English UK Management Conference: the blog
13 March 2015

It's been an extraordinary couple of days at the English UK Management Conference in York, with experiences ranging from dinner (think vast cuts of beef) served in a medieval hall, to an inspiring call to make workplaces happy and allow staff to choose their own managers, to an insightful session on dealing with difficult people (clue: look at your own behaviour).

The standout session in an excellent couple of days for most of the delegates appears to have been the opening plenary, given by the man universally known as Happy Henry. 

Henry Stewart runs a company called Happy, driven by his conviction - supported by research - that happy and trusted workers are more productive. 

So, a sea of hands rose in the rather grand Oak Room of the Royal York Hotel when he asked who thought happy workers equated to better results. Then, he asked: "Hands up if your main focus of management making people feel good about themselves." Some rose.

He went on to explain how a major retailer spent 30 minutes discussing numbers in meetings, and 3 hours on how to motivate staff and make them happy. "Every major decision has to be on whether it will make staff happy. imagine if you had that as a staff driver," he said.

A fast food chain had discovered a correlation between the branches growing fastest with those where the annual staff survey found the most happy workers. "How would your organisation be different if main focus of management was making people feel good," he asked.

There were, he added, good financial reasons to do this: you'd have made more money investing in the best company to work over 25 years rather than in top stockmarket companies, he said.

This meant trust, freedom, challenge and support were most important things. He suggested the value of pre-approving: that you delegate a project, give a full explanation of what's needed and approve the solution before it's arrived. 

"Like most managers I am a barrier for change, so I make sure things don't come across my desk," he said.

According to Google research, the three most important management behaviours were to express interest, empowering staff and at number one, be a good coach. A core principle was to ask, don't tell people - but give a scaffold to their work. 

And if it all goes horribly wrong? "We talk about celebrating mistakes because we learn from them," he said. 

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, was was what he had to say about managers: how many got promoted because they were good at something but turned out to be not good at managing people. The commonest reason for leaving a job was the manager, and he, said, Happy had a way of dealing with that: let individuals choose their own manager. Also, it was good to split roles, giving some the management functions and letting other individuals do what they were good at at a higher level. 

So here's his three take-home messages: get people to do what they're good at, give them the freedom to do it well, and make them happy. 

We then had a selection of smaller sessions, including George Pickering on how to create your own management CPD toolkit. "Think about how people will describe you at your retirement party," he advised, suggesting the trade off between a prepackaged CPD course and the DIY approach (tip: set aside a specific time each week for this). 

And ask yourself four questions: did I achieve my outcome? what worked well and why (start with positive)? what didn't work so well and why? what will I do differently next time?

Do this little and often, he said. Also - keep a journal, and film/photograph/record yourself. And if you don't like that, ask why you think it's so good for teachers?

Ian Pack, managing director of the Colchester English Study Centre, was delighted with the morning's session and had spent the lunch break asking more questions of the man everyone was describing as Happy Henry. "It's odd that what he says seems to come as a surprise to people," he said. Mr Pack is new to the ELT sector after a long career elsewhere, and came to the conference  to learn more about the sector. "I've found English UK really helpful," he said. 

After lunch, Loraine Kennedy was being challenging with social media, reminding us that people prefer to communicate face-to-face, and that technology is challenging how we communicate and how managers manage. "Social media will be affected by the organisation you have. If people are unhappy, griping, unsatisfied - that's what will come through. It really does raise questions about the type of culture you have. Ask yourself: would your staff recommend your workplace to a friend?"

She recommended a communications audit, asking people what they needed to do the job better and asking everybody on staff. "People like to laugh, they want to be happy and it's important to bring that into the strategy. It's important to find out what worries people at work and what annoys them. We need optimised connections with external customers and maximum engagement with internal customers, to increase employee voice, use social media to build networks, communities and a learning culture. The employee voice is a valuable asset. It increases the happiness of staff if they feel their point of view is important ."

Emma Carlile reminded us of the importance of thanking staff after an inspection, and the importance of having a policy on faiths for secular schools.

In a session by DELTM candidates, Jake Castaldi of English in Margate talked about the challenges of encouraging teachers to undertake Action Research. 

"Why do I believe it's a brilliant opportunity for individuals and organisations? First of all I don't think INSET workshops really manage to address individuals' needs. We all have different backgrounds and experience, he said. 

The final big session of the first day was Helen Chambers' rather lively take on managing difficult people. Put very succinctly, her message is (a) look at yourself and (b) remember that people may not be difficult - just different. Understand how, and you can help things run more smoothly. Helen also coined the wonderful phrase of an "emotional soup" in the workplace.

