The following Leadership Insights capture the thoughts of Luke Brown, Principal, Our Lady Help of Christians, Cairns. He covers a range of career and professional development topics, as recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. This conversation is part of a series targeted for leaders and aspiring leaders with the information best used in conjunction with discussions with a person’s manager/supervisor. Luke’s biography is shown at the end of this interview.
Has your career progression to leadership been a planned or unplanned process?
It was initially planned in the sense that I sought opportunities. But it was unplanned in terms of where those opportunities took me. I knew that I wanted to contribute in different ways, so as opportunities presented themselves I grabbed what was in front of me. That led me on a path that was very different to what I ever would have anticipated. It took me out of Brisbane; out of my comfort zone; out of where my career had started; where I’d lived all my life. It took me into country schools across different diocese and even interstate.
I would say that as I’ve become more experienced I’m a little more strategic in my thinking about where my career progresses. In the early days of my career, it was very much about embracing every opportunity that came my way. Then trying to learn what I could from that opportunity. Now I’ve got more experience I am more self-reflective about what I’d like to achieve in my career. Now I view opportunities through that lens.
I’ve been blessed to work with a number of really key people who have supported me and mentored me. It’s only really at this stage in my career that I’ve had the chance to reflect on how important these people have been to me. So a great motivator now in terms of career planning is how might I have opportunities to learn from key people.
Given this experience you have had, what advice would you pass to others about their own career planning?
To grab every opportunity as it presents itself. If you’re waiting for the moment when you know you’re ready you’ll never jump. So back yourself, nine times out of ten you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. Just have a go. It is what you make of it and if things take you on a different path to what you anticipated then that’s okay. You’ll get an opportunity to learn. That Nelson Mandela line “I never lose. I either win or I learn”. That’s really it.
I don’t think you can look at it through the lens of being fearful. If there are things that you haven’t planned or things that happen that are unpredictable then often they are the doorway into something even greater than you ever imagined. Being too planned, I think, actually limits your thinking and limits you seeing opportunities. I would encourage others, and if I had my time again, to be even more open to opportunities as they presented themselves and step outside the box.
Is there a significant adversity that you’ve faced in your career that really did take you out of your comfort zone? What was the learning you took from that?
I think it is the challenges that you have in your community. Obviously underpinning everything is the notion of self-doubt that we all need to overcome. We all are often our own harshest critic. Having just been through an appraisal that’s evident to me even at this stage of my career. Certainly self-doubt is a limiting factor. It’s not that you want to be overconfident, but being aware that self-doubt is holding you back is important.
Back to the question. The biggest challenges I’ve faced have been human ones and that’s when people in my school community have been through incredibly hard times. Whether it be the death of a staff member or a student, tragic circumstances really draw on your own personal resilience and leadership skills. Personal tragedies can be the most challenging. At the same time, they can be the time when you grow and develop the most. You do get through those difficult times. The people around you that you’ve walked that journey with ultimately will be of the greatest support to you.
It’s the human factor of our job that makes it the hardest. It’s our interactions with people that are the biggest challenge and, at the same time, they sustain us. So if I could name individual times when I would say I’ve experienced extreme adversity it’s around human tragedy. But, at the same time, it’s a privilege to be able to be in a position to support people at that time.
What advice would you give a new leader or an aspiring leader about how they cope with that type of adversity?
I think be yourself and don’t expect to be superman. Don’t expect that you have to be all things to all people. Show your humanness. Certainly the feedback I’ve had from people I’ve worked with is that those around you appreciate that you are a human being. That you’re not perfect and that difficult times and adversity can get to you. That doesn’t mean that you’re not professional or you don’t hold it together. But you don’t have to be wearing a suit of armor all the time and you need to let people in.
Sometimes that means you’re vulnerable, but in expressing that vulnerability I feel that you build relationships that help sustain a community. So my advice to others is don’t be afraid to be vulnerable; put yourself out there.
It is also important to understand that being a leader in a school is a difficult thing and that you need to have support structures around you. You can’t go it alone all the time. Be conscious of what structures you have in place to support your own wellbeing. When everything else is falling apart around you and people are leaning on you, who’s propping you up? I’m more conscious of how I deal with stress. By putting structures around myself I ensure that I am able to be there for people when they need me.
If we can now talk about communications. Principals have so many different groups who want access to them. Are there any particular practices or systems you use to connect with all the various groups who need access to you?
I would say this is something that throughout my career I’ve struggled with and I continue to struggle with. The demands on the time of a Principal are increasing and you need to put some boundaries around that for your own wellbeing. Covey talks about ‘sharpening the saw’ for your own sustainability in the role. That’s something that I’ve become increasingly aware of. I guess I’m conscious of where I put my time.
