This article was written for Autus Education News and was first published in December 2014.
One of the five dimensions of what Vivianne Robinson calls ‘student-centred leadership’ is establishing goals and expectations. “In a world where everything seems important, or at least important to someone,” she says, “goal setting enables leaders to sort through the multiple demands to establish the relative importance of these various demands and thus provide a clear steer for an otherwise rudderless ship”.
Goal setting in education, Robinson argues, is not about deciding what is and is not important. Goal setting works because it forces decisions about relative importance – about what is more important in this context, at this time, than all the other important things.
Establishing and articulating clear goals – what we might call our ‘vision’ – is crucial for any organisation but particularly important for schools and colleges which – you might say – sail on such troubled waters, tugged – as they are – back and forth on a tide of policy from successive governments and their quangos.
A vision makes explicit what an organisation stands for and what its people want it to achieve; it binds people (staff, students, governors, the community, employers, and so on) together in the pursuit of a common goal and reminds them why they do what they do every day. A vision provides a focus for decision-making and conveys a picture of what the future will look like.
In my book, Leadership for Learning, I distinguished between a vision and a mission as follows:
“A vision is your destination; a mission is your means of transport. In other words, a vision statement sets out what you want your organisation to be like whereas a mission statement articulates the behaviours and values, systems and processes, you expect your organisation to adopt in order to get there.”
So what makes a good vision statement? According to John Kotter in his book, Leading Change, an effective vision is desirable in that it appeals to the long-term interests of employees, customers, stockholders, and others who have a stake in the enterprise. It is feasible in that it comprises realistic, attainable goals and is focused in that it is clear enough to provide guidance in decision making. An effective vision is also flexible in that it is general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions. It is also communicable. In other words, it is easy to communicate and can be successfully explained within five minutes.
The most effective vision statements, Kotter says, also share the following characteristics…
They are ambitious enough to force people out of comfortable routines. For example, becoming 5 per cent better is not the goal; becoming the best at something is often the goal.
They aim in a general way at providing better and better products or services at lower and lower costs, thus appealing greatly to customers and stockholders.
They take advantage of fundamental trends, especially globalisation and new technology.
And they make no attempt to exploit anyone and thus have a certain moral power.
For my part, I believe an effective vision is one which is shared – not just in the sense that it is communicated but that it is understood and owned by most (if not all) of the people in the organisation. It is all well and good for a leader to have a clear vision of what he or she wants to achieve but it will forever remain an aspiration and will never be achieved if it is not understood and shared by everyone else in the organisation.
In schools and colleges, a vision will only be realised if every teacher, every teaching assistant, every member of support staff, and every middle and senior leader makes it happen through their everyday behaviours and actions. It is no use having a vision which many staff disagree with or misunderstand, or which does not suit the organisation’s context. It has to make sense, be achievable and be meaningful. It has to take the organisation forward in the right direction. It has to be something that everyone wants to see take shape. In other words, it has to benefit everyone.
Ideally, a vision statement should express what is unique about an organisation and not be an ‘off-the-peg’ statement which could easily be applied to any school or college in any part of the country or indeed the world. What are the unique challenges the organisation needs to overcome? What will success look like for that particular institution? What makes its stakeholders different?
A good starting point when writing a vision statement, therefore, is the organisation’s existing vision or, if it does not have one, its motto or values. Why? Because although a vision statement is about the future, it should have solid foundations in the past, in the organisation’s history, in what the organisation stands for and in the very reason it exists. Continuity is important to all those with a stake in the place. No one likes change; it is uncomfortable. People like to know that what they have built, what they have worked hard for, what they believe in, is to be retained and protected. A vision which refers to what the organisation already does well as well as articulates what it hopes to do better in the future keeps all parties happy. Moreover, it is balanced, fair and, above all, cohesive: it connects stakeholders along a path which leads from the past, through the present, to the future.
On the subject of cohesion, all stakeholders (staff, students, governors, the community, employers, etc.) need to be involved in agreeing the vision but this does not have to mean a long and convoluted process of wrangling over every word. Instead, the senior team – or perhaps a working party representing as many different areas of the organisation as possible – should draft a vision for wider consultation. That consultation should be clearly framed: what aspects of the vision are leaders consulting on, what are the dividing lines? Leaders need to make it clear what is open for debate and what is not. Do they want to debate every word or do they want to debate broad principles? Leaders need to make clear what form they expect the consultation to take and how they will garner feedback. They need to make clear how they will respond to that feedback. People need to feel listened to but, equally, leaders should not promise something they cannot deliver.
