The other day I found myself daydreaming. Or maybe it was procrastinating. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to tell. I was about to pick up the phone and have a difficult conversation with a parent. They’d already rung and told me they weren’t happy with something, and I’d told them “calmly” that I’d be back to them as soon as I had a better understanding of the situation. What I had been told by the parent, adamantly correct, was a little bit different to what actually had occurred. You’ll know these conversations. They’re a dime a dozen!

Here I was though, daydreaming. Phone in hand, yet to dial. 

A couple of weeks ago I had found myself a million miles away from principalship. I was so removed from my “day in and day out” during that time that there were frequent times during that day that I had to pinch myself just to make sure I was alive. It was great!

I was in a recording studio, in Dunedin, recording some of the songs of a band that I’m in. The last time I did this was 30 years ago. It was epic

Although I was enjoying myself almost beyond comprehension, I was struggling with some notes and technique. I’m no Adele, and last time I played like Jimi Hendrix was in a dream, so there was a level of frustration building.

To make things even cooler though, Luis, our sound engineer, was from Venezuela. All I could hear in my cans (headphones!) was his Latin, Spanish tones of encouragement. His accent made it feel as though we could’ve been anywhere in the world! He joked with us that he was from Gore. 

“Steve, the first sentence is always the hardest”, he said in a Julio Iglesias like drawl. “But keep at it, you’ll get it”

He was referring to the song that we were singing. One of those sorts of songs, where I lead off, and I hope like hell that the first note that pops up out of my mouth is somewhere close to the note that it’s meant to be.

It struck me how often we find ourselves in this exact position on any given day of principalship. 

Think about it, we’re forever looking to hit the right note in all that we do in our professional roles. And that first sentence is crucial. It’s what sets the scene, draws people in, builds the intent, and lays the groundwork for the rest of your message.

When you write the first sentence in your weekly newsletter, you know that it has the power to either switch people on or off. Some may never get past your first sentence if you get it wrong.

When you’re having that awkward, tricky conversation with one of your teachers (you know, the type, when the door has to be closed) your first sentence is the “set up”. It lets the teacher know in tone and depth where this conversation is heading. Again, get it wrong and you cross that thin line between colleague and arsehole. 

And when we make that phone call home to tell a parent that Brian has just purposefully thrown a stone from the playground through a glass window because he didn’t like Mr Jones telling him to walk in line with the rest of the class down to the library. That first sentence is a minefield. You can’t see the parent on the other end of the line, you have no idea what is going through their head or what’s going on in that particular time when they pick up the phone … dot dot dot.

All of these situations begin with a starting sentence.

That sounds pretty grim on the face of it. That’s a lot of pressure to take on.

But yet we do it day in and day out, every day. 

Often the first sentence is a bit of bluster, and for me is often almost a blubber. The words fall out of your mouth as if it’s a third language that you’ve just picked up. That’s how it is with me on the phone, or in a tricky “door closed” conversation.

On paper I have more time to formulate it, but I want to hold the reader for as long as I can. Maybe every sentence should just begin with, “Giving millions away, but you have to get to the bottom of the page before I tell you how!”

I’ve tried preparing for difficult conversations, whether they’re spoken or written, by writing down and drafting up what I want to say. It certainly helps to a point, but you still can’t control each individual’s interpretation of what you want to say. Spoken is fraught with the tone of your voice, the use of your individual humour (is it sarcasm or is it really the funniest thing ever uttered? Or is it a subtle dig?), and anything that can possibly be mis-heard is mis-heard.

Writing isn’t much better. Readers flash their eyes over the written word, interpreting how they want. They add bits into the sentences that haven’t been written. They look for what you haven’t said as much as what you have.

The conversations that we have with our most trusted are the easiest. The first line doesn’t carry so much baggage. This is because they know, and you know, that whatever your message is, it’ll be coming from a place of good intention. This in itself is a powerful way of describing trust at its very core. 

Many believe that trust is based on what you last did, or what you did last week, or what you did last year. It’s a terrible place to place your understanding of trust in though. But you’re not in any sort of position ever to control what the other person thinks and understands what trust is, so you’ve got to let that go.

The second part of what Luis, the sound engineer, had to say is also crucial; “Keep at it, you’ll get it”.

And you will. You’ll get it, even if it’s not quite what you hoped it to be. And there’s an even chance that it might be even better.

The key part to what Luis was saying is the “keep at it” part. If you don’t keep at it, then you will never get it.

So where is this all leading?