"Hold a mirror to yourself.," she said. "Did I do something cause that person to behave in what I perceive as a difficult manner?… I say do, not be that manager I wait to arrive in morning to see what my day is going to be like."

It is a manager's responsibility to make sure to ensure a good atmosphere within the environment, she said. "Prevention is better than cure." Communication was a two or three-way thing - telling was not communicating, she said, stressing the importance of understanding different personality types and how to handle them. 

"We need to make it safe to be different," she said. It was important to notice people's stress reactions, separate the person from their behaviour. Take away messages : be open, transparent and fair: notice your tone of voice and body language.

A quick break, and more than a hundred of us reconvened for a drinks reception and an astonishing dinner at the Merchant Taylors' Hall in York, a medieval hall with a roaring fire and a vast joint of beef for each table which one nominee had to carve.

At this point, we also raised well over £100 for Comic Relief by persuading Helen Chambers to tell two stories she'd mentioned in passing earlier. I'll draw a veil over both - but a bucketful of cash is on its way to Red Nose Day HQ. Thanks everyone!

There was plenty of time to exchange notes over drinks at the Merchant Taylors' Hall. Jan and Nova Fossgard, from the Purley School of English, were joining us for the first time and enjoying themselves. "It's given us plenty to think about," said Jan, explaining that the business is now growing and he has moved on from being his own DOS, so needed to get a different perspective on the school. 

Jean Daruvala of Malvern House is more of a regular, coming for the past eight years. "I think it's brilliant CPD… it helps you keep on top of what's happening, spot trends and so on. And it gets you out of the office - that's really important. It's inspiring and gets you out of the routine."

Richard Thomas of the University of the Arts Language Centre had been coming for ten years. "It helps you get out of the rut and think about a wider vision," he said. 

Mark Rendell of St Giles used to organise the conference, as a former Deputy Chief Executive of English UK. What did he think? "I'm really happy to see it's gone from strength to strength. I thought the sessions led by the DELTM candidates were really inspiring, as they talked about their research techniques. And they're people working in the industry  - that's important."

Friday morning's first session with Ollie Beaumont on Quiet Leadership and everyone looks remarkably chipper, even those diehards who managed to stay out on the town in York until 5am (you know who you are!).

If Ollie was nervous - he admitted to a couple of ex-DOSes in the audience, as well as an ex-girlfriend - he didn't show it as he talked about how to lead from the back and getting more buy-in from staff. Crucially, he also pointed out the difference between completing tasks and dealing with people: the second often disappears during a day's firefighting. Here's a few of his observations and finds from management theory:

  • Always put your oxygen mask on first: I missed this for years as a DOS
  • Be focused on the impact you have
  • You don't become a leader telling people what to do: become a sounding board for someone to bounce ideas
  • consider sports coaching ideas such as practice goals and performance goals to create momentum
  • make sure you get teachers' heart, mind and body. Don't just tell them to do something and show them how - make sure they see and feel the difference it makes.

What else has been happening? It's been a brilliant day, with Sarah Cooper, English UK chair, talking about the career possibilities for ELT teachers and managers (she plugged the idea of volunteering on one of the English UK boards, or setting up a regional group if your area doesn't have one), DELTM sessions including Mark Long on his research into PRP in schools (and why on balance he thought it was a good thing), and a very busy session on inspection in which we found out which areas were weakest. In case you're interested: publicity, accommodation, care of under 18s, academic staff profile and learner management. 

Over lunch, Lucy Pereira of One to One explained why she had decided to come back to the event this year: "It's nice to get out with colleagues and share ideas… it gives you an injection of ideas and energy, talk through issues and look at things differently.

"The topics are really well-connected and I like the environment where you are able to talk to everybody even if you've never met before. "

After another fine lunch, Will Nash of Sheffield Uni led another of his fine Open Space questions, where participants suggest what they want to discuss and then get together in groups to do so, sharing general outcomes and via a Cloud document. 

Wandering round, people were clearly finding it helpful to discuss the issues and the feedback had some interesting elements - but doesn't lend itself easily to sharing. But, as Will pointed out, the technique was a useful one to borrow for use within your own language centre. 

And finally came Michael Carrier of Cambridge English Language Assessment, with a swift run through of various MBA techniques which might be useful, asking difficult questions about which courses were good to keep, whether you were in a red ocean (sharks - courses too similar) or blue (you're different to others). How much more or less expensive could you be? Favourite question of the session: "Are you a Skoda or a Rolls Royce?" 

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