As well as the organisation’s existing vision, motto or values, the vision should be informed by the current (3-year) priorities or targets which in turn (in the case of schools and colleges), are likely to be informed by their latest inspection report, their latest exam results and an analysis of 3-year trends, and a review of the latest quality improvement plan.
Kotter says that the process of creating an effective vision often starts with an initial statement from a single individual, reflecting both his or her dreams and real marketplace needs. The first draft is always modelled over time by a guiding coalition of senior leaders or an even larger group of influential people. Teamwork is important. The group process never works well without a minimum of effective teamwork. The head and the heart have roles of equal importance: analytical thinking and a lot of dreaming are – Kotter says – essential throughout the process of creating a vision.
The process can often be messy because vision-creation is usually a process of two steps forward and one back, movement to the left and then to the right. Vision is never created in a single meeting. The activity takes months, sometimes years. The process results in a direction for the future that is desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, and is conveyable in five minutes or less.
Robinson says that, in terms of creating a vision, three conditions need to be in place. People need to feel personally committed to the goal and believe they have the capacity to achieve it. The goal also needs to be specific so people can monitor their progress towards it. Vision creation (or ‘goal setting’ as Robinson calls it) works by creating a discrepancy between the current situation and an attractive future. This discrepancy motivates people to focus their effort and attention on the activities required to reach the goal and to persist until they achieve it.
People commit to a vision that they believe is important. Robinson says that the pursuit of the goal becomes attractive because it provides an opportunity for reducing the gap between the vision and the current reality. This means that two things are required for goal commitment. The goal needs to provide an opportunity to achieve what is valued, and people need to accept that the current situation falls sufficiently short of that vision to warrant pursuit of the goal. This is why it is important that a vision is a collective goal rather than that of a single leader and that it emerges through discussion rather than being imposed.
The second aspect of gaining goal commitment, according to Robinson, is acceptance of the gap between the goal and the existing state of affairs. “Many leaders…focus only on the desirability of the goal and not on the difference between what they envisage and the present situation,” she argues. One solution, Robinson says, is to engage in ‘constructive problem talk’: “Such talk involves naming, describing, and analysing problems in ways that reveal the possibilities for change. Constructive problem talk builds trust because people respect leadership that can own problems and take responsibility for solving them.”
Creating a vision works best when people are committed to goals which they believe they have the capacity to achieve. Commitment and capacity are highly interdependent because people will not commit to goals which they believe they cannot achieve.
“When the responsible system lacks the capacity to achieve a particular goal,” Robinson says, “leaders should initially set learning rather than performance goals”. Performance goals are about “the achievement of a specific outcome”. A learning goal, by contrast, focuses on the “discovery of the strategies, processes, or procedures to perform the task effectively”. With a learning goal, attention is directed to learning how to do the task rather than to achieving a specific outcome.
According to Robinson, a vision is specific when it “include[s] criteria by which progress and achievement can be judged”. Ensuring the vision has a set of SMART targets or objectives attached to it makes sense because people cannot regulate their performance if they are unclear about how to assess their progress.
However, Robinson argues that there are occasions when the call to set SMART targets is inappropriate: “In order to set a SMART goal, you have to know quite a lot about how to achieve it. When goals involve new challenges, how can you possibly know if it is achievable, if it is realistic, and how long it will take you to achieve it?”
A vision should also be clearly focused because if it has too many goals it will defeat the purpose of giving clear messages about what takes priority.
An additional challenge in achieving goals is developing the routines that enable teachers to integrate goal pursuit into their daily work. Without such routines, a ‘business as usual’ mentality and approach will drive goal achievement.
Let’s take a short detour now to consider the mission statement…
As I say above, the vision is the destination and the mission is the means of transport. The mission is necessarily longer than the vision statement because it is a detailed declaration of what an organisation will do in order to achieve its vision. A mission statement should try to cover all the important aspects of an organisation’s working practices. In the case of schools and colleges, for example, it might cover: how it uses data; what kind of curriculum it has or aspires to have; what the atmosphere should be like; how it caters for vulnerable learners; how it engages with the local community; and so on.
