:

  • knowing your objectives and having a plan how to
  • knowing achieve them
  • knowing building a team committed to achieving the objectives
  • knowing helping each team member to give their best efforts.

The first bit of this is all about school improvement plans of course – with the proviso that objectives don’t stay still. They retreat before you as you approach them and metamorphose sometimes beyond recognition. The other two points both mention the concept of the ‘the team’. I do wonder sometimes whether we use the word ‘team’ a bit loosely in school. Take, for instance, the much-used phrase, ‘Senior leadership team’. Hand on heart, in your school is the SLT really a team? Or is it a group of people each with his or her own worries, preoccupations and priorities who come together regularly for meetings – but would really rather be elsewhere getting on with what they have to do? I don’t know – I just ask the question.

Looking inwards

There’s another aspect to the growth of the senior leadership team (or the senior management team). I wonder whether it doesn’t encourage those senior figures to spend time looking inwards to each other – forming a circle, metaphorically, with their backs to everyone else. I make the point because I recently looked at the postings on that bit of the TES website where teachers grumble to each other. (And boy, to they know how to grumble.) I did a search on ‘SMT’ (most teachers use that rather than ‘SLT’) and discovered fourteen thousand mentions of the term. I didn’t have time to read them all, but I tried to do a fair sampling, and I discovered that very few teachers used the term ‘SMT’ in anything other than a derogatory – even insulting – way. ‘Power tripping SMT’ was a typical one. ‘The twaddle we’re forced to endure from SMT’ was another. Maybe the grumblers aren’t typical. (I sometimes think if they are, then we really are sunk.) All the same, if we form senior teams at the expense of communication across the whole staff, then we’re missing something I guess.

Food for thought!

So there you are. Jack Welch rendered in educational terms. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go much further into his way of running things because, as I mentioned earlier, Jack was working in a ruthlessly competitive business world and his no-prisoners approach wouldn’t always suit what we’re trying to do in schools. For example, every year there was a performance management process at GE. Well, we know about that don’t we? But at GE not only were the top 20% of managers rewarded with bonuses each year but the bottom 10% were sacked. Now there’s a thought.

Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch (2003) is published by Headline ISBN: 978-0747249795