Change that leads to better lives

Authenticity, Vision, Strategy and Networks: Tips for a SEND Leader

40 SEND Leaders share their advice on what key things people should consider in order to increase their SEND leadership impact.


This article was written by SEND managers and leaders from Education, Social Care and the NHS who participated in the SEND Leadership Programme in 2018. Towards the end of the programme, the participants used a large group intervention technique to develop their own thinking about key leadership attributes. The following 4 tips are the product of that thinking.

1. Leading Authentically Through Your Values

The starting point for being an effective leader is to be authentic, with that authenticity being based on your own values. There are two essential elements to this:

  • Knowing yourself and then using the behaviours that best project your values and beliefs
  • Knowing what you can do for others.

Knowing yourself involves being ready to learn and open to ideas. Be curious about different ways of doing things and then be brave and have confidence about trying something new. Be honest about what works and does not work and your role and contribution towards that. Have belief in your own reasoning and know what you are aiming for but be honest with yourself and maintain your integrity. Do not try to claim things are good that patently are not – maintain your integrity. A leader’s own enthusiasm can be a catalyst for others, so keep your own passion, fire and energy alive. Discover new ways to keep yourself inspired. At the same time though, ensure your basic needs are met. A leader who does not look after themselves cannot look after others.

Knowing what you can do for others often involves some basic elements of human courtesy, dignity and common sense. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Show empathy when people are experiencing difficulty – be that work or out-of-work related. Be ready to listen, be accessible and visible. When others do things for you, show appreciation - say please and thank you. Others will approach their work and lives with different values and beliefs to you. Seek to understand and appreciate those differences and respect them. Ensure challenge is constructive.

A leader is often a role model for others – so make sure you practice what you preach. Be honest with others, particularly when things go wrong. Be clear and explicit to people and explain why you do what you are doing. Ensure requests of others are realistic. Be reliable, reasonable and credible in what you do and give people confidence through your knowledge and ability. People remember how you made them feel - not necessarily what you said to them.

Whatever you do in your interactions with others, do not promise what you cannot deliver, do not be negative in your approach, do not allow yourself to be corrupted by our position of authority and never look down on others. Above all, just be human. Do not try to be a super-hero. Be yourself.

2. Using Leadership Time Well

A key challenge in implementing the SEND reforms is the scale of demands on a SEND leader’s time, given reducing numbers of people in senior roles. Effective leaders take ownership of their own time. Faced with expectations from internal colleagues and external partner organisations, it is important to establish a platform for using time well – thinking both operationally and strategically.

Operationally, use time in a way that can have a significant impact on morale of colleagues, or has significant operational value. Be efficient and timely with administrative tasks (like responding to emails) but keep them in their place. Being in control of administrative expectations is a key technique for building personal resilience. Prioritise operational/administrative tasks that have significant strategic implementation priority. . Identify ‘quick wins’ – things that are relatively easy to achieve but will send messages to others that things are happening and they can be part of that change. Being ready to say “no” when something is outside your role-scope or priorities is essential. Without that, a leader cannot focus on the main priorities and respond to the legitimate demands that team members and external partners place upon them.

The leader’s aim should be to focus as much time as possibly on the more strategic elements of their role. Within this, focusing on delivering the ‘vision’ was seen as a key mechanism for ensuring that time is used well. Does an action discernibly contribute towards the delivery of that vision? For this to happen, practice has to exist within an organisation’s culture that allows teams to take ownership of their own work-time through a shared sense of belonging, a common identity, individual responsibility and permission – empowerment to approach tasks in a creative manner.

This way of working, which has delegation of responsibility at its heart, means that leaders need to both encourage autonomy and establish clear task parameters. These should not be too prescriptive – rather have an emphasis on outcomes that encourage teams to explore their own ways of doing things effectively. This is particularly important if projects might be more complex than initially thought. That way, there can be confidence that the work will be completed within time, potentially with new ideas about how that might be done and resultant job satisfaction for colleagues.

3. Understanding how vision, strategy and culture work together

It has become a cliché (albeit a true one) that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can have all the strategies and plans in the world, but if the culture of your organisation and its wider environment operate in ways that do not support those plans, they will never get beyond the drawing board.