As a starting point, consider the following statements:
Our school is a place where…
- there is a shared vision of what the school is trying to achieve;
- data is understood and acted upon appropriately;
- students make good or better progress within each year and key stage, academically, emotionally and socially;
- there is a rich curriculum taught by skilled, well-motivated teachers;
- there is a purposeful, organised working atmosphere, students are valued and their contributions are appreciated;
- resources, including quality ICT provision, are well-matched to the curriculum;
- students are challenged and encouraged to do their best;
- vulnerable children are identified early and support mechanisms are put in place;
- parents are fully informed and are welcomed contributors to school life;
- there is a sense of involvement in the local community and visitors and outside agencies provide contributions to the school;
- all staff are valued and are supported in their own personal and professional development;
- standards reflect the status of the students: there is no coasting, and realistic achievement targets are consistently met;
- the school is held in high esteem by the local community;
- there is appropriate and interesting extra-curricular provision.
Once the vision and mission have been agreed, they need to be officially ratified by governors. Once ratified, they should not be filed away in a dusty drawer and forgotten about. They should be placed centre-stage. They should be referred to as frequently as possible, in as many different ways as possible, and should underpin everything the organisation does.
In practice, this might mean:
- Including the vision statement on letter-headed paper, in a prospectus, and in newsletters and leaflets
- Using the vision to frame the organisation’s 3-year strategy, aims and objectives
- Including the vision and mission on the front page of the school improvement plan (SIP) or the college’s quality improvement plan (QIP) and using it to frame that plan: a section for each aspect of the vision, broken down into specific actions which will help to realise the vision
- Including the vision and mission on the front page of the self-evaluation form (SEF) or self-assessment report (SAR)
- Including the vision and mission in faculty or departmental action plans / business plans
- Including the vision in performance management documentation and using the vision to provide a broad basis for staff appraisal objectives
In Student-Centred Leadership, Robinson, for her part, says that,“once clear goals are established, the second dimension of effective leadership – resourcing strategically – comes into play”. In other words, the vision or goal should be used to determine what to spend an organisation’s precious time and money on.
“Scarce resources – money, time, teaching materials, and instructional expertise – [should be] allocated in ways that give priority to key goals,” she says. “As such, strategic resourcing and strategic thinking are closely linked: strategic thinking involves asking questions and challenging assumptions about the links between resources and the needs they are intended to meet.”
Kotter says that a vision can get lost in the clutter of everyday working life if leaders fail to communicate it effectively. The total amount of communication going to an employee in three months, he argues, is approximately 2,300,000 words or numbers. The typical communication of a change vision over a period of three months equates to just 13,400 words or numbers (that is, the equivalent of one 30-minute speech, one hour-long meeting, one 600-word article in the firm’s newspaper, and one 2,000-word memo). This means that the change vision captures only 0.58 per cent of the communication market share.
In order to communicate the vision more effectively, then, leaders need to ensure communications are simple – all jargon and technobabble must be eliminated. Leaders need to make use of metaphor, analogy, and example: a verbal picture, after all, paints a thousand words. Leaders need to use multiple forums such as meetings (big and small), memos and newspapers, formal and informal interaction – all are effective means of spreading the word. Repetition is also key: ideas sink in deeply only after they have been heard many times. Leaders need to lead by example because if the behaviour of important people is inconsistent with the vision, it will overwhelm all other forms of communication. Leaders need to explain seeming inconsistencies because, if inconsistencies go unaddressed, they will undermine the credibility of all other communications. And finally, leaders need to allow for a bit of ‘give-and-take’, a bit of two-way communication because a dialogue is always more effective than a monologue. It’s the ‘con’ in ‘conversation’, after all: ‘con’ meaning ‘with’ in Italian.
So use the vision to frame every conversation and speech, to focus every meeting, to inform every decision. Use it as a mantra. It will remind people of their ultimate goal and refocus them on what’s most important; it will convince them that they are playing a crucial role in helping to make the organisation’s vision a reality ands reassure them that they are helping to shape the future.
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