First of all, there’s being deliberately aware of who’s getting my time, where’s that going, and what signal is that sending to people. People will meet you in different ways, but it’s about being strategic. For example, one of the strategies that I’ve always used is afterschool duty on the front gate. I find within a half-hour period I can touch base with hundreds of parents. It’s a wonderful use of my time. There’s no way I could meet that number of parents in any other way. In terms of staff, it’s about trying to be visible with different sections of staff for different reasons. There has to be a purpose for ‘why’. You can’t just float around so I try and be as strategic as I can with my time.
I also am getting better, although this is certainly not a strength, at putting some boundaries around what’s family time and what’s work time. Being ‘present’ in that time is equally important to the amount of time one gives. When you are meeting with someone, you are meeting with them. You’re not thinking about the next meeting that’s coming along or what’s going to be happening next week. This can be difficult and a constant challenge, one that I continue to work on.
One of the things that I’ve done periodically is just take an audit of where I’m spending my time. I’ll look at my diary to see how much time is going to central office; how much time is going to family time; how much time is going to building the capacity of my teachers, and so on. I’ll look at my appointments: how much of it is being reactive; and how much of it is me getting ahead of the game and pushing our strategic priorities.
So how often would you do that audit?
Certainly once a term I would sit down to do this as a term tends to be a natural cycle in a school. A whole term gives me an opportunity to reflect. I could find that in a term I’ve been dealing with a lot of spot fires and meeting parents around certain issues. My audit could therefore show I’m not out in front of the game. Or, I find that this term I’ve been out of the school spending too much time dealing with system initiatives. How do I counterbalance that?
This needs to be reviewed constantly. It’s a strategy that I picked up from a Stephen Covey course around prioritising the different roles that I have. Yes, I’m a principal for some people, but I’m a father, a husband …..I have different roles. I need to be conscious about where I’m putting my time in each of my roles. An audit of my diary is just a snapshot of doing that. As I said, being conscious of efficiencies in time; where do I waste time; where do I lose time; and coming up with strategies for addressing that.
There’s a lot of discussion in recent years about developing leadership capacity of people on your team. What are the sorts of ways that you’ve gone about developing the leadership capacity of your team?
First and foremost, it’s naming it for people. Often people won’t see themselves as leaders. I was lucky enough to work under a Principal who had a great track record of fostering leadership in his teachers. Many people in the Principal role today served under this Principal over many years. So for me it’s about, first and foremost, naming the leadership talent that people have and indicating to them that you think that they have potential. Often that comes as a great surprise to them. Once you have displayed faith in them I find that it often releases something in them and they become happy to explore opportunities.
I’m also committed to providing professional development and opportunities for people to see outside their current context. I’m a great believer in allowing both teachers and aspiring leaders opportunities to observe and to work with people, in their role, in other places. Learning tours of schools is a strategy that I have found to be particularly successful. Shadowing other people, those sorts of things provide an opportunity to be immersed and learn in another context.
The other thing that I would say is it’s really just about encouraging people to have a go and allowing people to take risks and to make mistakes. I make as many, if not more, mistakes now than I made when I first started as a Principal. I’m probably learning to forgive myself a little bit with that. If you don’t make a few mistakes you’re not trying hard enough, it’s as simple as that. I want people to know that I’m happy for them to make a mistake, I just want them to have a go.
It’s about being very explicit about your willingness to support them and your desire to see them have a crack at something. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by some amazing leaders and some amazing people that have been mentors for me throughout my career. So really what I try and do is facilitate relationships with other people that might help them, that might be mentors for them. I guess I’m really trying to be a broker between those that I’ve come across that have great knowledge and skills and these aspiring people. Hopefully they might come to know what they don’t know or maybe see something in themselves from other people. I really think that having an opportunity to spend time with other leaders is one of the greatest professional development gifts I can give to staff.
I think it was Einstein that said “If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room”. That’s a philosophy I try and put into practice in my leadership career by spending time with people that have got greater skills and experience than I do and learning from them.
One of my great regrets is that early in my career I didn’t take full advantage of the wisdom that was around me at that time. I didn’t stop to just learn from where I was at that time. I’m conscious of trying to do that now, as best I can. In terms of aspiring leaders, I want to encourage them to take advantage of the wisdom that’s around them at the moment, while they can, as well as connect with pathways that might take them to other places.
I’m really interested in your comment about encouraging people to have a go and being explicit around taking risk. We live in such a performance-based culture. It seems like people are taking less and less risk because they’re judged so heavily on results. It is important then isn’t it, that you encourage people to take a risk?
