Leadership and staff retention (Part 2)

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here


This is the second article in a 5-Part series. Read Part One here. 

In part one of this series, I summarised the findings of a report by the Centre for High Performance (October 2016) on what it takes to be a successful school leader, which concluded we were appointing, recognising and rewarding the wrong kind of leader.

The education system in England, the report found, favoured short-term thinking – quick fixes rather than sustainable improvements.

There were, broadly speaking, five types of school leader, the report said. These were as follows:

  • Surgeons: these leaders cut and redirect, and focus on test scores.
  • Soldiers: these leaders trim and tighten, and focus on the bottom line.
  • Accountants: these leaders invest and grow, and focus on the top line.
  • Philosophers: these leaders debate and discuss, and focus on values.
  • Architects: these leaders redesign and transform, and focus on long-term impact.

The architect proved (according to the research) to be the most effective leader. Indeed, architects were the only leaders which the researchers found to have improved exam results over the long-term.

And yet, perversely, architects were the types of leader we least reward, least recognise, and rarely appoint as headteachers, principals and executive principals.

Instead, we reward surgeons for dramatically increasing examination results during their tenure, even though these improvements are not sustained and tend to have a devastating impact of staff attrition.

Having examined the types of school leader which have the biggest impact in terms of turning around failing schools – not least by improving teacher recruitment and retention (of which much more later) – let us now take a look at the kinds of organisation these great leaders tend to build…

Five models of organisation

In a paper pithily entitled Organisational Blueprints for Success in High-Tech Start-Ups: Lessons from the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies (by James N Baron and Michael T Hannan, published in the California Management Review in 2002), the authors proposed five different models of organisational structure: the star model, the engineering model, the commitment model, the bureaucratic model, and the autocratic model.

Briefly, in companies which followed the “star” model, leaders recruited from elite universities or other successful companies, and gave employees huge amounts of autonomy.

In companies which followed the “engineering” model, there weren’t many individual stars, but engineers (the skilled craftsmen), as a group, held the most sway. An engineering mindset prevailed in solving problems or approaching hiring decisions.

In the “bureaucratic” model, cultures emerged through swollen ranks of middle leaders. Senior leaders wrote extensive job descriptions, organisational charts, and employee handbooks. Everything was spelled out and everything was done by the book.

An autocratic culture, meanwhile, was similar to the bureaucratic one except that all the rules, job descriptions, and organisational charts reflected the beliefs, desires and goals, not of a senior leadership team, but of just one all-powerful person at the helm: the company was the boss.

Finally, companies which followed the “commitment” model were focused on creating a culture – regarded as somewhat old-fashioned by the other organisations – in which people happily worked for the same company their whole careers. As one CEO who was interviewed for the paper put it: “I want to build the kind of company where people only leave when they retire or die.”

Attachment, control and selection

The attitudes of the senior leaders interviewed for the paper towards organisational structure varied in three main ways: attachment, coordination/control, and selection.

In terms of attachment, leaders articulated three different bases of employee attachment, which the authors of the paper labelled as love, work and money.

Some leaders wanted to create a strong family-like feeling and an intense emotional bond with the workforce that would inspire superior effort and increase retention of highly sought-after employees, thereby avoiding high levels of attrition. They wanted employees to be bound to their organisation by a sense of personal belonging and identification; in other words, by a love of the company and what it did.

In terms of coordination and control, some leaders expressed a deep reliance on informal control through peers or organisational culture, others relied on professional control, even if they did not explicitly use this terminology.

In other words, these leaders took it for granted that their employees were committed to excellence in their work and could perform at high levels because they had been professionally “socialised” to do so.

Professional control emphasised autonomy and independence, rather than enculturation. A third group of leaders took a more traditional view of control as that embedded in formal procedures and systems.

In terms of selection, some leaders regarded their organisation as a series of tasks and sought employees to carry out particular tasks effectively. Time and money tended to be the paramount concerns here, so the focus was on selecting employees who could be brought on-board and up-to-speed as quickly and cheaply as possible.