Well in my day dreaming I also marvelled at my Office Managers who both are experts on the phone. They never seem flustered. Their tone is impeccable; friendly, welcoming, but also no BS. They listen, they deliver and then they move on. Neither have had any training, yet they command confidence and respect. I wondered why I just didn’t get either of them to make my phone call?

Recently I read a story on LinkedIN by Jason Gunn, What Now Guru, Entertainer, Entrepreneur. Jason Gunn was talking about congratulating his son for playing his first game of first grade rugby. Jason was describing how the tradition in the club is that the families say something nice to their kids in the dressing room just before they run onto the field. And Jason, being Jason Gunn, thought he’d have something great to say, but couldn’t find the right “DAD” words. Dad words are great in times like this. Instead he resorted to what he tells his business clients. And he made something up on the spot using these four keys that he tells his clients.

Speak (play) from the heart.

Be authentic

Slow down.

Be present.

When I listen to my Office Managers on the phone this is exactly what they do, although I’m taking it that they haven’t been to a Jason Gunn session anytime recently.

They don’t fret about the first sentence, but they do speak from the heart. When they need to be sympathetic or empathetic then they do so with aplomb. Their first sentence is still important, but because they are speaking from the heart they also come across as being authentic. They don’t muck around but speak calmly, slowing things down. And they show that they are present by actively listening to the person on the other end. They have some sort of clever in-built BS detector that helps them see through the fog, but they genuinely care about what the other person has to say. This adds to their authenticity and ability to build trust, based on the intention that they are coming from a good place.

It all goes to show that we don’t have to spend thousands on hearing from the corporate high flyers (although the free drinks are nice!), when we can just take a little time to listen to the high flyers around us, like Luis the sound engineer and my two awesome Office Managers.

No doubt I’ll still fret about that first sentence, and the need to hit the right note, but I’ll know that unless I lean in and make that first sentence, there will never be a second.



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This term I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about communicating. In particular about how I communicate with my school staff of around forty adults. The most recent staff appraisal of me suggested that communication wasn’t always my strength. A little bit inside me yelled back sarcastically – “give me strength!”

Communication of course though, is the thing that makes any of our relationships connect. Terrible communication and you’re likely to make terrible connections. Super communication and you’re likely to meet with super results. Every now and again you can communicate terribly, and still get great results, but it won’t be consistently positive. It’s just a matter of time before things start sinking. So great communication is key.

Communication is something that all animals, and in fact all living beings do. It’s not something that is uniquely human.

I enjoy watching my puppy dog, Daisy, communicating with any other dog that she comes across on our walks. Some she immediately barks at, and some she simply saunters up for a sniff. Both are forms of communication. Daisy thinks that this is a very effective way of communicating.

At school I do a little bit more than barking or sniffing. (Although, dependent on what’s going on at the time, sometimes I might be just as well to stick with just those two options!)

I am very lucky to have a great group of people to work with – however communication isn’t always easy.

Much of the problem is the vacuum of time when there is no communication. During these vacuums people tend to make up their own stories or lines of interpretation to fill in the void. 

A classic example of this was when the Ministry of Education chose to release the Staffing Entitlement notices on a Saturday. Why they chose a Saturday no-one really knows. They probably let us all know the reason at some point in time, but this was lost. Instead, it was replaced by other stories and lines of interpretation. These were along the lines of; “What is the Ministry hiding?”, “It’s going to be bad news and that’s why it’s released on a Saturday”, “Doesn’t the Ministry care about principal well-being? If they did then they wouldn’t be releasing this during the weekend”. 

People filled the vacuum with all sorts of erroneous stuff. Was any of it true? Well, possibly, but none of it was done on purpose.

At a micro level, communication is also an issue. When was the last time you sent a text or a message to a friend and you waited for a reply. The longer the wait for a reply, the more your mind starts filling in the gaps. Did you send the message to the right person? Why haven’t they replied? Are they ok? Did they read your message wrongly and they think you’re damn rude?

You get the picture – communicating with humans is fraught.

In your schools it is no different. Some understand the way that you communicate, and some hope for something quite different. Some demand information at the drop of a hat, and some are more than happy to wait.

And some get confused between equality and equity of communication expecting to know everything all of the time.

As leaders this makes communication our hardest role. And our most important. It’s also one of the things that can give us incredible satisfaction, and just a little bit of heartache.

Taking on the old adage, treat the people the way you would like to be treated, and applying it to the way that you communicate with people, doesn’t always cut the mustard either. We are all different beasts and we all respond in different ways. It’s a bit like Daisy my dog – some will appreciate her bark of warning, and others will appreciate her sniff.