This is not to negate the importance of strategy. It is essential to build a joint strategy and joint commissioning arrangements to deliver it, but a central question is how that strategy is developed. It should be done in ways that create a culture of ownership and support from all key partners. A strategy cannot address cultural barriers - people’s behaviour changes culture, not the documents or policies that we write. The way you develop strategy can start to change the culture. Ensure it is done in a way that involves and values all voices. Make a safe space for discussion and decision-making, listen to people and ensure the vision is genuinely coproduced. This will increase the chances of it being understood and implemented – and reflect the differing cultures of how all partners in the system operate.

All this means that to start with, it may be helpful to separate out strategy and culture in your thinking. Seek to understand the different cultures that are in play, across all partners and organisations. The voices of dissent may provide the most important view of an organisation’s culture. This involves honesty about your own organisation operates and the cultural barriers that it might put in the way to doing things differently. Seek to design a way of working that respects different organisational cultures whilst finding common ground.

Change is challenging for any organisation, and a strategy for change will immediately generate internal and external opposition. A leader can help create a culture that is more accepting of doing things differently through their own behaviour. The tips in the first section of this article are an important starting point. Beyond that, be self-aware. Make sure you are not always the loudest voice - as a leader your role is to give time and opportunity for others to share their views. Listen more than you talk.

Beyond that, try to develop some key cultural characteristics that drive your behaviour and thus help shape the prevailing culture. For example; always adhere to the values of the organisational mission, maintain curiosity – looking beyond your own type of organisation for ideas, be honest about challenges and pressures. Always articulate the impact of decisions for the people you are there to serve (children, young people and families), and place great emphasis on open communication. Remember that the vision has to create the strategy (rather than the other way around) and keeping your eye on whether the vision is being achieved is a great way to shape culture. Top leaders in particular must hold on to this.

4. The importance of influencing, networks and relationships

An important element of shaping culture and strategy is that of maximising knowledge and using it well. Knowledge is power, but shared knowledge is more powerful - and it creates the momentum for innovation. Knowledge is not something that should be held close to our chests as personal property – it should be shared with others working to the same agenda, and their knowledge used to help us deliver ours. Reflecting back on the earlier point about using time well, effective leaders use their time to think, to talk and to get to know people. This adds to the quantum of knowledge held by the organisation. It is easy to forget how investing in those things save us time in the long run.

Firstly we need to give ourselves permission to prioritise networking – and convince others to do the same. Go to events, make time to get to know people, seek out networks across organisations and areas – and if there is not a forum you need, start it yourself! Keep networks alive using online tools (like Basecamp) and change venues of meetings to engage different people. And don’t forget to meet and network, if you make a commitment – own it! Trust is a major factor here.

As SEND leaders we are in the ideal position to join the pieces of the SEND puzzle together – and that starts by getting people to work together better and make all those important contacts they need. We have so much to learn from each other (from our differences as well as our similarities) through lively but safe professional debates, sharing good practice, celebrating successes and having time to top up our resilience before heading back out into the fray. But we also need to display these benefits to others so they too understand its importance – to evidence the benefits for us, our teams, our organisations and most importantly the children and young people we work for. It is so easy to look inwards at our work when we all know that being outward facing has the biggest impact on those who really matter.

With the complex world changing around us, personal influence can be a positive force for change. The power of influence starts with finding out what really matters to people. You can only affect change by understanding what is happening ‘out there’, what the views of others are and the agendas they are working to. This includes those people who you find the most difficult – if you can work with them, your job will be much easier. We need to be explicit, and honest, about our shared challenges and work smarter, not harder.

Do not forget that influence and relationships are reciprocal – we need to be open to change and different ways of thinking ourselves; really hearing what others have to say. How else can we be agile leaders and create the environment for dynamic change we need?

As leaders, we should be living this each day. This includes those wider networks and chances to influence. Children and young people all over the country deserve the very best opportunities and we can only do this by working together. So take advantage of regional and national forums, raise those common issues with a louder voice - and respond to calls for evidence, consultations or policy development. Let’s take our power to influence as far as we can!

In the end we all know that change takes time. You can’t always rush what will be your biggest success, so plan those smaller steps and watch the long term take shape! Invest now and watch that tide of benefits wash over you in the future. And remember - don’t be proud and think you have to do it all yourself. You are not an island!

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