Absolutely. I’m a very big advocate of collaboration. I know that term gets used a lot as does professional learning teams and all of those structures that we read a lot about at the moment. Really, for me, what it’s about is people coming together and trying to solve problems. That’s really what it is and there are ways that we can solve problems that have been tried and tested. We’ve got lots of research around that, but sometimes there are new and innovative things that we might be able to try. Now clearly we’re not going to do anything that steps way out of the realms of what’s in the best interests of students. But educated risks, I think, are important. We want people to push boundaries.
The last thing I think as a system of educators we need is a bunch of people who are going to withdraw into our shell and only use strategies that have a mountain of research to back them up. Innovation is still important, but innovation doesn’t necessarily mean improvement, so we need to be our own researchers really. And if we think about research, research is about taking risks; but it’s about knowing why we’re taking the risks; knowing what we want to try and achieve; and knowing whether or not we’re successful. That’s what I’m encouraging. It’s not just risk-taking for risk-taking’s sake, it’s about being our own researchers.
If we’re professionals, it’s about that constant striving for refinement and getting a better outcome with each time we do something. I’ve worked in different states, in country towns, I’ve work in metropolitan schools. It is also being conscious of the fact that each of those contexts is different and what works in one place can’t just be picked up and dropped into another.
What advice would you give to people around their own professional development – people who are away from the big metro areas; people who are in regional and rural centres throughout Australia? Sometimes they can seem to be disadvantaged by some of those learning opportunities, so what advice would you give those people about their own learning?
First and foremost, it’s a bit of a push/pull scenario. Most of us who are primary principals are often in a system of schools and so there are agendas and strategic directions that systems might have and so there are opportunities that come with that. But, at the end of the day, we’re also individuals and so to a degree we are responsible for our own development as professionals and we’ve got to go out there and chase it.
It’s 15 years since I first became a Principal in a small country town and the landscape is totally different now. There is so much more opportunity for me in a regional setting to access quality professional development. Much of that is accessed using technology, even something as simple as Twitter and other forms of social media provide everyone in rural and regional schools with opportunities to tap into the best practice around the world.
There’s a wealth of information so it’s about being targeted in what you’re chasing and following a few key people. I’ve tried to curate that information by identifying key mentors and people that I have crossed paths with. I look at what they’re following. This allows me to be a bit strategic about where I spend my time. You could spend a lifetime looking at Twitter, Google Plus and others if you liked, but it’s about being efficient with your time. Look to people whose opinions you value; see what they’re looking at so you try to get a sense of what’s around the corner.
That’s particularly important I think. As a leader, you don’t want to be caught short or constantly shifting directions. It’s hard enough to move organisations as it is. If you’ve got a sense of what’s around the corner you can position yourself well for it and professional learning is a good way of doing that.
The other thing is obviously formal conferences and professional development opportunities are still important. They provide a good opportunity to get together with people you might not otherwise get together with. Learning tours; going around and having a look at other people doing the job that you’re doing; seeing how they’re solving things in different contexts is important.
Collaboration with those around you is also important. Whether it be the principal next door or the secondary principal down the road. Collaborating around a given issue that you’ve got locally, that’s important.
So I think you need to be conscious of accessing what’s out there in the wider world, and social media and electronic formats are fabulous for that. But also take time to collaborate and have conversations at the local level. Take time to spend time within your school and across schools, because there’s some fabulous learning and fabulous inspiration to be had there and sometimes the best inspiration can be just five kilometres down the road .
If somebody was a novice with social media, where would you recommend they start? Would it be Twitter you’d recommend they start?
For me Twitter is probably the dominant tool that I’ve used. I don’t confess to be a techie at all and I’ve got a bunch of techies here that will confirm this. Twitter on my phone and my iPad is really the extent of my technology ability. You don’t have to be a genius to be on that. Start a Twitter account and just follow a couple of key individuals that you think are influential in your organisation or setting. This will lead to others, and in reading and following other doors will open and you’ll come across all sorts of amazing knowledge. All the knowledge is there, it’s just a matter of tapping into it. Twitter is probably the single-most used tool for me. It’s not for everyone, but I find Twitter a powerful tool.
I’ve found over recent years that people that do what you do cannot speak highly enough of what they can access through Twitter. People talk about themselves as being ‘lurkers’ – they don’t post five things a day themselves but they lurk on Twitter to get access to all that leading information.