The gold standard of communication though is found at the next level up. It’s not about communicating with someone the way you like to be communicated with – no, it’s communicating with someone the way that they like to be communicated with. 

This is a subtle but life changing difference.

The Ministry of Education struggles with this because they have to communicate with 2,500 different schools in New Zealand and 2,500 different Principals. They haven’t got time to find out how each individual wants to be communicated with. So essentially they don’t care when the information is communicated as long as it is all distributed fairly at the same time. People can then do what they want with it. If it’s a Saturday, then as long as everyone gets it, then that’s what matters. Not their problem. Of course this has the potential to cause a certain disconnect between the Ministry and the sector.

At a school level we have the ability to make communication choices that are more in line with how people want to be communicated with. This takes some serious relationship building though, and some serious understanding of the people that you’re working with.

Some communication can remain at the sniff and bark level, but unlike the Ministry of Education, you have to work with these people (these humans) day in and day out, and sniff and bark isn’t always the brightest move.

Maybe you have someone on your Team who really needs at least three to four days’ notice of any big “idea” announcement … ideally longer. She doesn’t like any surprises, but also enjoys having some sort of control, and understanding of the issue before it’s announced. She needs time to think. If I continue with my Daisy analogy – this is a sniff for a very long time approach. This is full-on sniffing!

And maybe there’s another member on your team who enjoys running with ideas as soon as they’re told about them. She’s an ideas person, she doesn’t need any run in time to consider and process, she wants to run and create on the fly. With Daisy this is a bark and sniff approach. Bark, and then I’ll go away and do my own sniffing.

And yet another member who just wants to be told what to do. Just tell me what you want boss – and I’ll get it done. No questions, just get on with it type mentality. If this is Daisy my dog then this is a simple Bark and get on with it.

And finally possibly you have another member of the team who it doesn’t really seem to matter how you communicate with them, their interpretation will be quite different to the reality of the message – maybe it’s because they appreciate multiple communication attempts? They will reply in their own time, with their own interpretation. Using Daisy my dog this is a, sometimes a bark will do it, but often it’s a sniff, sometimes the bark will be thought of as damn rude, and sometimes the sniff is damn intrusive! Quite likely either a bark or a sniff will be wrong.

All of this is frustrating, particularly as you’ll have your own style of wanting to be communicated with. In this regards the Ministry of Education takes the easiest route – just bark.

At school level you’ve got choices depending on the size of your school.

If your school is a big school then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find the sweet spot for communication with every single person in the school. It’s simply too hard.

In situations like this, as leader you need to carefully outline how you’ll communicate and you need to consistently do it that way. This message will often need to be repeated throughout the year.

Principal’s in larger schools can use the power of their Senior Leadership Teams though. These teams are likely to be smaller, and so you can take time to get to know how each member likes to be communicated with. This is a win/win for you – chances are they’ll start to communicate with you in the way that you want to be communicated with as well.

They can then use this strategy for their own teams or syndicates and they can pass back to you what they’ve found out about in regards to  communication needs. They get to do the homework for you!

In smaller schools it is slightly easier. There aren’t so many people to communicate with, or to learn communication preferences. This doesn’t make it any easier though. Any communication is fraught with misunderstandings, confusion, interpretation issues and even just plain annoying people!

I find using the Five Ways to Wellbeing strategies work just as well in terms of communication:

TAKE NOTICE: Take notice of individuals and how they communicate with others. This will often give you a lead into what their preferences are. 

GIVE: Give your time, your words and presence to build an understanding of the individuals on your team.

BE ACTIVE: People change all the time … be active in getting around and noticing things. Take time to enjoy getting to know your people better.

CONNECT: This is what it’s all about. Great communication is about great connection. Great leaders should be fantastic at connecting with all sorts of diverse people around them. 

KEEP LEARNING: Don’t be surprised that people like to be communicated in a variety of ways. It depends a lot on the context. But get to know your people and appreciate that your particular learning about them is always a work in progress.

Of course sometimes everyone may need a good solid barking at. Daisy seems to have this innate super human (dog) way of knowing who needs this. Everything is context based. But these barking times should never be your go to.

You might wonder how this all relates to the Forty Hour Principal. Surely a good old fashioned barking will get you home a lot sooner. Getting to know your team takes time, that is true, but it’s time well invested. You get to know them better and they get to know you better. Communication becomes much clearer and forgiving, and when it’s like that, the key to unlocking your 40 hour week just needs to be turned.



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