In these cases, founders envisioned selecting employees who have the skills and experience needed to accomplish some immediate tasks. Other leaders focused less on immediate and well-defined tasks than on a series of projects through which employees would move over time. Accordingly, these leaders emphasised long-term potential. Finally, a third group of leaders focused primarily on values and cultural fit, emphasising how a prospective new recruit would connect with others in the organisation.

In practice

The “engineering” organisation model involves attachment through challenging work, peer group control, and selection based on specific task abilities. In short, in “engineering” organisations, leaders will likely say: “We are very committed and the binding energy is very high.”

The “star” model, meanwhile, regards attachment as being based on challenging work, a reliance on autonomy and professional control, and selecting elite personnel based on long-term potential. In short, leaders will likely say: “We recruit only top talent, pay them top wages, and give them the resources and autonomy they need to do their job.”

The “commitment” model involves a reliance on the emotional or familial ties of employees to the organisation, recruitment is based on cultural fit, and peer-group control. In short, leaders will likely say: “I want to build the kind of company where people only leave when they retire.”

The “bureaucracy” model involves attachment based on challenging work and/or opportunities for development, selecting individuals based on their qualifications for a particular role, and formalised control. In short, leaders will likely say: “Here we make sure things are documented, that people have job descriptions, and that we have rigorous project management techniques in place.”

Finally, the “autocratic” model refers to employment premised on monetary motivations, control and coordination through close personal oversight, and the recruitment of employees to perform pre-specified tasks. Leaders will likely say: “You work, you get paid.”

And the winner is…

So which, of these five organisational models, did the researchers find to have performed best in terms of recruitment and retention, and – as a result – in relation to their productivity and effectiveness?

The answer is the “commitment” model. Although the “star” model produced some of the study’s most successful companies – putting all the smartest people in the same room could indeed yield vast influence and wealth – these types of organisation also failed in record numbers and rarely sustained their performance and success over the long-term.

The only culture that was a consistent winner – lasting the course and sustaining success – was the one built on commitment. In fact, “commitment” organisations outperformed every other type of organisation in almost every meaningful way.

One of the paper’s authors said: “Not one of the commitment firms we studied failed. None of them, which is amazing in its own right. But they were also the fastest companies to go public, had the highest profitability ratios, and tended to be leaner, with fewer middle managers, because when you choose employees slowly, you have time to find people who excel at self-direction.”

There was a sense of trust among staff and leaders that enticed everyone to work harder and stick together through the setbacks that were inevitable in any industry. Most commitment companies avoided making staff redundant unless there was no other alternative. Instead, they invested heavily in professional development.

There were higher levels of teamwork and psychological safety. Commitment companies might not have had lavish cafeterias, but they offered generous maternity leaves, childcare facilities, and flexible working options where possible. Although such initiatives were not immediately cost-effective, the commitment companies valued making employees happy over quick profits and, as a result, workers tended to turn down higher-paying jobs at rival organisations.

Employees also worked smarter and better when they believed they had more decision-making authority and when they believed their colleagues were equally committed to their success.

For the commitment-model organisation, the key human resources imperative is fostering a strong culture and ensuring that new recruits fit that culture. Leaders in these organisations were more selective and devoted more effort upfront to designing their cultures and employment practices.

Not surprisingly, the amount of early attention that leaders devoted to organisational concerns – such as drafting a vision and mission statement, creating an organisation chart, preparing a staff handbook, etc – was greatest in commitment organisations.

In short, then, the commitment organisations thought hard about staff recruitment – they ensured they hired the best people. Then they worked hard to ensure those staff stayed. Attrition was low because people wanted to stay, they felt valued and rewarded, and – perhaps more importantly – they felt that they were being developed professionally.

It is no coincidence that the most successful type of school leader – the architect – was the one which developed exactly this kind of organisation: one built on commitment. Architects accepted that it took time to improve a school and so they took a long-term view, and they focused on creating the right environment in which teachers could thrive.

People are, after all, a school’s most precious – and indeed costly – resource and so it pays to invest in them. Get recruitment right – hire the right people – and then focus on making them want to stay, thus reducing attrition and the monetary and time costs that follow, and you will develop a school that sustainably succeeds over the long-term.

In part three, we will consider some tips for improving the organisational effectiveness of our schools and explore ways of increasing teachers’ intrinsic motivation and, with it, their job satisfaction and wellbeing.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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