It’s fantastic. I think I was a bit of a lurker for several years on Twitter before I started tweeting myself. It’s amazing how it has grown. Not that long ago I remember sitting in a room creating a Twitter account with a bunch of other principals and we were all in the same boat, not having done this before. It’s incredible how it’s just become such a mainstream thing to do. What I love about it is I get an insight into people right across the country. Some of those people that have been mentors for me in other places, in other roles. It allows me to continue that mentor/mentee relationship by following them on Twitter and I’ve learned a lot from that.
Are you a reader? Do you read books? Do you have a professional reading program?
I would say I’m less and less into reading whole books. I’ll often read snippets of articles. I’ll read bits of books, chapters of books. More often than not, to be honest with you, it’s journal articles that I’ve come across. A lot of the stuff coming out of, is it Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in New South Wales? A lot of those research papers, Melbourne University, anything that they’re putting out. There are a few key individuals, as I said, that I follow that I really like. Obviously Michael Fullan, I am always keen to read his books. Lyn Sharratt at the moment. Both have heavily informed what we’re doing at my school together with the work of some key mentors.
But generally I’m reading bits of books now, rather than books themselves, and online articles and blogs and things of that nature. A lot of online stuff. TED Talks I can listen to in the car; and audiobooks.
Information comes in 24/7. One of the things that I’m trying to do is get a bit more balance around that. I spoke earlier about the audit. After reflection recently I’m trying to be a bit more present outside of school, so some things might actually be coming off the phone, believe it or not!
What do you do and what would you recommend people do to give themselves balance in their life? Is there anything you could pass on to an aspiring leader about taking this leadership step and the associated demands on a Principal?
It can very easily become an all-consuming job. You can be trying to be all things to all people if you’re not careful. At this stage of my career, and after reflection, I’m starting to put more boundaries around my time.
I remember John McArdle, a person with Brisbane Catholic Education, who said to me once when I first became a Principal, “Luke, being a Principal is a little like being a doctor. It doesn’t matter how many hours that doctor works, there’s always sick people”. Being a Principal is a little bit like that too. Where are your priorities? Being present for the family is something I continue to work on; I do better some days than others. But put some limits around yourself and structure that in. I’m a big believer that if you don’t have a structure around something it won’t happen. So it’s blocking out a certain time in the diary once a week to be somewhere else. Or, just as you would schedule appointments for work obligations, schedule appointments for your personal obligations to make sure that happens.
But in terms of away from school, you have to have something. It can be a 24-hour job and that whole Covey “sharpen the saw” stuff, how do you get away and sharpen your mind? For me, opportunities for travel, even just thinking about travel I find takes my mind to another place. Even if I don’t go anywhere! But also I enjoy fishing and a few things like that. I probably don’t do them as much as I’d like to.
My advice to a young aspiring leader would be try and put some structured boundaries around your work life and your personal life and be vigilant about ensuring you stick to those structures. Be as vigilant with your personal structures as you would with your professional ones.
You have worked in a range of settings. How does a person who works in a small town have time away from the work setting? I expect Principals in smaller settings would walk out and go to the supermarket and they’re bumping into people.
You leave town, John. I’ve worked in a range of towns as small as 4,000 people and, yes, there is a parent/teacher interview waiting in every aisle of the shopping centre. You need to find a way to escape from that. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with small communities. I think the greatest strengths of any community, from a school Principal’s point of view, can be found in those small country community schools. But it can be overwhelming if you don’t have an opportunity to take your mind away from that and be an anonymous person. As I said, getting out of that environment can sometimes be the only way you can do it.
The other aspect that I’ve been conscious of in recent times is the practice of mindfulness. It is taking time to incorporate meditation into your day. Those people who would know me from my early years would probably scoff if they heard me talking about meditation and mindfulness. But it’s something that I think can provide you with space and a chance to recharge those batteries within the context of a busy day, without having to leave a place or leave school; that’s not practical all the time.
This is one of those structures that one can incorporate to build your own capacity, build your own resilience to manage the diversity of expectations on you. So incorporating some mindfulness, and I’m getting a little bit better with this as I get older, but just looking after yourself a bit more is one of the practices that I would encourage people in those small settings to do.
How does a person start down this meditation path? What would you say to somebody who has heard about meditation but hasn’t tried it. How would they begin?
I would say start really small. Start very small and get an app on your phone. There are plenty of organisations that have apps that you can run a three-minute guided meditation. Do it that way. Go into guided meditation, even if it’s for one minute. There are a range of options that you can get on your phone. Even if it’s just closing the door of your office, then running through a guided meditation before a big meeting or before something that you know is going to be fairly stressful for you. Breathing, just taking those few deep breaths.
