The road less travelled…the difficult conversation

When you’ve been a teacher for a long time, there are two paths you can follow. You can remain in the classroom and be responsible for the classes you teach. There are pluses and minuses to this path. The pluses are that you are fairly autonomous . Yes, you’re often working with a team of teachers, but when all is said and done, you control the environment you teach in, and if you’ve established a climate conducive to learning in your classrooms, this can be a very positive experience.  The minuses are that you carry a heavy teaching load, and you have to deal with the correction load that follows suit.

The other path is to take on managerial responsibilities, be it as a Head of Faculty, Head of Year, or other roles that remove you even further from the classroom such as Deputy Principal. With these roles come the responsibility to manage people. Quite early in my career, I took on the role of Head of Year and did this for three years or so. For the most part, I managed the pastoral care of students, and spent my days working with kids and parents. Of course, I worked with teachers too, and sometimes I was pulled in different directions as I felt the need to support staff, but could see occasions when it was their actions that were contributing to the issues they were having with the children they taught. In more recent years, I changed tack and became a Head of Faculty, and am now Director of ICT and eLearning  – roles that have required me to directly manage staff who report to me. It’s these managerial roles in schools that often present us with the dicey subject of the difficult conversation.

No one enjoys the difficult conversation. You’re often agonising over it in the days preceding, going over what you’ll say again and again, rehearsing it until you’re wrung out like an overused dish rag. The nervous energy saps your mental acuity for anything else as you anticipate every  possible outcome. You prime yourself and spend time doing what my mother used to say, “worrying about something that will probably never happen”. Over the years, I think my managerial skills have sharpened, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still find the difficult conversations just that – difficult.

Last year, at the Creative Innovation 2012 conference (click on that link to see the YouTube channel hosting 21 of the keynotes from the two days) in Melbourne, I was lucky enough to hear Steve Vamos speak on just this topic. His no nonsense, grounded in common sense ideas really resonated with me. I especially love his recount of his experience as a 19 yr old working at Liquorland – the lesson he learnt from someone who knew how to hand out advice while maintaining a person’s dignity has guided his interactions with people ever since. My suggestion is you listen to the seventeen minutes and take in the message. If you are managing staff, in schools or any profession, Steve’s ideas about feedback and respect will ring true.

Creative Innovation 2012 – a conference that got me thinking

I felt very fortunate last week to have the opportunity to attend Creative Innovation 2012,a two day conference organised by Tania De Jong, a pint sized marvel with a resume that makes me wonder how she has time to breathe, let alone pull together a conference like this. This was a conference attended largely by people from business with its focus being, “Wicked problems, great opportunities! Leadership and courage for volatile times.” I met only one other teacher over the course of two days. I’d like to see the organisers consider providing more incentive for schools to send teams along by offering discounted rates to educational institutions, who can benefit greatly from the ideas being shared, but might be hard pressed to send more than one person along.

I’ve put together a Storify that contains a chronological view of my tweet stream over the course of the two days. I take my notes via Twitter. I figure it’s beneficial to not just me, but to others who get a view of what is going on at an event they are not attending. The feedback from Twitter was that it was beneficial – take a look at the Storify and judge for yourself.

It was a conference that surprised me. Every session was worthwhile, providing takeaways that I could apply to my experience. Even when I thought I wasn’t going to gain much from a session, a speaker would blow me away. Dr Megan Clark, CEO of the CSIRO was amazing – her identification of what she described as megatrends confirmed a lot of my thinking. See the Storify where they are outlined. Jason Drew, an Eco-entrepreneur had a really interesting story to share. Take a look at the following TEDx talk he delivered in 2011 to see what I mean.

I would have liked to hear Thomas Frey, futurist speaker from the Da Vinci Institute speak for longer about his vision of what the future holds, and thanks to the wonders of YouTube I can, with the following 49 minute video filmed at The Getty Images Inspiration Session in September of this year. His topic, the future of content.

Michael Rennie spoke beautifully about the importance of loving what it is you do. He asked us to think of a moment when we we were truly energised in our work. For many of us there, we could recognise his recipe for a high performing environment. Have an almost impossible but meaningful goal. Be aware that failure sits alongside it (there is a risk factor involved), as does a caring trusting environment (and this will support you through all the hard work). Michael has a very interesting background – he contracted cancer at 30 and it changed his approach to work, life and leadership. You can read about his experience and insights in this article. Here’s Michael speaking at last year’s Creative Innovation conference.

Li Cunxin spoke about his experiences and had me transfixed. I know his story well, but his delivery is impeccable; you can’t help but be moved. Wade Davis, the man with the best job title in the world, Explorer in Residence at National Geographic, put things in perspective with his tales of tribal communities in many lands who have much to teach those of us who think the Western world has all the answers. Here he is delivering a TED talk in 2008.

Who impacted on me the most? Unexpectedly, Steve Vamos. Steve is President of Society for Knowledge Economics and is a Non Executive Director of Telstra, David Jones and Medibank Private. He spoke in a no nonsense fashion about the need for us to participate in the difficult conversations with people we work with, but to do it with humanity, to treat people respectfully. It’s his belief that people need feedback, they need to have clear purpose in their work and know what they need to be doing. Here he is speaking about similar things at last year’s Creative Innovation conference. Sensible man speaking. Listen.

It was a wonderful conference that will be running again in 2013. If you get an opportunity to go, I’d highly recommend it. In the meantime, read the Storify and look at the conference program. Google the speakers and do what I’ve done -check out what you can find on YouTube. There’s much to learn when you find the right kind of people to listen to.