The First 100 Days: School leadership lessons from football

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Headteacher Phil Denton has spent the last 30 months talking to Premier League managers about the lessons we can draw from the high-pressure, unforgiving world of football management, especially when it comes to tackling the first 100 days in post...


For the last two-and-half years, I have been on an incredible, often surreal journey talking to Premier League managers.

It all started when I met the then Tranmere Rovers manager, Micky Mellon, in a hotel gym in Stevenage. We quickly began talking about football, education, leadership and how all three had so much in common. That led to meeting up over dinner in Liverpool with a couple of other football people and talking about how we could work together. From there, the idea for a book was born: The First 100 Days.

The book was published on March 25 (all proceeds to the Len Johnrose Trust, which supports the MND Association in its fight against motor neurone disease). Co-writing the book has been a learning experience that has made me a better person, father, husband and headteacher.

So, to whet your appetite – before you rush out and buy the book – here are some of the lessons I have learned during the past 30 months about how you can successfully navigate your first 100 days as a teacher or leader in schools.


Pre-match

You would imagine that a book about the first 100 days of leadership would start on day one – in fact some of your most important work happens before you actually begin in post.

Before you enter into your new role, being aware of the challenge that awaits you will help you adapt and adjust your approach. Each challenge will be different and require a bespoke approach that meets the needs of the situation.

For example, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær entered Manchester United as the interim manager, he needed to be unifying and authentic. He needed to bring back tradition and the values of the club that had arguable been lost since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.

If that means nothing to you, he basically needed to bring peace where there had been war. He did this by getting to know people, putting a smile back on the face of the people at the club, and ensuring that values centred around hard work, family and respect became central to everything he did.

In new leadership situations, there is sometimes a crisis of performance to deal with. When facing just such a situation, headteacher Tuesday Humby (who is now the national director of teaching and training at the Ormiston Academies Trust) gave her staff a very clear step-by-step plan which detailed how they would move away from the current situation and to a brighter future.

She set out specific behaviours that needed to be adopted by staff and students. She established principles and was uncompromising in her drive to deliver the urgent improvements that were required.

This is exactly the same approach that Sam Allardyce has taken at Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Everton and other clubs to help them turn around challenging seasons.

Whatever your role, understand what you are entering into, remain authentic but adapt your approach to reach the short term goals that you will need to achieve to get points on the board and start winning hearts, minds (and matches). We explore models and structures to help you achieve this in the first three chapters of the book.


The big kick-off

Even the most thorough preparation prior to day one in your role will not allow you to fully understand the job at hand. To get to grips with this, the best leaders talk to people, they watch and most importantly they listen.

As Stephen Covey describes in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989): “Seek first to understand before being understood.”

Sean Dyche, the manager of Burnley, gave a questionnaire to players which asked them to reflect on their own performance, fitness and contribution to the team. You can do this either in a questionnaire or simply by speaking to people and gaining an understanding of what you need to do in order to bring out the best in them.

For some people, it can be finding their motivation. Dan Pink, author of Drive (2009), suggests that this will involve “mastery, autonomy and purpose”. As a headteacher, it is not about being the brilliant mind or the master of the universe. You are there to represent the school and create an environment that allows children and adults to thrive.

Of course, leaders will have their own vision of how things should be. However, these visions fall down if the rest of the people involved in making this happen do not see how this vision will benefit them or what their part in it is.

Brendan Rogers, manager of Leicester City, believes that football players walk around with an invisible sign on their head saying: “Make me feel special.” While 20-year-old millionaire footballers may wear this sign more prominently than teachers, to a degree we could all benefit from this kind of affirmation.


Goals win matches, culture wins trophies

Throughout my work with managers, I really began to understand that the best teams are built from a sense of collective success that, as a consequence, delivers individual gains.

Vision established in the context of the environment and the people, as well as a winning culture, is crucial for sustained success. Culture is the way we do things around here.

Micky Mellon, the manager with whom I co-authored the book, asked his Tranmere Rovers side what they wanted to achieve. They talked about non-specific, subjective ideas. Micky asked them: “How about we win the league?”

They all nodded in agreement. He asked them if he could start to treat them like champions. They agreed – they had to really. So the standard was set. All of the expectations for team and individual behaviours were laid out. Now the team had collectively bought into a culture which had the highest of expectations because they saw the prize for them as a group and individual players.

In your first 100 days, when you are establishing the culture of a year group, department or entire school, consider what the team wants to achieve. Then be specific about the behaviours that will achieve this goal. Write them down and agree upon the rewards and consequences of behaving in that way or otherwise.


Kick-on with Hansei and Kaizen

In my early discussions with Micky, we spoke a lot about his fascination with Toyota. Toyota has a unique approach to delivering consistent progression that has resulted in global sustained success. There were two key concepts which resonated with me and which had clear links to school leadership.

The first was Hansei: This Japanese phrase means to understand your mistakes and to pledge your determination to improve.

The second is Kaizen: An extension of the first concept as it refers to a continuous improvement day-to-day.
Football does not stand still and neither does education. The changes in context and expectation from policy-makers and Ofsted can be stressful and difficult to keep up with.

However, these Japanese concepts gave me a sense of empowerment. I can now address internal and external changes within the parameters of a culture which embodies Hansei and Kaizen.

I have not used these phrases specifically with colleagues at my school, but the premise is something that is now engrained in our culture. We are always looking to reflect and improve. There is no complacency but rather a determination, driven by our fantastic middle leaders, to make the school a world class institution.

For example, the analysis at a football club after each game, training session and season is something which I have brought to our school in the form of case conferences and systematic analytics of student performance and behaviours.


Managing yourself

During the writing of the book, I spoke with some brilliant people in sport and education. People like Patrick Otterly-O’Conner, Paul McGee and Drew Povey exude a passion for wellbeing and self-care.

I struggled to balance family and work during my first 100 days in post. However, by utilising some key principles of wellbeing and perspective, I managed to get through it (to judge how successfully, you would need to ask my wife).

This part of the book was quite revealing in terms of the ways Premier League managers cope with the pressures of their role. It is easy to forget that when things are not going well for them, they hear about it on the radio, their name is in the news, their children are picked on at school and, as a result, many decide to lead lives that become quite isolating.

As a headteacher, I am sure many colleagues can relate to that sense of loneliness. Self-care must be a priority alongside your new role.


The final whistle

Whether it is your first 100 days or you want to rejuvenate yourself, I hope that you can benefit from the sort of things that have helped me. Remember – be authentic, open, honest and reflective and you won’t go far wrong.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Lancashire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/seced-denton


Further information & resources

The First 100 Days: Lessons In leadership from the football bosses, written by Phil Denton and Micky Mellon, is available now, published by Reach Sport. Visit https://bit.ly/2ORmUwE


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