I was always a bit of a sceptic of this stuff. I’ve been involved in a few professional development activities and I’ve seen the heartrate monitors being influenced just by taking a few deep breaths. You can do this before you engage in that difficult conversation; before you go out and meet that upset parent; before whatever is happening. The simplest entry level would be practise your breathing.
Which skill that you have developed have you found most useful in your career to date?
Probably a double-edged sword. I’m now more comfortable talking in front of groups of people. So I would say public speaking, the ability to clearly articulate your thoughts. It’s something I constantly work on. I’m by no means an expert at that, but it’s something that I find helps a lot in my job, being able to talk. The double-edged sword is some would say I talk too much, so that’s a bit of feedback that you have to wear. But being comfortable talking and being able to clearly articulate a message.
One of the leaders I worked with, who was a strong mentor for me, was a System leader and he said to me once, “Luke, if there’s one skill I could give each of my Principals it would be that they would be able to clearly articulate the vision for their school in one minute”.
So for me it’s about being able to, through my words, provide a picture of where we’re heading, provide a picture of where I want to take people and how others might be able to come with us and be part of that. If I can paint that picture clearly for people through my words then I think that’s probably the most powerful tool that I have. That and obviously my relationship with others. But in terms of a skill, I think probably the skill of being able to clearly articulate a message and speak in public.
Was this a skill that you purposely developed? How did you go about developing it?
Yes, it was a skill I purposely developed because I’m an introvert by nature. The idea of speaking to groups of people is something that used to fill me with great anxiety and dread. So for me it was about getting feedback and taking notice of what other people were doing, and making it a priority in terms of my own professional development goals and my own skill-building.
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in opportunities, media training and those sorts of things, which has helped me with a few strategies that I can put in place. But really, it’s about practice, just getting out there and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and doing it. That phrase ‘learning by doing’ applies to more than just professional learning communities; that’s everything. Having a crack at it and taking particular notice of those around you that are very good at it.
Is there a skill that you wish you had; or you wish you were better at?
There are so many. I wish I was better in terms of technology. Anything to do with technology is a constant source of learning for me. It’s not a strength of mine and I’m aware that I’m wanting to lead by example. I’m wanting to embrace this and it’s not something that I’ve had particular success with. I’m a novice learner when I engage with much of technology. That would be a skillset that I would like to enhance.
The other thing too would be just in terms of my own resilience. That’s something that I’m more and more aware of, managing that and so just refining how I manage my own personal resilience and balancing those competing interests in my life. I don’t know if you ever get there. I think it’s just constant fine-tuning.
I’m not a great believer in work/life balance. I think it’s about prioritising where you place your time at any given time. There are times where I would have greater priority in certain domains over others. You need to be aware of the competing needs of the various roles that you have.
So maintaining my own resilience would be a skill that I wish I could do a little bit better and I continue to refine. But in terms of a basic skill, anything to do with technology is a constant source of learning for me.
What would you suggest to a newly appointed principal as to the likely key priorities in the first 12 months?
These are not my ideas, these are ideas passed to me by much brighter people. First, is something I’ve done at every school where I’ve been Principal. One hundred days of listening. I was given this advice by the Principal immediately prior to my first Principalship. It’s something I’ve tried to do every school I’ve been at. To go in there and just watch and listen. You suspend judgement for a hundred days and talk to as many people as possible.
The second comes from some recent interaction I had with ACER doing the National School Improvement Tour. I was struck by some advice given to me by the person who was running that audit. He said to me, “Luke, when you’re new to a school it’s very easy to identify the things you would like to change. The difficult thing is to identify the things you would like to keep”. So for me that was a learning, that was a different spin on it. What are the things that are really precious to this community; what are the things that make this community special/good/successful. How do I ensure that I retain that at the same time as addressing whatever priorities need to be addressed?
Probably the third thing I would say is to get out there and talk to people. Just walk some of their journey. What you have experienced in your journey is not going to be the same as for those people in your new context. Things happen for a reason. You need to learn why things have happened in the way they have in your school.
You’ve referred to a number of different people and advice you’ve been given. If I was to put you on the spot and ask what you think is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, what would that be?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received would be put kids at the centre of your decision-making. Schools exist for kids, so make decisions on the basis of what’s in their best interests. The author Todd Whittaker asks the question, ‘loyal to whom?’ I see the Principal’s job as being loyal to the students first and foremost.
An introduction to Luke Brown
Luke Brown is currently the principal of Our Lady help of Christians in Cairns. Having started his teaching career in Brisbane, Luke has held a variety of school leadership positions. For the past 15 years Luke has been the principal of a number of schools in both New South Wales and Queensland. Luke is passionate about improving outcomes for all students and building the capacity of educators