Footdown helps me to be a better leader
Dr Helen Wright – Head Teacher, St Mary’s Calne
What made Helen Wright decide to join Footdown?
“I knew I was doing well but I also knew that, while the school was going from strength to strength, it needed to move to the next level. I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be but I felt I’d almost gone as far as I could myself. I knew there was more, but I just didn’t know how to develop it.”
Dr Helen Wright is an enormously impressive woman, a fact recognized early when, aged just 30, she was made Head of Heathfield, Ascot in 2001. Her appointment as Head of St Mary’s Calne followed just two years later. She has an outstanding academic track record, with an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Doctorate in Education on understanding moral leadership in schools.
What may be a surprise is just how warm and engaging she is and how willing to reveal her doubts, as well as her certainties.
She joined The Cotswolds Fifteen, one of Footdown’s leadership coaching and mentoring groups, in 2009 and is one of the group’s founder members. The Cotswolds Fifteen is lead by Josie Payne.
What did she hope to gain from being a member?
“I thought – this can really help me. It could be an opportunity to meet other CEOs in different areas. I know all the other heads in education but this is beyond that. This is about meeting different types of people and being challenged.”
The Chairman of Governors of St Mary’s recognized the potential value to the school and agreed to invest. But for Helen it was about more than doing a better job for the school, although that was undoubtedly important, it was also “about developing myself more broadly too. And about being a better leader.”
“I loved what I saw about Footdown, and what it stood for.”
What were her first impressions of her fellow group members?
Like many successful business leaders, Helen’s confident exterior sometimes masks a less certain inner self. Unlike most though she is willing to reveal her more vulnerable side and so, when she first met the Cotswold Fifteen group, she freely admits that it was less that she had an impression of her fellow members and more that: “I had this inner struggle, this anxiety, the feeling that all of these people were doing terribly important things.”
She certainly believed that being Head of a top girls school, like St Mary’s Calne, was important work, it was just that she feared her fellow group members would not value it the way she does.
“But instantly I could see that these were interesting people and different from the people I meet who are at a leadership level in education. And I thought this is going to be exciting. ”I’d gone as far as I could by myself. And this is going to take me to the next level!” (Her emphasis)
I wouldn’t have known then that I would grow to trust them (her fellow group members) as well as I have and to feel so comfortable with them.”
How has Footdown peer group learning helped and supported Helen Wright?
“It was a step in a direction I wouldn’t have been able to take, if I’d had to do it myself. I relish challenge and over the time I’ve been in Footdown I’ve been more able to express that.”
“I think they’ve shown me very different ways of looking at situations. They’ve been able to give me feedback in a peer relationship.” Something it’s difficult to get as Head of a school, or indeed as leader of any type of organization where it is easy to feel isolated and unappreciated. “So to get that recognition from an external perspective has been good.”
She also appreciates the growing awareness the peer group now has of the challenges she faces in her leadership role as Head of a school with a £10 million turnover; 325 girls going through the major transition from pre-teen to young adulthood; a huge staff of 250.
“To have the group gradually understand that has been tremendous for me and made me feel we’re on a par.” She has also valued the opportunity to help her fellow group members by giving insights into the challenges and opportunities they face.
Footdown has given her more confidence as a leader. “More courage to extend beyond what I do. Most definitely, unquestionable, I cannot stress that enough. The courage to go to the next level.”
And, perhaps most importantly, by helping her to understand herself more fully she’s been able to acknowledge “the sensitivity and vulnerability which is at the heart of me” as well as “recognize this inner drive and translate it much more effectively into external action.” In the past “it’s been either filtered or hampered by a concern that I don’t want to go too far, I don’t want to upset things.”
“It’s that channelling of energy and not allowing it to become caught up in a mesh of worry and anxiety and feeling alone, as you often do as a leader.”
“It has undeniably benefitted me and benefitted the school.”
The role of Personal Insight in helping Helen Wright to be a better leader
An important part of developing Helen’s self-awareness was the personal contract process (part of the Footdown’s Personal Insight product) that all Footdown members go through with top motivational coach and speaker, Nigel Risner. “I found it very emotional to be able to work that through and I say it to myself regularly. Again it’s sense of channelling (of energy). Everything comes together and works in the same direction and that isn’t just in my work life, it’s in my whole life. And when you feel everything’s working together it’s glorious, it’s amazing, you feel you can do anything.”
Using personality profiling component of Personal Insight, also raised her level of self awareness and improved Helen’s communication. “It’s given me more self confidence in knowing when I’m right and not right. If you’re more self aware you also know to check in more, to confirm you’re going in the right direction.”
What has she done differently as a result of Footdown?
Helen Wright’s membership of the Cotswold Fifteen leadership mentoring group has helped her to develop a much better sense of herself as a leader of a significant sized organisation. Like most heads she came up through the conventional route of teacher, head of department and then deputy head. Instead of apologising for no longer teaching, and feeling it in some way diminishes her legitimacy, she now understands that she has a specific and crucial role in the organisation and can communicate this more effectively to people.
Being a Footdown member has also enabled her to reflect on, and more easily articulate, how her goals align with those of the school. “I couldn’t verbalise it. I felt it, I did many things instinctively but unless you can verbalise it you can’t move to the next level.
This clearer focus on goals “on clear, ambitious, extraordinary goals”, her greater understanding of the importance of alignment and her growing belief, inspired by Footdown, that there are “no limits to what you can do” has spurred her on. “I dare to be amazingly ambitious for the school and to look beyond that in order for me to be personally fulfilled and challenged.” It’s no surprise then that one of her goals is for the school “to be the very, very best. When you talk about the best girls school in the country, you’ll automatically think of St Mary’s Calne. That’s our goal.”
She also finds it easier to ask for help in managing all aspects of her life, not just her official work life. Previously she felt, like most working mothers probably, that managing her childcare arrangements was solely her responsibility. The group helped her to see that it was legitimate to ask her PA to help with this. “Working out my childcare schedule was so interwoven with my day in school (a boarding school) and it’s absolutely right that my PA should support me and that’s made a huge difference to me. Of course sharing with people always makes an enormous difference to your perspective on things and seeing people who’re going through the same struggles over balancing family and work gives you courage. I’m not alone.”
How have the changes in Helen Wright’s leadership style affected her team?
“They’ve grown as well. I’m not sure they’re as clear (as I am) about how they’ve grown but I’ve seen this.” She believes it’s because “I’ve been able to say what I’m doing and these are my expectations. “
What would Helen Wright say to fellow head teachers about Footdown membership?
“It’s a real opportunity to meet people outside the sphere of education. It gives you a chance to reflect on your school and the opportunity to grow yourself. It also helps you value yourself more as a leader and as an individual, as a person; we don’t often get that because as leaders we are at the top of the organization and we don’t have support structures. Footdown gives you a support structure. “
“It has helped me and it is continuing to help me. I know I want to make a difference, I want to make the world a better place and with Footdown I sense I can do that.”