The notion of the ‘culture conversation’ is not a new concept. Indeed, in our international schools they routinely take place during the onboarding and orientation process. However, their understanding, widespread use and effectiveness, are hard to measure. If culture really is the glue that binds your people and their purpose together, then the culture conversation is a vital tool for your schools to engage in and get right. But what exactly is a culture conversation and why are they so critical for our schools and their people leaders?
What are culture conversations?
Culture conversations are ways in which you interact with your staff in an ongoing manner and in doing so, use your school’s culture to help shape the future of decision making or changes in policy. They are a proactive strategy used to engage all staff and evaluate whether your staff have the requisite knowledge, skills and other abilities (KSAOs) to do their jobs effectively. They help share success, promote high-order thinking amongst staff and where necessary – pose difficult questions that staff may need to be asked. Finally, and perhaps increasingly important – they help identify malpractice, inequity and actions that can damage your school’s overall culture.
The typical culture conversation is routinely short. But with the skill of those who carry them out, staff can quickly be put at ease. They help fight fires before they get out of control and when adopted at a whole-school level, can lead staff on a path towards highly successful collaboration and interdependence – away from the shackles that dependence can often produce. But perhaps one of the most important aspects of the culture conversation from a Human Resource (HR) perspective is in using them as a diagnostic to measure your school’s culture.
Why are they so important?
Read any book on leadership and management and effective listening will be one of the most essential skills a leader can develop. Knowing what your people think and the reasons behind the way they think are your own form of AI. Accurately predicting work place behaviours, who presents a flight risk and where further appropriate academic support may be needed is highly valuable information. They thus represent what your people are saying.
In our first book ‘Leading Your International School’, I argued for a shift in the mindset of how we view our HR departments and the HR and People Leaders of the future we are going to need to drive change, increase diversity and promote opportunity in our schools. One such example lies in the professional responsibilities of HR when it comes to culture. A traditional approach sees the HR professional act as ‘Culture Ambassador’ – representing the school through their beliefs, actions and interactions. Yet whilst this is important, we need to move towards a role in which your HR and People Leaders become ‘Culture Curators’ and in doing so, help your people to achieve their potential. The figure below heights the difference between acting as a cultural ambassador and culture curator. Take the time to think about where your school currently is. What might your required actions be to move across to become a curator?
Traditional HR Mindset
Ambassador: This is our culture. Staff sought that ‘fit’ it.
School example: ‘In this school we…’. ‘This is what our culture looks like’.
HR and People Leaders of the Future
Culture Curator: This is our culture and these are the cultures of our people. How can we develop them together to become a competitive advantage?
School example: Culture continually measured across multiple variables; refined to add value. Work- placed coaching to maximise potential
Double and Cook, (2023, p. 338)
What do you need to have culture conversations?
When conducting culture conversations, Your HR and people leaders will need to:
- Understand your workforce and what motivates them.
- Deal professionally, sensitively and set an overall ‘can-do’ tone that breathes vitality into people’s daily lives.
- Be aligned with your school’s values and use a language that reflects it.
- Be honest and at times, handle challenging conversations.
Culture conversations are regular conversations that take place between HR, your people leaders and all members of your school community. They are ‘future focused’ and depersonalised. They focus on the actions, behaviours and strategies needed to fulfill the potential of both your employees and the school overall. They take place on a daily basis and are not limited to brief ‘face-to-face’ check ins once or twice when a new member of staff joins your school. They connect your people to their purpose and show that you – as an employer, display ethical leadership and care about the views, opinions and ideas of your teams, for it is that “great ideas come from anyone at any level of the school”.
Activity: In your school leadership teams or at your next SLT meeting, discuss what your culture conversations currently look like at your school. Do you even allow your HR to interact with teachers? What would successful culture conversations look like? Who might be a skilled operator in carrying them out, and what information could you discern from them that could be used to measure your school’s overall culture and make useful predictions about how your culture might need to adapt?
If you enjoyed reading this, then you may consider ordering a copy of ‘Leading Your International School’, André Double’s debut outing on international school leadership.
Double, A & Cook, W.S (2023). Leading Your International School. 16 Leaves, India.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Double is an international school leader and author, currently living in Yangzhou, China. He is currently writing his second (and third!) books on international school leadership and collaborates with leaders and educational professionals from all over the world. All ECIS members have the opportunity to have their own voice in his work and you are encouraged to contact André if have a passion in educational leadership to share.
For further information go to www.leadingyourinternationalschool.com
To contact André on LinkedIn go to: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andré-double-安德烈-杜布勒-b6574591/