Book title: High Challenge, Low Threat: Finding the balance
Author: Mary Myatt
Publication date: 2016
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
This book is well worth a read for anyone interested in effective leadership and management that incorporates a genuine sense of humanity. One of my favourite quotes in the book is: ‘In high functioning settings people want to be held accountable for their work, but they don’t want to feel like a muppet. Nobody wants to be made to feel like a muppet.’
What makes High Challenge, Low Threat so brilliant is that Mary Myatt draws upon her wealth of experience and articulates how leaders can create a supportive climate for staff to flourish. As a new, young chief executive, this book provided me with some real pearls of wisdom from someone who has been there and got the proverbial t-shirt.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
The book is a fantastic resource for any teacher at any stage in their career. I feel it would particularly benefit those new to senior leadership, however, as it clearly explains how leaders can create a supportive climate and culture for excellent learning to take place.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
High Challenge, Low Threat is a short, readable book.
The structure is very simple with short chapters focusing on specific aspects of school leadership. My favourite chapter in the book was ‘What would happen if we didn’t do this?’ which really made me reflect on my own leadership style and the necessity (or not) of some of the tasks we do.
Myatt’s humility and experience shines through and she gives excellent advice. For example, she says to avoid micromanagement and the temptation ‘to do it yourself’. This will allow others to develop, particularly when you work in an atmosphere of trust where mistakes are seen as a part of the learning journey and professional growth.
The chapters are usually no more than three or four pages long and can easily be read in 5-10 minutes. This means they are easily digestible and you can dip in and out of them. This does mean that there are a lot of chapters – 45 to be precise – and further reading would be required if you wanted to develop some of the key themes further.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence do the authors use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
This book focuses on the things that wise leaders do. It is informed by thousands of conversations with leaders over a 20-year period and Myatt’s general evidence from observations of leaders at work in a variety of settings.
While these are mostly in schools, observations are checked against what is happening in wider leadership and management thinking. For example, there are parallels between The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
Myatt also takes a number of ideas from the wider business sector and applies them to an educational setting, providing thoughtful insights on high-performing teams. In chapter 4, for example, she talks about ‘Management by walking around’. A good leader is not stuck behind closed doors but knows what is going on in the school or office. This enables leaders to get to know their staff, and offer developmental advice and targeted praise so they feel valued and supported.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
‘The most valuable resource which leaders have are their colleagues. So they express gratitude to them. They say thank you, and often. But the thanks are not cheap, off-the-cuff platitudes. They are deep and heartfelt and they come from noticing. Noticing is one of the most powerful things that thoughtful leaders do. They notice the small stuff, the things that make a person tick, the small triumphs and gains.’
As a chief executive of a multi-academy trust it can look like you are detached from schools and are preoccupied with high-level growth, school improvement and financial sustainability. After reading Chapter 4 I really reflected on this; I wanted to demonstrate to staff that I was still aware of what was happening on the ground, and cared about it.
As a result, I introduced the CEO extra-mile award where headteachers across the trust nominate staff on a weekly basis for going the extra mile. I set time aside each week to visit the nominated members of staff and present them with a certificate and a small gift to thank them for their hard work and contribution. The impact of this has been profound with recent staff surveys showing a demonstrable effect on staff appreciation.
In addition to the extra-mile award we also introduced ‘Thank The Teacher Day’ where students across the trust nominate a teacher they want to thank. Every comment is collated into a small book and placed into their pigeonhole. This was so successful that it is going to be replicated for associate staff across the trust too.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
‘A reasons culture supports ongoing improvement. It is the kind of narrative which says: ‘This didn’t go as well as it might. What are we going to do differently? How can we support these children to catch up? What have we learnt? How are we going to be better as a result of this?’ This is the polar opposite of an excuses culture, which places responsibility and blame elsewhere and washes its hands. The legitimate reasons use setbacks as a springboard for renewed improvement. The excuses result in complacency and eventually a downward spiral. Because no one is taking responsibility.’
On Thursday 9 November 2017 Mary Myatt will join our online book club to discuss her book with you. You can join in using #CCTbookclub on Twitter.