As international school leaders we obviously lead people who report to us but how do we lead those who we might report to? The truth is our ability to lead others is not restricted to hierarchy in an organisation or our job title. To be great leaders we need to persuade and influence all and our interpersonal skills are quite crucial with those who we are accountable to. Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management calls this process “leading up.”

International school leader
International School Leaders – Leading up!

For international school leaders this concept has additional complexities. Leaders are potentially accountable to Boards, including parents, but also owners, who may have limited experience in education or have very different cultural norms in terms of managing workplaces, making decisions and leadership behaviours.

One way to distinguish the difference between schools is to consider whether they are ‘market driven’ or ‘ideology driven.’ A market driven school is one that is set up in response to demands in the market place for an international school. The business plan might more aggressively target positive cash flow, or profit, within a reasonable time frame (3-5 years) and a significant emphasis is placed on the schools business plan and its ability to achieve financial goals. The ‘ideology driven’ school reflects a mission that is driven by values, beliefs and a mission to achieve altruistic. Both need to be financially viable and sustainable but an ideology driven school may have less aggressive goals financially and more patience to grow steadily. An international school leader must navigate their relationships with unique parties.

“In my opinion it is probably more accurate to describe schools in this way than describing them in the traditional manner of profit versus non-profit. Some of the wealthiest schools in the world are non-profit with immense cash reserves and many of the strongest education management groups have an excellent focus on quality education with very well balanced scorecards.”

Greg Parry – CEO
International School Leaders

Boards of International Schools (Non-Profit)

Some non-profit boards are incredibly powerful and capable teams of professional people. They are very committed to guiding a schools’s strategic direction. Many parents in international schools are corporate leaders and represent a wealth of knowledge, especially about business and the expatriate markets they network in. This can be intimidating for some international school leaders who have outstanding expertise in education but have learnt financial management and the business side of schools along the way.

The secret: Embrace the opportunity of having a team of people working with and beside you who potentially have greater expertise than your self. As Richard Branson says “I surround myself with people who have knowledge and talents in areas where I might not be so well versed.” Strong boards are invaluable if the governance model is sound and the board, with the school leader, operates as a strategic team. There is a difference between merely reporting to a board versus working with a board to accelerate goals. Certainly no place for insecurities. Strong international school leaders embrace opportunities to work with other great leaders.

Owners of International Schools (For-Profit)

Some, but not all, school owners will be very competent in areas such as business and financial management but the paradigm (way of thinking) required to lead a school will be very different. It will take some time for a new school owner to understand education as an industry, at operational level, but also the differences in marketing, planning and the influences of stakeholders.

Schools are primarily very people focussed. We know that the most valuable commodity in a school is its people and all good decisions are framed with this mindset. People from other industries find this unique and quickly realise how even more significant things like workplace culture, tone and climate effect the success of a school.

The secret: Spend a lot of time helping the school owner understand how education works. They don’t need to understand the examination systems or your latest literacy plan but they need to know what is important and why. If they have never worked closely with expatriates this will also be a new challenge. People of all cultures think a little differently and there can be misunderstandings if intention and purpose is not clear.

Just as with non-profit schools, the school owner and governance team have greater strengths than the school leader in a number of key areas. Local culture, working with government agencies, financial management, logistics. Embrace the opportunities that difference provides.

The Relationships of International School Leaders

It goes without saying that authenticity is invaluable. When we “Lead Up” we are respecting that energy and commitment needs to be invested in relationships we report to. As international school leaders we need to persuade and influence others. Not in a manipulative, how can I achieve this, kind of way. We need to demonstrate competence, have presence, communicate clearly and build credibility through our authentic behaviours. International school leadership requires a unique set of relationship skills.

“I have always said that in spite of the fact that a contract and agreement is important for legal reasons, truthfully, it means nothing. The authentic agreement that will have the greatest impact is the trusting relationship that is created that builds loyalty. When leaders and their governors truly trust each other in an authentic manner then mistakes, triumphs and challenges are all shared with a warm heart.”

Greg Parry – CEO
International School Leaders

Communicate Clearly as an International School Leader

Take time to make sure everyone understands clearly what they need to know to have faith that your leadership makes sense. As an educator, what you might take for granted may not be clear to others. Take some extra time to explain. Why do expatriates need extra support navigating government departments? Why do they need extra local support? Why are they treated differently to local staff?

If language is a barrier be extra careful and invest time wisely to make sure there are few errors in basic communication or understanding. This includes cultural factors. When communicating using very specific. vocabulary be sure that your translator understands the concept. it is not just a “Google Translation” exercise to build understanding around important topics related to school management.

“We lived and operated schools in China for 8 years and countless times I can share stories where there was communication breakdown that somehow connected to cultural misunderstandings or an error in translation.”

Greg Parry – CEO

Understand What Matters Most as a School Leader

There are some key priorities that you need to identify early on that need focus. What matters most and why does it matter? By framing key decisions around these important criteria you will have greater impact. Teacher quality, parent satisfaction, sports and recreation, safety. These are all concerns for every school leader but if you know what areas are most important to your governance group or owner then you can make sure this is communicated more clearly. You don’t necessarily have to let these priorities change your balance of direction but clear communication about them is essential.

Use Data and Evidence as Collateral

No one likes empty statements or claims without clear justifications. Create effective processes that gather and report key data. It is important that all decisions are justified and well explained. As an international school leader it is essential that you provide complete cases with justification. For example, “Parents are highly satisfied as evidenced by……” “Literacy levels have increased by 25% as evidenced by this report….” Do not short cut explanations by not sharing the full and complete story including how you have determined judgement.

Provide Clear Direction as a Leader

As an international school leader it is important that you set a very clear direction for the school. In addition to that, you need to play ket roles to support governance where it needs strength and vision. As a school leader everyone will look to you to have vision but also strength in being able to change direction, solve challenges and navigate complex challenges. School governors also want to be led by you, in the key areas that you are responsible for. They will look to you for direction as an international school leader.

Build Trust

Under promise and over deliver on both your interpersonal skills as well as the measurable school outcomes. Excellence is a commitment to do more than just the minimum. It is delivering outcomes that are beyond what many others would expect. You get responsibility by demonstrating you can be trusted. It is excellence and demonstrated outcomes that command trust. This refers to concrete outcomes but especially to interpersonal relations. By investing in the relationship and proving worth you will forever have the trust that allows you to gain even more. As an international school leader you need to build sustainable trust across all stakeholders.

If you want to learn more about the steps required to set up a school check out some of our other articles:

Steps to Setting Up a New School

10 Steps and Articles on How to Set Up a New School

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CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry

Greg Parry

Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.

Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and international school leaders throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.

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